THE Ukraine, for centuries an integral part of the Russian empire, is on its way toward establishing a cornerstone of independence: its own military. And it is doing so with Moscow's blessing and assistance.In an interview, the Ukrainian defense minister said that he and the Soviet defense minister had agreed "in principle" in a Nov. 1 meeting here to have groups of experts from both of their ministries work out a bilateral agreement clearing the path for Ukrainian armed forces. Under the projected accord, a portion of the Soviet troops based in the Ukraine will be "resubordinated" to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, said Gen. Konstantin Morozov, the Ukrainian defense minister. Soviet Defense Minister Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, said General Morozov, "has already decided to ... order ... the commanders of the three military districts deployed here ... to give up some officers to staff the Defense Ministry of the Ukraine." The moves represent a reversal for both Marshal Shaposhnikov and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. As recently as Oct. 22, Mr. Gorbachev called republics' efforts to set up their own armies "dangerous" and "frivolous." On Oct. 20, Shaposhnikov told Soviet television he would not allow the division of Soviet forces or weapons. Since then, the central Soviet government seems to have concluded it can no longer fight the centrifugal forces causing the country to break apart and that an amicable divorce is preferable to a destabilizing military standoff between the two largest republics, the Ukraine and Russia. As Ukrainian defense minister, Morozov essentially has been a general without an army. Moscow now has opened the door to empowering him. Though he no longer answers to Moscow, soldiers serving in the Ukraine technically still answer to Moscow. Since the Ukraine declared independence on Aug. 24, Shaposhnikov and the Ukrainian legislature, have been working out a concept of a Ukrainian army, navy, air force, and national guard totaling 400,000 to 420,000 troops for a population of 52 million people. "This figure is a transitional one for the transitional period," says Morozov. "The figure can be as low as 200,000 to 250,000 troops," he continues. "I think the fewer troops we have the better it is both for the Ukraine and for our neighboring states, because we can devote more money to social programs, and other governments won't have the impression the Ukraine is becoming a militarized state." Morozov is sensitive to Western criticism of the Ukraine's effort to establish its own military. When the Ukrainian parliament passed laws on defense Oct. 22 and 23, the United States response was immediate and negative. By planning such a large army, the Ukraine could upset the Conventional Forces in Europe pact signed a year ago by 22 nations, US officials said. The US is worried about the ability of the Ukraine's already-reeling economy to support an army of 400,000-plus men. In addition, the US harbors an unspoken desire to support Gorbachev, says a US official here to observe a congress of Ukrainian military officers. "The problem, in the end, is one of differing perspectives," says researcher Kathleen Mihalisko on Radio Liberty. "As viewed from the Ukraine, the republic's long-term military goals would benefit European security in that they would in principle result in a significant troop reduction [there are currently between 1.2 million and 1.5 million troops in the Ukraine] ... and in a lowering of the nuclear threat." Ms. Mihalisko blames part of the misunderstanding on the Ukraine's failure to explain why it wants this army, how it plans to pay for it, and its relationship to the Soviet armed forces. Some of the tension has been eased by the Ukrainian parliament's reiteration Oct. 24 that it is not, as erroneously reported, thinking of taking control of nuclear weapons based in the Ukraine. The Ukraine's policy is to keep its nuclear arms under the control of the central Soviet Defense Ministry, but to reserve the right to veto their use. The Ukraine also aims eventually to become a nuclear-free zone. In conventional defense, the Ukraine is already showing it means business. The attempted coup in August shook its leaders badly when they realized that there were no forces on Ukrainian soil whose purpose was to protect Ukrainian interests. Bit by bit, the Ukraine is putting together an elite National Guard. On the last Thursday of every month servicemen of the Kiev garrison of the Interior Ministry troops of Ukraine endure a four-hour test of military will and skill to earn the privilege of becoming a "red beret." There are only some 300 red berets out of the 36,000 Interior Ministry troops stationed throughout the Ukraine. These men will form the core of a Ukrainian National Guard, which along with 20,000 border troops will be the first to form the ranks of Europe's newest military force.