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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia and Ukraine Take a Trip Down Military Memory Lane

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine - Workers smile, security men open doors, the director shows off plans for an environmentally friendly trolley-bus -- the Yuzhmash factory no longer looks like the Soviet Union's most-feared missile plant.

These decaying concrete buildings and overgrown railway tracks once produced Moscow's intercontinental ballistic missiles, then programmed to vaporise cities in the United States and Europe.

Today, apart from its sideline in trolley-buses, Yuzhmash (or Southern Machine Factory) in southeastern Ukraine produces only civilian rockets designed to launch satellites into orbit.

Ukraine, an independent, non-nuclear state situated precariously between Russia and Europe, has over the last decade angered its former imperial master by making overtures to the NATO Western military alliance, although at the same time being careful to avoid saying it wanted to join it.

So recent military agreements between Russia and Ukraine have prompted some commentators to speculate that Ukraine, which owes Russia $1.4 billion for gas and does most of its trade with Moscow, is now heading back to Mother Russia.

The two are already building the Antonov 70 military cargo aircraft together, a project which suffered a blow at the end of January when a prototype crash-landed shortly after take-off.

The Ukrainian military, so strapped for cash that last year it started offering tourists the chance to pay to fire their weapons, also cannot offer the country's defence industry much of a market.

But the state of 49 million people has a large if rusting infrastructure of factories, such as Yuzhmash, capable of constructing anything from high-tech battle tanks to warships and military aviation.



DECLINE

Yuzhmash, a sprawling complex dominating the grey smokestack city of Dnipropetrovsk 350 km (220 miles) southeast of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, has declined since its heyday.

Where 50,000 well-paid Soviet employees used to work, only 20,000 relatively worse off staff now don white jackets to patrol its gargantuan rocket hangars. An air of gradual decline hangs over the place.

Asked how long it would take for his factory to switch back to military missile production, director Yury Alekseyev did not mince words.

"Tomorrow," he said, speaking on the occasion of a visit by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, a Soviet-era director of the plant, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who signed a series of aerospace agreements after touring the complex.

Workers, many of whom remember fondly the prestige they enjoyed in Soviet days, thronged to see the two leaders sitting in front of a massive Sea Launch booster rocket.

One woman complained she would miss the ceremony because she had been assigned to look after the dignitaries' coats in an adjoining hangar.

The Sea Launch project, designed to launch satellites from a sea platform, groups Ukraine, Russia and the U.S. aerospace giant Boeing.

Alekseyev said his factory worked smoothly with Boeing, which as one of the United States' top capitalist enterprises represented everything Yuzhmash was designed to destroy.

But he criticised the United States government for pursuing a Star Wars-like National Missile Defence system designed to knock enemy warheads out of the sky.

Russia adamantly opposes the project, which would infringe the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.

"The Americans are not behaving very pleasantly," Alekseyev said. "We understand the danger of restarting nuclear rivalry."

"Russia is a very powerful country. They have a colossal scientific potential."



AEROSPACE TAX BREAKS

Putin and Kuchma signed agreements which included the abolition of taxes and tariffs between their aerospace and space industries. Such technology can be designed for civilian use, but much of it has possible military applications.

The two countries also agreed to talk about re-establishing common standards for their military equipment.

In January, they agreed to create their first joint military unit since they divided the former Soviet Black Sea fleet in 1997. Under the agreement, a joint command post will monitor anchoring spots near their Black Sea bases.

The move is likely to please Russian naval officials who have been angered by NATO warships being able to moor next to them if given permission by Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials are reluctant to comment on whether they are shifting policy more towards Russia but Kuchma last year sacked foreign minister Boris Tarasyuk, seen as a European dove, in favour of the more pro-Russian Anatoly Zlenko.

The Ukrainian leader, under pressure over a scandal surrounding a murdered journalist which has drawn criticism from the West, has told Russian television how important he thought their joint projects were.

"I am absolutely certain that we cannot go forward without Russia," he said. "If we are not together with Russia we cannot deal with high technology and both Russia and Ukraine would be the losers."

A NATO source said he had no evidence of Ukraine becoming more militarily engaged with Russia, but the country was under obvious pressures because of its economy and geography.

"The thing about Ukraine of course -- it's not rocket science -- is that it is in a weak state," said the source. "Its institutions don't work terribly well, it's hopelessly in debt and the social structure is crumbling.

"For the Russians, does a country like that mean they can draw it more into their sphere of influence? Probably yes."