THE visit by US Defense Secretary Les Aspin June 6-7 marks improved US relations with this former Soviet republic and a policy to encourage nuclear disarmament that includes a carrot as well as a stick.
The Clinton administration appears to have moved away from a single-minded demand that Ukraine must ratify two nuclear arms accords and surrender the nuclear weapons it inherited from the former Soviet Union or face Western retaliation.
Defense Secretary Aspin brought several proposals aimed at encouraging rapid ratification by addressing Ukrainian security concerns, particularly regarding their huge Russian neighbor.
Ukrainian officials were pleased that Washington seems ready to move away from viewing Ukraine through Russian eyes.
"This visit, the first ever by an American defense secretary to Ukraine, confirms the intentions of the US administration to start a new era in relations with Ukraine," Ukrainian Defense Minister Konstantin Morozov said at the conclusion of the two-day visit.
"We see a better understanding of our security concerns and an eagerness to solve these problems by the American side," he said.
The Ukrainians were most pleased that Secretary Aspin agreed to continue talks to find solutions to issues between Ukraine and Russia that have hindered ratification of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Aspin reiterated an offer for the US to mediate the disputes.
Aspin also proposed a compromise on the thorny issue of whether and when the nuclear warheads currently based in Ukraine should be transferred to Russia for eventual dismantling. He offered to help Ukraine implement the START I treaty, which would eliminate 130 multiple-warhead SS-18 missiles based in Ukraine, by placing the warheads into temporary storage on Ukrainian territory. The warheads would be monitored by international inspectors and eventually transferred to Russia for the extraction of the nuc lear material.
Aspin and Mr. Morozov agreed to form a joint group to reexamine the cost of disarmament, adding that the US may contribute more than its previous compensation offer of $175 million.
The US proposals reflect growing concern that Ukraine is moving to retain at least some of the nuclear weapons and to gain operational control over them. According to an informed US source, it also flows from the view that the previous policy of trying to browbeat Ukraine into denuclearizing was counter-productive and failed to recognize legitimate Ukrainian worries over potential Russian threats to their security.
But the US proposals have already drawn a negative reaction from Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, who met Aspin on June 5 in Garmisch, Germany. General Grachev reportedly dismissed suggestions that the US should mediate over the status and use of the over 1,600 nuclear warheads based in Ukraine.
The Russian defense official urges instead the rapid transfer of the warheads to Russia and warns against Ukrainian possession.
"By its practical ... actions, the military leadership of Ukraine, without much publicity, is striving to retain the nuclear weapons," Grachev said in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta published June 8. "At the same time the security of the weapons on Ukrainian territory is deteriorating. We are not allowed to change parts and systems in time, to carry out routine maintenance. The supervision by our scientists of the status of the nuclear warheads designed by them is impossible. In a word, there is a
problem here and a very serious one."
Kiev officials say the Russian concern is linked to their desire to assert ownership of the weapons. "It seems to me that any assistance from anyone which would speed up the process of making Ukraine nuclear-free in the future should be welcomed," says an aide to Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk.
President Kravchuk told Aspin that the parliament would ratify the START I and NPT treaties before it recesses in early July. But the Ukrainian leader faces significant opposition to ratification. Fearing potential aggression from Russia and resentful of what they view as the West's lack of concern over Ukraine's needs, some legislators advocate that Ukraine remain a nuclear power.
Others link approval to gaining formal security guarantees from all the nuclear powers and to getting financial aid to cover the expense of disarmament. These views are shared in part by the Ukrainian government.
"I think the idea of a multilateral security agreement is a normal, responsible suggestion," says the presidential aide. "The West should understand that the Ukrainian parliament declared Ukraine's intention to become nuclear-free ... when there was still, at least legally, the Soviet Union, and when no other state made territorial claims on Ukraine nor were there any unfriendly acts toward Ukraine. Now Ukraine has to think twice," the official says.