WHEN Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kravchuk meet in the Kremlin today, they are likely to find that closer ties between the two Slavic states will require changing old attitudes.
Relations between the two largest members of the Commonwealth of Independent States have been strained most of the time since the Soviet Union's demise in December 1991. Bilateral agreements reached often have not held for long.
"In Russia and in Ukraine there are extremist forces with nationalist views that are big obstacles to creating normal bilateral relations," says Vadim Dolganov, press attache at Ukraine's Embassy in Moscow.
Both Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Kravchuk are under pressure - mainly because of the disastrous conditions of both economies - to bridge gaps dividing the neighboring nations. These include disputes over bilateral trade, nuclear disarmament and foreign debt repayment. If Russia and Ukraine forged a working relationship, officials say, they could fix their economic problems much faster than if they go separate ways. Common ground elusive
Despite that compelling reason to put aside past differences, the prospect of finding common ground during today's summit is by no means guaranteed.
Attitudes that pervade the relationship, which for centuries has given Russia senior-partner status, have been slow to change - something Ukrainians remain sensitive to.
"To a certain extent the problem is that some in Russia don't take Ukrainian independence seriously," Mr. Dolganov says. "But it's also a problem that Ukrainian officials aren't used to acting independently. In the past they always looked to Moscow for decisions."
Since achieving independence, Ukrainian officials have insisted on being treated as an equal partner, while some Russian officials continue to display an "older brother" posture.
Viktor Aksyuchits, for example, a nationalist member of the Russian parliament, says only the western Ukraine that belonged to Poland before World War II is entitled to be independent. "All other [Ukrainian] territories are closely linked to Russia, whether we like it or not," he says.
Even without such attitudes, solving the key differences that divide Russia and Ukraine will be difficult because of their complex nature, political observers say.
Of prime concern for Ukrainians is coming to terms on economic issues. Ukraine depends on Russia for more than 90 percent of its oil supplies and is eager to secure a deal to ensure future deliveries. Ukrainian officials, however, say Russia has promised Ukraine only one-sixth of the 45 million metric tons of oil that Kiev needs to keep its shaky economy going in 1993. Oil deal is reached
Still, Ukrainian Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma and his Russian counterpart Viktor Chernomyrdin did reach a preliminary deal on oil shipments yesterday during talks in Moscow. Earlier, Mr. Kuchma had proposed forming an "oil union." Under such a deal Ukraine would share the cost of developing the vast Siberian oilfields, the Tass news agency reports. Kuchma had warned that if the Ukraine could not reach a deal on access to oil, it might raise prices for transporting Russian goods across Ukraine.
Yet perhaps the most contentious issue between the two states remains nuclear disarmament. Ukraine has rankled not only Russia but other world nuclear powers, particularly the United States, by being slow to ratify the START I nuclear disarmament treaty. Also it has dragged its feet on upholding a pledge to become a non-nuclear nation by transferring warheads to Russia for destruction. Implementing START I is a prerequisite for fulfilling the START II disarmament treaty, signed by the US and Russia earli er this month.
Kiev has insisted it will abide by its commitments, but lately has requested financial aid to dispose of weapons along with a security guarantee. On Wednesday, it received a written guarantee from Russia to go along with earlier assurances by the US. Ukrainian officials declined comment on the Russian proposals, saying they would be discussed today.
"Ukraine is simply scared about potential instability in Russia," says Vitaly Portnikov, commentator for the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper. "If Yeltsin and the democrats fall in Russia, it would threaten Ukrainian independence. If their missiles are gone, the Ukrainians are worried that the West would not care about their nation's fate."
In addition to a security guarantee, Ukraine is looking for an agreement that would compensate it for valuable nuclear components and fuels contained in the missiles slated for destruction. Russia has been reluctant to discuss the issue. Dolganov says Ukraine wanted the fuels to help run nuclear power stations.
Meanwhile, Russia is likely to press to resolve a dispute over repayment of Ukraine's share of the former Soviet Union's estimated $80-billion foreign debt. US officials have warned Russia, which has assumed the former Soviet Union's responsibilities, that further aid could be curtailed if debt payments are not brought up to date.
Ukraine has complicated matters by wanting to repay independently its 16.4 percent ($13 billion) share of the debt. A deal in November, under which Kiev agreed to let Moscow service its debt, appeared to solve the problem. But earlier this month, Ukraine renounced the deal, saying Russia had failed to comply with a condition to provide a list of Soviet assets abroad, such as embassy buildings, which would become a basis for dividing property between Moscow and Kiev. Fleet splitup tabled
Though Russia and Ukraine have wrangled over ownership of the 300-vessel Black Sea Fleet, the issue was not central to today's discussions, officials said. The two leaders agreed in August to postpone until 1995 any decision on division of the fleet.
Possession of the Crimean Peninsula, which was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, has been another difficult point, but the dispute has calmed of late.
Though Yeltsin and Kravchuk may settle some differences, says Mr. Portnikov, Russian-Ukrainian relations will not be on completely firm ground until a majority on both sides, particularly in Russia, adjust to the post-Soviet political reality.
"The Soviet Union was an artificial creation, and thus all states arising from it should start with a clean slate," he says. "A state like Russia shouldn't consider itself to be old while all the others are new."
"In the case of Yugoslavia, one state considered itself old and the others new - and that's why war broke out," he adds. "The same could happen here. But I think many Russian politicians are now viewing Russia as a new state and that is encouraging."