Kiev 'ready to give up nuclear arms'

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The Independent Online
IN WHAT would be a success to lend crowning lustre to his current European trip, President Bill Clinton is apparently on the verge of securing a tripartite deal for the removal of all nuclear weapons from Ukraine, which could be signed at a 'summit-within-a- summit' when he travels to Moscow later this week.

According to a detailed report in the Washington Post yesterday, two days of negotiations here last week among senior US, Russian and Ukrainian officials yielded an agreement that would see the surrender by Kiev of the roughly 1,800 nuclear warheads on its territory within three years, in return for debt relief, financial aid, and a joint security pledge from the US and Russia.

If the last details of the accord can be knocked into place, there is intense speculation here that Mr Clinton will on Wednesday evening fly from Prague to Kiev, where he will meet President Leonid Kravchuk before bringing the Ukrainian leader with him aboard Air Force One to Moscow, for a signing ceremony with President Boris Yeltsin.

Vice-President Al Gore yesterday told the CBS News programme Face the Nation that reports of such an agreement were premature. 'There is not an agreement,' he said. 'We have been working for a long time with Ukraine and Russia to try to obtain an agreement. Intensive work is under way, but there is not a deal.'

If the speculation does prove accurate, Washington will have achieved one of its main post-Cold War arms-control ambitions - to ensure that only one nuclear power remained on the soil of the former Soviet Union. Belarus, which Mr Clinton visits on Saturday, and Kazakhstan have already announced they plan to be non-nuclear states.

According to yesterday's accounts, the agreement would cover both the estimated 1,240 warheads on former Soviet SS- 19 and SS-24 strategic missiles and 560-odd bomber-launched cruise missiles still in Ukraine, to which Kiev has clung despite repeated promises to get rid of them. Underlying its resistance has been the deep fear of its northern neighbour.

But virtual economic bankruptcy has forced Mr Kravchuk's hand. Under the agreement, Kiev will return all warheads to Russia over the next three years. In exchange, and starting at once, it will receive Russian-fabricated nuclear fuel rods for its power stations. In addition, Moscow has apparently agreed to write off much of the money it claims Ukraine owes it for previous deliveries of oil and gas.

In its turn, the US will pay Moscow in advance to begin delivery of fuel rods at once. The agreement also clears the way for substantial direct US financial aid to Ukraine - though officials here insist it will be well short of the dollars 2.2bn ( pounds 1.5bn) Kiev was seeking.

Equally, if not more important, are the security assurances Russia and the US are said to be providing jointly for Ukraine. This would neatly sidestep an earlier request from Kiev for a specifically US guarantee, turned down by Washington on the grounds it would be an overtly hostile gesture to Russia. Now both countries have undertaken that Ukraine's existing borders will not be changed without Ukraine's own approval.