FOR years, Col. Konstantin Kuchkin and his regiment of strategic rocket forces of the former Soviet Union serviced a unit of 10 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that were aimed at its cold war enemy: the United States.
Now, he and his men can only watch as a crew of workers lower an elevator shaft into the deep silo of a dismantled SS-19 missile, preparing the now-unarmed shell for its trip to a scrap yard.
``I feel like the captain of a sinking ship,'' said Colonel Kuchkin, during a first-ever visit by Western journalists to an ICBM site of the former Soviet Union this month. Kuchkin expressed the ambivalence of his unit in this southern Ukrainian town: Soldiers here are relieved by the end of the cold war, yet uncertain about their future now that their missiles have been laid to rest.
Ukraine has retired 10 of the 130 SS-19 missiles it inherited from the Soviet Union, but it remains deadlocked over its earlier pledge to disarm, and is reconsidering the fate of its 46 more-modern SS-24s and its 40 strategic bombers. [And in a reversal yesterday, the Ukrainian parliament voted to keep open the Chernobyl nuclear power station, part of which exploded in 1986, and to lift a moratorium on building new nuclear plants, the Associated Press reported.]
US Secretary of State Warren Christopher travels to Ukraine Sunday in an effort to speed up ratification of two important nuclear arms reduction treaties by the Ukrainian parliament.
While most lawmakers in Kiev seem to support Ukraine's ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START I, a growing number favor temporarily keeping the 46 newer SS-24s that they claim are not covered by the accord. The missiles would serve as a deterrent until Ukraine's huge, restless neighbor, Russia, becomes more stable.
Under pressure from these deputies, even President Leonid Kravchuk, who once favored ratification of both START I and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a package, said on Oct. 19 that Ukraine should separate the two issues.
President Kravchuk told reporters that Ukraine could quickly proceed with destruction of the aging SS-19s, but could take ``a more creative'' approach with its SS-24s by taking them off military readiness and removing the codes aiming them at the US. Such disarming, however, should be accompanied by similar moves by the US and other nuclear states, he said.
US officials hope to convince the Ukrainians to return to their previous plan. ``Our aim is that Ukraine not only ratify START I, but also join the NPT,'' says William Miller, the US ambassador in Kiev.
Other than an already pledged $175 million in aid, Ambassador Miller does not say how the US intends to coax Ukrainian leaders, who have voiced frustration at what they view as insufficient US aid offers for the economically stricken country.
Mr. Christopher's visit marks a change in US policy toward the new state, Miller says, moving away from the single issue of disarmament to broader ties, including $300 million in economic aid.
But the ratification process itself will prove difficult, said Graham Allison, US assistant secretary of defense, on a recent visit to Kiev. ``While we believe nuclear weapons actually enhance Ukraine's insecurity,'' he said, ``I am afraid ratification risks a period of paralysis in parliamentary politics.''
A six-month political struggle earlier this year between Ukraine's conservative parliament, Kravchuk, and former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma resulted in Mr. Kuchma's resignation and a decision to hold early parliamentary and presidential elections in the spring.
Many lawmakers here voice doubts that the current parliament would reach a decision on disarmament before the March 1994 poll, particularly after the clashes in Moscow in early October between supporters of President Boris Yeltsin and forces loyal to the former parliament.
Many legislators here say that any renewed strife in Russia could spread to Ukraine, especially since leaders of the Russian opposition have often made territorial claims against parts of Ukraine.
Away from the political debate, people in Pervomaiske, such as Colonel Kuchkin, are mainly concerned about the future of the military base that has served as the city's chief source of livelihood since 1968, when the missiles were deployed.
The 43rd Army of the Strategic Rocket Forces, now a joint Russian-Ukrainian force, will be charged with safeguarding the dismantling process for the remaining SS-19s when Ukraine ratifies START I.
Ukraine and Russia have been locked in a prolonged tug-of-war over the fate of the dismantled warheads, now in a storage facility near the base. In a recent summit, Ukraine agreed to transfer the warheads to Russia for destruction in return for uranium, to be used for Ukrainian energy needs. But while Russia insists that the transfer begin immediately, Ukraine links the deal to its ratification of START I.
Meanwhile, the high concentration of warheads at the Pervomaiske storage facility recently caused an alarming rise in temperature in the area. Russia blamed the Ukrainians for the incident, saying they violated storage rules. The Ukrainian military has since begun preparation of a second storage site near Khmelnytsky, the central Ukrainian base where the country's remaining ICBMs are deployed.
This week, nuclear specialists from Ukraine and Russia finally signed a protocol on safety maintenance of the remaining missiles.
Nuclear experts must travel to Pervomaiske from Russia to perform dangerous maintenance work at the silos scattered across sprawling farmland.
The dismantling process, which takes two weeks for each rocket, begins at any given silo with careful removal of the warhead and its transfer along a country road, past vast fields of sunflowers and wheat, to a storage site not far from this town.
Then the highly toxic liquid fuel is extracted from the rocket and also moved along the same route to storage and potential reprocessing into chemical fertilizers.
Finally, the empty rocket, held in a gray container, is transported back to the base, where its interior is decontaminated.
Although used to living and working at ground zero, Kuchkin said his men must now adjust to the drastic political changes that will force him to decide whether to return to his native Russia, or stay in Ukraine.
``I guess I never imagined I'd ever be showing this silo to Americans,'' he said. ``But I guess I could never have imagined any of this.''