UKRAINE'S President Leonid Kravchuk threw his support this week behind a growing movement in this fledgling state's parliament to delay ratification of an international treaty to reduce strategic nuclear weapons. Ukrainians seek to link ratification to Western aid and future security guarantees.
The Ukrainian leader assured the commander-in-chief of NATO and American forces in Europe, Gen. John Shalikashvili, that Ukraine would stick to its goal of gradually becoming nuclear free by ratifying the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty and the Lisbon Protocol between the US and the four former Soviet nuclear powers.
He confirmed Ukraine's pledge to dispose of all 176 strategic missiles left on its soil since the breakup of the former Soviet Union. But he expressed concern that Ukraine would be left vulnerable to Western nuclear states and unstable neighbors, in particular Russia.
Mr. Kravchuk expressed hope that a new United States administration would bring new understanding for Ukraine's position, telling General Shalikashvili that he had discussed the issue by phone with President-elect Clinton.
During his meeting with the NATO commander, who is on a three-day visit here, Kravchuk sent a clear message that ratification would be delayed until NATO or the United Nations Security Council addresses the issue of future security for the three former Soviet republics who are voluntarily giving up nuclear weapons - Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Kravchuk failed to win such assurances from President Bush during a state visit to Washington in May.
"No single country can offer unilateral security guarantees," said John Stepanchuk, senior political officer at the US Embassy in Kiev. "But I believe a formula can be reached that would satisfy the Ukrainians' concerns."
In July Ukraine completed the transfer of all tactical nuclear weapons on its territory to Russia. But Ukrainian leaders are openly disappointed at the amount of aid offered by the West, especially the US, for the transfer of the weapons left on its territory by the Soviet Union.
"People forget that we have already given up thousands of tactical nuclear weapons to Russia, which didn't give us a single kopek for them," Kravchuk said on Ukrainian television Tuesday.
The issue of compensation for dismantling and distruction of strategic missiles in Ukraine, and the transfer of nuclear warheads to Russia, is a sticking point for Ukrainian leaders. They believe the US should pay for destroying these weapons, and Ukraine should be compensated for the valuable nuclear components inside the warheads.
"The issue is not whether or not we will ratify START, but who, how, and when it is done," said Ivan Plushch, chairman of the Ukrainian legislature.
The US Congress has appropriated $410 million for the destruction of nuclear weapons in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus under START. But Ukrainian leaders have told US officials that more money is needed to ensure the safe disposal of the arms within the seven-year deadline set by the Lisbon Protocol.
"This is all very expensive," said Yuri Kostenko, Ukriane's environmental minister and a disarmament expert, in a recent interview. "Our economy is a catastrophe and we simply can't afford to do this by ourselves."
"We agreed to do this both as a goodwill gesture for stability in the world, and because we really don't want these expensive, ecologically unsafe arms on our territory," he continued. "After Chernobyl [the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster] we know the dangers of nuclear power probably better than the Americans."
Ukrainian officials oppose the destruction of silos by explosion, required under START. They say the method is environmentally unsafe. Instead they favor their conversion into agricultural storage facilities.
US officials have said such conversion would actually be more expensive, and there would be no guarantees the silos would not one day be reconverted.
Ukraine is also seeking compensation for nuclear warhead components, which are to be transferred to Russia, where the only destruction facility in the former Soviet Union is located.
While Ukrainian and Russian leaders have worked to improve relations, Kiev repeatedly voices concerns about political stability in Moscow, where nationalist influence appears to be rising.
This perceived threat from Russia has inspired about two dozen deputies in the Ukrainian parliament to oppose nuclear disarmament. They argue that retaining the arms would be a guarantee against aggression toward Ukraine. The majority of the 350 legislators, however, support complete nuclear disarmament.
"I don't think they will rewrite START, but I think they are deliberately taking their time while their leaders continue to seek a compromise with the West," says Mr. Stepanchuk, the US diplomat.