THE world received an implied threat of nuclear blackmail last month from a country whose president - supported by an Army infiltrated by officers loyal to the current regime - maintains an iron grip on the government and the economy.
North Korea? Libya? Iraq?
Hardly. The culprit is one of the newest members of the international community, Ukraine. President Leonid Kravchuk recently announced that he would not honor agreements to transfer nuclear missiles of the former Soviet Union to Russia unless Ukraine received payment for the fissionable materials in the weapons. The Ukrainian price for this "accommodation" - although it is better characterized as extortion - is in the range of $5 billion to $6 billion dollars, despite the fact this is 25 times the actual
market worth of the uranium in the warheads.
Both President Bush and President-elect Clinton should act quickly and in concert. For while European and American attention has been fixed on Yugoslavia, an even more ominous situation has been developing in the former Soviet Union. The world has welcomed the dramatic changes brought about by Russian President Boris Yeltsin; now it is time to confront and oppose the policies of President Kravchuk, and America must take the lead.
We cannot treat Russia in isolation, nor can we assume any longer that Russia speaks for members of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Ukrainian policies are irresponsible and dangerous. They threaten the stability of Europe as well as the course of reform in Russia and the other republics.
There is growing evidence that Ukraine is intent on becoming a first-rate conventional military power. The Ukrainian armed forces will number nearly a half-million by 1994 and are already equipped with Soviet arms from tanks to state-of-the-art fighter aircraft. The Ukrainians are also aggressively commandeering personnel for their new military from all branches of the former Soviet military. They deport any commonwealth officers who refuse to swear an oath of allegiance to Ukraine.
Most worrisome are signs that the Ukrainians are looking for a loophole in their agreement to centralize nuclear weapons under commonwealth control and eventually transfer the weapons to Russia, which was acknowledged even within the commonwealth as the USSR successor state. Even before the latest nuclear threat, Ukraine tried to enforce its loyalty oath among personnel of the commonwealth strategic nuclear forces located on Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainians refused to allow the Russians to deactivate Ukrainian missiles. All this prompted strong protest from General Iurii Maksimov, commander of the commonwealth's nuclear forces, who told Isvestia last summer that the previous dispute over ownership of the Black Sea fleet will "look like child's play compared with the struggle for possession of the strategic nuclear missiles" in Ukraine.
Why would the Ukrainians, themselves so recently released from Soviet domination, in turn adopt such imperial pretensions of their own?
Ukraine, quite simply, has been infected by a nationalist virus, of the same strain that is affecting other new nations in Central Eurasia. It is nationalism born of insecurity: Ukraine has never, in modern times, existed as a sovereign nation, and its current leaders are simply former communists in national garb. Kravchuk and his coterie might well be concerned that questions could arise concerning the legitimacy of the Ukrainian "state."
Ukraine's borders, like those of all the other commonwealth republics, are essentially Soviet artifacts. The Crimea, for example, was taken from Russia and given to Ukraine in 1954 as a "gift" from Khrushchev. Legitimacy is always available on the cheap if leaders are willing to resort to nationalism - even bogus nationalism - and the threat of conflict. Kravchuk (who has of late begun to speak with a Ukrainian accent for the first time in his adult life) has depicted Russia as a threat.
Some of this is the childish muscle-flexing of a people whose sense of national identity was crushed and suppressed for generations. Kravchuk, a former apparatchik who had a ringside seat for the oppression of his native region, understands this well and has used it to his advantage. But the excesses of celebration must end; it is time for Ukraine to assume its responsibilities as a new nation.
The United States can help. First and foremost, Mr. Clinton should join Mr. Bush in making it clear to Kravchuk - as Bush did so firmly with Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev last year - that nuclear ambitions will result in a shutdown of US aid. This could be coupled with an understanding that Ukrainian sovereignty is no less important to the US and NATO than that of any other member of the international system.
Diplomatic relations have been established and continue to grow, and the Ukrainians should have no doubt that America does not see Ukraine as an appendage of the Russian super-state.
Ukraine, along with the other new states of the former USSR, should be welcomed into the fraternity of civilized nations. But admission carries a price, and the West must remain adamant that Orwellian "presidents" rattling nuclear sabers and beating the drum of concocted nationalism need not apply.