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Ukraine's Testy Nuclear Politics

As US secretary visits, former Soviet republic stirs unease in West with nuclear stances

By Chrystyna LapychakSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 1993


FOR years, Col. Konstantin Kuchkin and his regiment of strategic rocket forces of the former Soviet Union serviced a unit of 10 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that were aimed at its cold war enemy: the United States.

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Now, he and his men can only watch as a crew of workers lower an elevator shaft into the deep silo of a dismantled SS-19 missile, preparing the now-unarmed shell for its trip to a scrap yard.

``I feel like the captain of a sinking ship,'' said Colonel Kuchkin, during a first-ever visit by Western journalists to an ICBM site of the former Soviet Union this month. Kuchkin expressed the ambivalence of his unit in this southern Ukrainian town: Soldiers here are relieved by the end of the cold war, yet uncertain about their future now that their missiles have been laid to rest.

Ukraine has retired 10 of the 130 SS-19 missiles it inherited from the Soviet Union, but it remains deadlocked over its earlier pledge to disarm, and is reconsidering the fate of its 46 more-modern SS-24s and its 40 strategic bombers. [And in a reversal yesterday, the Ukrainian parliament voted to keep open the Chernobyl nuclear power station, part of which exploded in 1986, and to lift a moratorium on building new nuclear plants, the Associated Press reported.]

US Secretary of State Warren Christopher travels to Ukraine Sunday in an effort to speed up ratification of two important nuclear arms reduction treaties by the Ukrainian parliament.

While most lawmakers in Kiev seem to support Ukraine's ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START I, a growing number favor temporarily keeping the 46 newer SS-24s that they claim are not covered by the accord. The missiles would serve as a deterrent until Ukraine's huge, restless neighbor, Russia, becomes more stable.

Under pressure from these deputies, even President Leonid Kravchuk, who once favored ratification of both START I and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a package, said on Oct. 19 that Ukraine should separate the two issues.

President Kravchuk told reporters that Ukraine could quickly proceed with destruction of the aging SS-19s, but could take ``a more creative'' approach with its SS-24s by taking them off military readiness and removing the codes aiming them at the US. Such disarming, however, should be accompanied by similar moves by the US and other nuclear states, he said.

US officials hope to convince the Ukrainians to return to their previous plan. ``Our aim is that Ukraine not only ratify START I, but also join the NPT,'' says William Miller, the US ambassador in Kiev.

Other than an already pledged $175 million in aid, Ambassador Miller does not say how the US intends to coax Ukrainian leaders, who have voiced frustration at what they view as insufficient US aid offers for the economically stricken country.

Mr. Christopher's visit marks a change in US policy toward the new state, Miller says, moving away from the single issue of disarmament to broader ties, including $300 million in economic aid.

But the ratification process itself will prove difficult, said Graham Allison, US assistant secretary of defense, on a recent visit to Kiev. ``While we believe nuclear weapons actually enhance Ukraine's insecurity,'' he said, ``I am afraid ratification risks a period of paralysis in parliamentary politics.''