FROM Ukraine's point of view, success or failure of the trilateral nuclear arms accord signed last month in Moscow depends on Washington.
For Moscow and Washington, the main importance of the trilateral document, which formalized for the first time a geopolitical triangle, is Ukraine's commitment to finally get rid of the 1,840 Soviet nuclear warheads stationed on its territory. To that end, the United States and Russia offered a combination of financial compensation, economic aid, and a broad assurance of Ukraine's security.
For Kiev, the key element is the last: the security guarantee.
Ukraine's threat to keep its nuclear weapons has always been motivated by its fear that it would lose its independence, either de facto or de jure, to its powerful neighbor and former overlord, Russia. It seeks to trade those weapons only for political, economic, and implicit military guarantees of its security.
In the Ukrainian view, such security ultimately comes from the involvement of the US, from the creation of a triangle in which the US can act as a balance to Russia's preponderate strength.
In return for US backing, Ukrainian officials argue that their huge nation of 52 million can be, in essence, the outer rampart of the West against the threat of Russian neo-imperialism, symbolized by the rise of Russian extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Europe's front line
``Ukraine is a barrier to the expansion of the Zhirinovsky phenonenon,'' says Anton Buteiko, foreign policy adviser to President Leonid Kravchuk. ``Only Ukraine with its resources can withstand that phenomenon. That is realized in Europe and I believe in the US, too.''
But the Ukrainian official is also careful to make clear that he does not want Ukraine to sit between the NATO alliance in the West and a renewed Russian empire in the East. ``We belong to Europe,'' Mr. Buteiko says.
Ukraine is eagerly joining the ``Partnership for Peace,'' the new form of association with NATO offered to the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
``The only country that can seriously change the situation is the US,'' says Ihor Derkatch, a member of the Ukrainian parliament's defense committee. ``If the US does not bring the countries of Eastern Europe closer to NATO, no one else can do it.''
While it is not yet realistic for Ukraine to seek full NATO membership, Mr. Derkatch says, it should urge a quick move in that direction for its neighbors: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. ``If NATO's border moves eastward, between Poland and Ukraine, then NATO's influence will be more serious in Ukraine,'' he says.
Ukrainian officials see several elements to the US role:
* As an arbiter in disputes with Russia over the dismantling, removal, and compensation for the nuclear weapons.
* As a provider of economic aid to give Ukraine some freedom from its dependence on Moscow.
* As a guarantor of the security and inviolability of Ukraine's borders.
The trilateral statement, signed on Jan. 14 by President Clinton, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and Ukraine's President Kravchuk, calls for the US and Russia, along with Britain, to issue a document of detailed security assurances, not only of frontiers but against ``economic coercion,'' as soon as Ukraine signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the final step in getting rid of its weapons.
``It is difficult to imagine the US will effectively protect the inviolability of Ukraine's borders,'' acknowledges Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk. ``But at the same time, this is a clear message that the territorial integrity of Ukraine is a matter for the US.''
Twice the aid
Ukrainian officials say they also got a clear signal from Washington, during the recent visit of an economic delegation, that more aid, a doubling of current levels, is on the way.
``They stated clearly to us that [the expansion of assistance] comes from the real interest and value of security of Ukraine for the US,'' says Buteiko, who participated in the delegation.
Ukrainian officials contend that after two years of lack of any real progress, the country is finally starting to embark on serious economic reforms. Because all information had been centralized in Moscow, it took that long for Ukraine to have any real idea even of what its economy looked like.
``Our bureaucrats, even in the state planning committee, were not aware of what was going on here,'' Buteiko says.
Matter of trust
But there is considerable skepticism in Ukrainian political circles, particularly among nationalist critics of the government, of the seriousness of the US commitment or its efficacy.
``How can you assist reforms when reforms are not taking place,'' retorts parliament deputy Serhiy Holovaty. ``I'm sure Ukraine will not receive this aid; if so, it will be peanuts, and it will pour into the sand with this government, with this president.''
Vyacheslav Chornovil, leader of the nationalist Rukh movement, accuses the US of still being locked into its ties to Russia, of only having an interest in preventing Ukraine from becoming a nuclear state.
``I don't notice a large step forward,'' he says.