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Ukraine's Testy Nuclear Politics

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

(Page 2 of 2)

A six-month political struggle earlier this year between Ukraine's conservative parliament, Kravchuk, and former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma resulted in Mr. Kuchma's resignation and a decision to hold early parliamentary and presidential elections in the spring.

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Many lawmakers here voice doubts that the current parliament would reach a decision on disarmament before the March 1994 poll, particularly after the clashes in Moscow in early October between supporters of President Boris Yeltsin and forces loyal to the former parliament.

Many legislators here say that any renewed strife in Russia could spread to Ukraine, especially since leaders of the Russian opposition have often made territorial claims against parts of Ukraine.

Away from the political debate, people in Pervomaiske, such as Colonel Kuchkin, are mainly concerned about the future of the military base that has served as the city's chief source of livelihood since 1968, when the missiles were deployed.

The 43rd Army of the Strategic Rocket Forces, now a joint Russian-Ukrainian force, will be charged with safeguarding the dismantling process for the remaining SS-19s when Ukraine ratifies START I.

Ukraine and Russia have been locked in a prolonged tug-of-war over the fate of the dismantled warheads, now in a storage facility near the base. In a recent summit, Ukraine agreed to transfer the warheads to Russia for destruction in return for uranium, to be used for Ukrainian energy needs. But while Russia insists that the transfer begin immediately, Ukraine links the deal to its ratification of START I.

Meanwhile, the high concentration of warheads at the Pervomaiske storage facility recently caused an alarming rise in temperature in the area. Russia blamed the Ukrainians for the incident, saying they violated storage rules. The Ukrainian military has since begun preparation of a second storage site near Khmelnytsky, the central Ukrainian base where the country's remaining ICBMs are deployed.

This week, nuclear specialists from Ukraine and Russia finally signed a protocol on safety maintenance of the remaining missiles.

Nuclear experts must travel to Pervomaiske from Russia to perform dangerous maintenance work at the silos scattered across sprawling farmland.

The dismantling process, which takes two weeks for each rocket, begins at any given silo with careful removal of the warhead and its transfer along a country road, past vast fields of sunflowers and wheat, to a storage site not far from this town.

Then the highly toxic liquid fuel is extracted from the rocket and also moved along the same route to storage and potential reprocessing into chemical fertilizers.

Finally, the empty rocket, held in a gray container, is transported back to the base, where its interior is decontaminated.

Although used to living and working at ground zero, Kuchkin said his men must now adjust to the drastic political changes that will force him to decide whether to return to his native Russia, or stay in Ukraine.

``I guess I never imagined I'd ever be showing this silo to Americans,'' he said. ``But I guess I could never have imagined any of this.''