Russia, Ukraine Stalemated in Arms Talks

Ukrainians, worried about recent Russian claims of regional hegemony, are now hedging their pledge to become a non-nuclear state

HOPES are quickly fading for an easy solution to the fate of the nuclear-armed missiles left by the Soviet Army in Ukraine. Amid growing tensions between Ukraine and its powerful Russian neighbor, Ukrainian government officials and parliamentarians are increasingly favoring a shift in policy away from its unilateral pledge to become a non-nuclear state.

European and United States officials, frightened at the prospect of a dispute between two nuclear-armed neighbors, have put considerable pressure on Ukraine to ratify nuclear disarmament treaties and implement its non-nuclear policy.

But Ukrainians point to what they see as Russia's continued desire to assert its imperial dominance, illustrated most recently by Russian President Boris Yeltsin's claim in a Feb. 28 speech that Russia should have "special powers as the guarantor of peace and stability in this region." Ukrainian officials now hint at keeping some arms as a deterrent.

"Back then [in 1991] in the euphoria of independence, we very hastily made this decision to get rid of all our nuclear weapons," Ukrainian Premier Leonid Kuchma told reporters en route to a meeting with other leaders of former Soviet republics on Feb. 28. "Ukraine's nuclear weapons could be a restraining factor or check [against potential aggression] if we controlled them."

"I think it is obvious that the political situation has changed dramatically since we first declared that Ukraine would get rid of all its nuclear weapons," said Ukrainian parliament deputy Mykhailo Batih, commenting on hearings which began Friday on the ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), the first nuclear arms control pact. Arms talks fail

"This was before anyone in Russia made territorial claims on parts of Ukraine and before Yeltsin's request for special military authority over the whole former Soviet Union. In today's situation it would be naive to rush into this without considering our security interests."

The gap between the Russian and Ukrainian positions was made clear by the failure of the second round of talks, held March 3-4 in Moscow, on the fate of the 176 multiple-warhead missiles left by the Soviet Army in Ukraine. Moscow officials put the onus for breakdown on the Kiev authorities, pointing at Ukraine's demand to control the weapons and its jeopardizing of the weapons' safety by blocking Russian forces from maintaining them.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry responded Saturday with charges that Russia is trying to "take possession of property never given to Russia" and said it cannot agree to the presence of "foreign troops" on its territory.

The entire structure of nuclear disarmament agreements between the former Soviet Union and the United States, embodied in START I and the subsequent Russian-US START II pact, hinges on solution of the Russian-Ukrainian dispute.

So far, Ukraine is the only one of the four former Soviet republics that possess nuclear arms - Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan are the others - not to ratify START I. Without that treaty, START II cannot take effect. Russia intends to remain a nuclear power, but the other three states pledged in a joint statement last year in Lisbon to become non-nuclear states, including signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Ukraine has hesitated, citing the need for a security guarantee from the West and

for funds to finance the dismantling of nuclear warheads. Russia asserts control

The Russians have asserted their control over all the former Soviet nuclear weapons although nominally they remain under the central command of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose confederation of 10 former Soviet republics. At the talks last week, the Russians proposed measures aimed at removing all the nuclear warheads from Ukraine by Aug. 1, 1994.

While the talks did make progress on some side issues they made no headway on the main problems.

"The main issue we discussed was the right of ownership and we couldn't find a solution during the talks," commented Yuriy Kostenko, Ukraine's environment minister and chairman of the START commission in parliament. "Russia said either we recognize the status of the Russian troops who control the arms on the territory of Ukraine, that they are Russia's property since you are not a nuclear state, or you declare yourself a nuclear state."

Ukrainian officials have asserted their intention to become a non-nuclear state but a new consensus seems to be forming in Kiev to revise that stance.

At the first in a series of three parliamentary hearings on ratification of START I, four experts joined in recommending that the treaty be ratified. But they called the Lisbon agreement to sign the NPT "very discriminatory," serving only the interests of Russia and the US.

Under the limits set by START I, Ukraine would dismantle 130 nearly obsolete SS-19 multiple warhead missiles but it would still leave the 46 more modern and mobile SS-24 missiles, each armed with up to 10 warheads.

Ukraine cannot afford to build new arms, Premier Kuchma says, but it could keep the SS-24s. He adds that Ukrainian specialists are technically capable of re-targeting those missiles.

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