Russia Declines to Buy Bombers From Ukraine

KIEV -- Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, on a visit to Kiev that has coincided with joint NATO exercises that have irked Moscow, said Wednesday that Russia had decided not to buy strategic heavy bombers from Ukraine.

Ukraine inherited 19 Tu-160 Blackjacks and 25 Tu-95 bombers and 600 to 800 cruise missiles from the Soviet Union and has been talking to Moscow for five years about selling them.

Kiev says its military doctrine foresees no need for such powerful planes, which can stay in the air for 18 hours without refuelling and fly missions thousands of kilometers away.

"This problem is extremely complicated. The time was lost and there is no going back. But we are looking for other ways out which should satisfy both sides," Sergeyev said.

Moscow complained throughout talks that the planes were deteriorating, as they have not been used since Ukraine won independence in 1991.

Russian news agencies said this year that Kiev had accepted an offer by Moscow of $320 million to $350 million for the planes, but Kiev denied this, saying the sum was too small.

Volodymyr Horbulin, Secretary of Ukraine's policy-making Security and Defense Council, made clear Kiev's frustration over Moscow's reluctance to buy the planes.

"The Russian delegation consists of VIPs but the results do not correspond to such a high representation," he said.

"It seems the third [air] component of the nuclear triad [of nuclear missiles, submarines and bombers] does not attract the attention it needs. I told Sergeyev it would not benefit either of our countries," Horbulin added.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Olexander Kuzmuk said the military in both countries would think about how to convert to different uses. He said ideas included patrolling and intelligence purposes.

"We cannot find any use for these planes in Ukraine or in Russia -- but is this a bad thing?" Kuzmuk said, focusing on the overall nuclear threat from the bombers.

"An airfield for Tu-160s is a nuclear facility. ... It is like 36 Hiroshimas. The military men don't want war because they know what powerful weapons they have in their hands."

Some commentators were skeptical about the future of the bombers. "Money is the problem," said Serhiy Zgurets, a military commentator at the Den daily.

"But if Russia has no money to buy these planes, where will Ukraine find money to convert bombers for other purposes?" he said.

Sergeyev was due later Wednesday to travel to Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula to see President Leonid Kuchma and visit Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea fleet is based.

He did not reiterate Moscow's objections to Sea Breeze exercises being held in southern Ukraine, including Crimea, with Ukraine, the United States, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia contributing vessels.