ONLY six years ago, a fire in the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl emptied Ukrainian cities and cast a shadow across our homeland. Today, 4.5 million of our citizens qualify as victims of the world's worst nuclear mishap. This incident gave us a lasting aversion to the atom's fearsome power.
Yet several recent newspaper editorials have questioned Ukraine's commitment to destroy nuclear weapons stationed on its territory. They suggest that Ukrainian officials are having second thoughts about pledges to establish a non-nuclear state.
The charges are inaccurate, unfair, and insulting. They overlook the fact that Ukraine has given up its short-range arsenal. As recently as Nov. 16, Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma reaffirmed our commitment to arms control and non-proliferation.
Ukraine won its independence in July 1990 after declaring sovereignty and promising to become a "nuclear weapons free zone." The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union left our nation with the world's third largest nuclear arsenal. We immediately pledged to get rid of it.
In the spring of last year, we shipped nearly 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons to Russia with the stipulation that they be destroyed, but this condition has not been met. The weapons have merely taken on new ownership. Yet few observers press Russia for an explanation. Instead, they wonder publicly why Ukraine does not hand over more of its weapons.
This should help to explain why some members of our parliament have balked at ratifying the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and joining the nuclear non-proliferation accord until Ukraine receives guarantees of its national security from the United States and other nuclear powers. These members look at Russia's military strength, the foreign aid it receives, and some Moscow leaders who have questioned Ukraine's sovereignty, and see the threat of renewed imperialism.
THE US and the former Soviet Union traded nuclear arms- control proposals for 45 years before reaching an agreement that would make significant reductions. Ukrainian leaders would be irresponsible if they cast aside the arsenal on its territory without ensuring their people's security.
We want to rid Ukrainian soil of nuclear weapons. But we must remain alert to the intentions and capabilities of other nations in our region. What's more, after our government relinquished these short-range nuclear weapons, the US negotiated a contract with Russia to buy the enriched uranium of nuclear warheads in the former USSR. Ukraine received nothing.
Our government has never put a price on disarmament. But the US agreement with Russia underscores an important point: When swords are beaten into plowshares, tools of destruction can become economic resources. Indeed, the value of reprocessed uranium held in the former Soviet Union has been estimated at between $4 billion and $6 billion.
Ukrainians do not assert control of nuclear warheads on its soil; this authority has been delegated to the Joint Strategic Command of the Commonwealth of Independent States. However, all property previously owned by former Soviet armed forces and left on Ukrainian territory at the time of its independence belongs to Ukraine. So we are entitled to fair compensation for uranium taken from weapons on our soil.
Doing away with nuclear weapons is a costly undertaking, and Ukraine is grateful to the US for its efforts to create a fund for nuclear disarmament, clean-up, and defense conversion in the former USSR. During the recent visit of Senators Nunn and Lugar to Ukraine, President Leonid Kravchuk reconfirmed his commitment to ratification of START and joining the NPT.
We are striving to become a secure, peaceful force for regional stability. We hope to achieve prosperity by harnessing the commercial potential of our resources and eradicating the health and environmental hazards left by the dictatorship. No one should doubt our determination to eliminate nuclear weapons. We suffered one nuclear disaster. We don't want to risk another.