THE main Ukrainian opposition movement, Rukh, called at its Oct. 28 congress for complete independence from Russia. Rukh already controls a third of the Ukrainian parliament and is likely to gain a majority if free elections are held as promised. The breakup of the Soviet Union has lurched another huge step forward. However, Ukrainians mean something very different by ``independence'' than the stand-alone nationalism that Westerners assume that they mean. They blame ``Moscow propaganda'' for portraying them as mere nationalists. They are concerned that they are being misunderstood in the West.
``We want out of the Soviet Union so we can join Europe faster,'' the Rukh economist, Aleksandr Savchenko, told me. Ukrainians want their economy to be oriented westward, not eastward.
Politically, Ukrainians want unity with the West on three levels: (1) through a confederacy with the East European countries, to balance the new Germany; (2) through joining the Common Market; and (3) through the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the 35-nation group that includes the United States and Russia as well as continental Europe. They want these to be strong, effective structures for unity. They want neither mere independence nor subordination to Russia, but international integration on a basis of individual freedom and national equality. They hope to find this by looking West.
The danger is not that Ukrainians want to stand alone, but that the West will leave them all alone. A leader of the Ukrainian Republic Party, the most nationalist of all the parties allied with Rukh, told me that the Ukraine would much rather be a state of the United States than a state of the USSR. But, he said with tongue only half-way in cheek, he feared the US would not accept the Ukraine.
Rukh used to call for a new Soviet confederation of sovereign states, but today rejects this idea lest it perpetuate Russian domination. Rukh now wants only bilateral treaties among the former Soviet republics once they are independent, or at most a common market treaty.
Ukrainians and other Soviet nationalists would rather organize their ties with one another through Western institutions, where nationalities are well-balanced, than through any new Soviet-shaped union, where Russians are a majority - and a hated and feared majority at that. They want representation in Western economic institutions. They want embassies in Western capitals. They want full diplomatic recognition by the West.
Formal diplomatic recognition is as yet premature. The West is not going to precipitate a crisis. It is up to the Ukrainians to win their freedom.
Less formal diplomatic, political, and economic ties, however, are possible now. Indeed, such ties are already being formed. The Ukraine is establishing offices abroad. So is Boris Yeltsin's Russian Republic.
The West should be seeking to expand these ties with individual Soviet republics. It should be strengthening its own joint institutions and preparing them for the membership of the Ukraine and other nations. It should be trying to build the strongest possible CSCE institutions, not whittling them down (as unfortunately the US is still doing, thanks to foreign policy habits formed in a completely different era).
This would give the nations within the USSR a sort of ``common home'' to shelter them as the old Soviet home comes tumbling down. It would make for a soft landing.
Rukh wants a Ukrainian currency with full convertibility, less as a new barrier to trade than to liberate trade from the morass of currencies now floating around: an inconvertible ruble with three official exchange rates, various Western currencies in street use, exchange with Moscow by central command not by money calculations. The West should be ready to help stabilize a Ukrainian currency and integrate it into the European Monetary System.
Rukh does not want to cut off all economic links with Russia, but to replace the old coercive links with natural links. Economist Savchenko has a five-year plan to end all five-year plans: the old centrally planned industrial and agricultural deliveries would be cut by 20 percent each year; new trade agreements would be negotiated between Russia and the Ukraine; natural trade links would grow as the market economy developed.
An independent Ukraine will need rapid integration into a security system with the West. Otherwise it will be forced to seek security in its own power and in diplomatic maneuvers. If the West were to reject the Ukraine, it could move toward a more combative nationalism.
Ukraine's independence from Russia is inevitable. More and more Russians are recognizing this reality. The West might be the last to accept it. The West could make terrible mistakes because of its failure to understand the actual state of affairs.
The business of sound diplomacy is to welcome what is inevitable and smooth its way into the world order. The business of Western diplomacy is accept the breakup of the Soviet Union and do everything possible to help manage it smoothly.
The best way to manage the breakup and fit it into a world order is to integrate the former Soviet nations, including Russia, with the West. This integration should begin before the breakup is complete, by setting up informal diplomatic offices with individual nations of the USSR, giving them a place in Western institutions and in the CSCE, and pushing economic and security arrangements as far as possible through these institutions.
In this way there can be a period of overlap, with new ties phasing in before the old ones have expired. The awful prospect of a period of stand-alone sovereignty for a dozen ex-Soviet republics can be avoided.
That is what the Ukrainian nationalists themselves want. The West needs to hear and heed their voices.