KIEV, UKRAINE — THE Clinton administration is softening the tone of its policy toward Ukraine, acknowledging that United States pressure on this former Soviet republic to ratify two nuclear arms accords and give up its nuclear weapons had backfired.
Ukrainian officials have grown increasingly resentful of the administration's hard-line stance, tying the future of Ukrainian-US relations to Ukraine's ratification of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
"The results of our visit here demonstrate that a new independent state and new administration have been able to turn over a new leaf in our relations," Strobe Talbott, President Clinton's special ambassador to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, told reporters here on May 10 after talks with senior Ukrainian officials, including President Leonid Kravchuk.
"We now have reason to expect a realization by the US of these good intentions. A change was needed," said Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk.
Ukraine is the last of four republics of the former Soviet Union with nuclear weapons that has yet to ratify START I, which would reduce by one-third the nuclear warheads in the US and the former Soviet Union. Ratification of START I by all four successor states - Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan - is a prerequisite for ratification by Moscow and Washington of a follow-up treaty, START II, signed in January, which would eliminate an additional one-third of their remaining nuclear arsenals.
Ukrainian President Kravchuk and other leaders have not abandoned their commitment to ratification of both treaties.
But US and Ukrainian officials acknowledged last week that US pressure and political unrest in Russia have encouraged a growing movement among Ukraine's legislators, now debating the accords, who oppose nuclear disarmament.
A recent debate in the fledgling country's Parliament over Ukraine's military doctrine revealed that while many deputies favor ratification of START I, with certain conditions, a growing number believe Ukraine should not sign the NPT and should keep some nuclear weapons not covered by START I as a deterrent against aggression from an increasingly unstable Russia.
During meetings with visiting Ukrainian leaders in Washington over the last several months, Clinton administration officials have repeatedly stressed that ratification of both treaties was a precondition for better relations and more aid to cash-strapped Ukraine.
US irritation surfaced in April when Clinton refused to meet visiting Ukrainian Premier Leonid Kuchma.
"The Ukrainian-American relationship in these last few months has become the hostage of the nuclear issue," said Deputy Foreign Minister Tarasyuk upon his return here last week from meetings in Washington.
"I am deeply convinced that this pressure has caused an increase and a strengthening of the forces who support a nuclear Ukraine. Thus, this pressure has had the reverse effect than the result expected by the US administration," Tarasyuk said.
The debate in Parliament over Ukraine's nuclear status recently showed a disturbing trend among the conservative former communist majority, who distrust the West and many of whom now advocate building up a nuclear deterrent as an inherent part of Ukraine's defense strategy.
"Yes, the US is rudely interfering in our affairs as well as in everyone's affairs throughout the world, because it appears that any point on planet Earth is vitally significant for America," says Gen. Volodymyr Tolubko, a deputy and former commander in the Soviet strategic forces, who leads the pro-nuclear forces in the legislature. This type of growing resentment helped prompt the Clinton administration to review its policy.
"We finally came to a philosophical understanding that we don't understand Ukraine," one US government official said last week. "We've taken Ukraine for granted - it is a lot more complicated in its internal dynamics and in its relations with its neighbors than we expected."
The US administration is clearly hoping to ease Ukrainian fears that it is ignoring Ukraine in favor of Russia and siding with Moscow on the array of military and economic issues that are now the source of tension between the two former Soviet republics.
US envoy Talbott announced that he had reached preliminary agreement with the Ukrainians on several key US proposals, including the idea of a charter of US-Ukrainian relations and a possible Clinton-Kravchuk summit.
He said that the US offer to serve as a "facilitator in the complex relationship between Russia and Ukraine" was greeted favorably by Ukrainian leaders, although neither he nor any Ukrainian officials would reveal the details of the agreement.
In terms of economic aid, Talbott said that the $175 million offered thus far by the US under the Nunn-Lugar Act for Ukrainian disarmament "is a floor and not a ceiling."
Ukrainians have voiced disappointment over that sum, stressing that disarmament would cost billions of dollars, which would shatter their faltering economy.