Ukraine’s peacekeeping map has recently marked Kosovo as another hot spot. The Ukrainian peacekeeping contingent, comprised of the 14th Detached Helicopter Squadron and the 37th Detached Support Company with a total strength of 246, has begun to fulfill missions as part of KFOR, the multinational peacekeeping force in Kosovo. The Day ’s Viktor VORONIUK recently visited the headquarters of the Ukrainian peacekeepers, the US Bondsteel base and invited Colonel Vasyl MOSTYKA, commander of the Ukrainian peacekeeping contingent, to answer a few questions.
“Why did NATO drag its feet so long and even delay several times the decision on sending a Ukrainian contingent to Kosovo?”
“First, it is not NATO but we and the Americans who did not sign the relevant agreements on the use of property at the US Bondsteel Base where we are now stationed. Secondly, some financial problems between Ukraine and the US were not resolved. Thirdly, the international status of the Ukrainian peacekeeping contingent in KFOR was not defined. These three problems were the main reasons why the entry of the Ukrainian contingent was postponed several times. In addition, the Americans counted their pennies. No arguments in favor of sending Ukrainian peacemakers to Kosovo were accepted before the election of a new President of Ukraine.
“Also a formal reason was the absence of barracks for the Ukrainian contingent at Bondsteel. And nobody ventured to accommodate us in tents.”
“How did the local populace react to the coming of Ukrainian peacemakers to Kosovo?”
“All right, in principle. I will remind you that we landed at the Skopje Airport in the capital of Macedonia on August 22. We set up camp there. And just 25 days later, Ukrainian pilots from the 14th Detached Helicopter Squadron were already carrying out operational tasks assigned by the KFOR command. By that time, the 37th Special Detached Support Company had been on guard duty near Skopje. By decision of the FALCON multinational brigade commander, the Ukrainian company was quartered at Bondsteel on November 19. Following a week-long training course and taking the required exams, the company’s officers and soldiers began to fulfill combat tasks. On December 7 Bondsteel took in the 14th Detached Helicopter Squadron. And as soon as December 10, I reported that the Ukrainian contingent had completely finished its relocation in Kosovo.
“When we began to survey our zone of responsibility, which included two Serb villages populated by 430 people and four Albanian ones with 2000 residents, the attitude to us was different. If the Serbs took us as friends, the Albanians thought we were Russians. We were asked over and over again: ‘Russians?’ We answered: ‘No.’ They asked: ‘Why do you wear Russian uniform?’ We had to explain that the uniforms differed. They also wanted to know who the Ukrainians were. They would only calm down when we explained that Ukraine had gained independence after the collapse of the USSR and had a population of 50 million.
“In general, there are no disputes or special problems with the local people. Yet, when we escorted the first convoys from the town of Stripce to the Russian zone, the Albanians threw stones at the Serbs. Then our peacekeepers put up a human wall between them. But I will stress that this was the attitude of the Albanians toward the Serbs, not the Ukrainians.”
“You became the first Ukrainian military servicemen to serve side by side with US officers and soldiers. What kind of relationship do you have?”
“Friendly — both with the Bondsteel command and other personnel in general. All problems that arise one way or another are being resolved promptly. The soldiers made friends almost immediately. I saw here one more confirmation of the old axiom: unlike politicians, the military quickly find a common language.
“At first, most of our military rituals seemed strange to the Americans. For example, they could not understand why the Ukrainians lined up for an evening roll-call every day or why even those detailed for flight or equipment-maintenance duty stood in line in the morning. Later they got used to our routine.”
“And what kind of KFOR missions does the Ukrainian peacekeeping contingent carry out now?”
“Since last September, the 14th Detached Helicopter Squadron has been transporting the KFOR personnel, including such VIPs as American generals, Senators, and representatives of the Kosovo authorities, as well as the reconnaissance group. The Ukrainian pilots have also been entrusted the task of carrying cargo. KFOR also plans to use our pilots to transport humanitarian aid, food and construction materials, to mountainous villages when snow and frost begin.
“The 37th Special Detached Support Company has been assigned the task of ensuring security in its own zone of responsibility. Above all, there should be no standoffs and clashes between the local ethnic groups. The Ukrainian peacemakers’ checkpoint in the village of Draikovci is a kind of borderline between the Serbs and Albanians. The vehicles and people that cross it are examined for weapons and hazardous substances. Documents are carefully checked. The company also carries out reconnaissance. Patrols are on round-the-clock duty practically in all the villages we control. They also guard the schoolteachers and pupils in the Serb towns.
“I will note that four combat vehicles and 23 servicemen are on a round- the-clock duty in the Ukrainian zone of responsibility. A platoon equipped with everything to resolve problems in an emergency is on a 15-minute alert. In general, the Ukrainian peacekeepers in Kosovo can operate in the Ukrainian, Polish, and American zones of responsibility.”
“But still, to what extent do you think the Ukrainian zone of responsibility is dangerous for the Ukrainian peacekeepers?”
“We have found a lot of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines in our zone. We recorded shoot-outs several times. Once we carefully examined an abandoned quarry and found some spent automatic-rifle rounds. But I can’t say for sure if that was a shooting exercise of gunmen or just a joke. We found several grenades in villages. We consigned the weapons we had found to the Polish battalion which performs the mission of destroying such weapons. Thus, you see, danger can lurk just round the corner.
“Sometimes I straightforwardly tell my subordinates: no need take risks. All we need is to accurately fulfill our operational tasks to keep peace in the zone. And save your courage and gallantry for the future.”
“The stay of the Ukrainian peacekeepers in Kosovo is quite a serious trump card for Ukraine. But is the state able to make use of it? In particular, to take a more active participation in international Kosovo reconstruction tenders?”
“If you take the Poles, they render considerable Red Cross humanitarian assistance in their zone. They have also brought Polish construction workers there to build schools and medical establishments. As the saying goes, they’ve staked their claim.
“Of course, since we are here, the relevant Ukrainian agencies should try to seize a unique opportunity to earn real money, for civil construction, restoration of roads, power lines, and gas and water supply still remain burning issues for Kosovo. But I don’t think this situation will continue long. And as time goes by, more and more diverse machinery and experts come to Kosovo.
“Representatives of the government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other interested agencies should come here, offer their services, and conclude contracts. As to the protection of our civilian fellow countrymen, our peacekeepers will provide it. ”