The Feisty Ukraine

TENSIONS are slowly rising between Russia and its assertive neighbor, Ukraine. Strains were close to the surface during last weekend's Commonwealth of Independent States meeting in Kiev, when Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk said the commonwealth was in danger of splitting up.

President Kravchuk, an ex-communist bureaucrat and a survivor, has exacerbated divisions with an "in-your-face" policy toward Russia. The list of provocations is long: efforts to create a new currency; game-playing over who gets the Soviet Black Sea fleet; vacillations over nuclear disarmament; plans to create a huge (700,000 or more) army.

Sadly, Kravchuk has opened the door to ethnic tensions in the Russian-majority region of Crimea by an outrageous promise to resettle Germans and Tatars there, despite Ukraine's weak historical claim to the territory. The Crimea was given to the Ukraine in 1954. Kravchuk's plan, if continued, may inflame even moderate Russian nationalists.

Such provocations worry Western diplomats. They infuriate Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose agreements last fall to a guarantee of Ukraine's territorial integrity was a major concession.

Kravchuk is probably overcompensating for his communist past. He's pandering to the Ukrainian nationalists who spearheaded the move to leave the union and and who could mount opposition to him.

Open conflict between Moscow and Kiev is one scenario, leading to a Yugoslav-style war - only with nuclear artillery. The calmer approach recognizes that the assertion of Ukrainian independence, with an anti-Russian backlash, is understandable. It won't last forever.

At every significant crisis, Kravchuk has backed off - from the Black Sea fleet to nuclear weapons. Weak as it is, the ruble is far stronger than Ukrainian currency. Moreover, it is not clear that Russians in the Crimea want to be a part of either the Ukraine or Russia. As for Ukraine's army, it exists mainly on paper - oaths taken by kids promised another week of meals. There is no significant army, nor can Kravchuk afford one.

In the future, Eurasia must be considered from a less Moscow-centered point of view. Developing independence is a messy business, but Ukraine has a right to it. Nationalism will inevitably rise as part of the move toward democracy.

The West in concert must mediate the Russia-Ukraine split in ways that help keep the nationalism moderate.

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