Kravchuk agrees to rid Ukraine of nuclear weapons: Visegrad Four sink their differences to adopt US proposals that open the door to possible Nato membership

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine last night confirmed a deal that would rid the former Soviet republic of nuclear weapons but said the Ukrainian parliament still had to approve the agreement, something legislators have steadfastly refused to do in the past.

Speaking at a joint press conference at Kiev's Borispol Airport with the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, Mr Kravchuk declared nuclear weapons the 'most urgent problem in the world' and added: 'Ukraine will carry out its obligations and will not become a country that stands in the way of nuclear disarmament.'

A formal accord, he said, would be signed in Moscow tomorrow by Ukraine, Russian and the US, the target of the bulk of Ukraine's SS-19 and more advanced SS-24 nuclear missiles. But he also suggested that legislators in Kiev might still throw up obstacles. He called on them to be 'more clever' than in the past, saying: 'You cannot step in the same river twice.'

Ukraine has agreed twice before to give up its nuclear weapons - when it signed the Lisbon Protocol two years ago and when Mr Kravchuk met the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, for a summit meeting last summer. In both cases the commitments quickly dissolved.

Yesterday marked Mr Kravchuk's first public confirmation of an assertion by Mr Clinton on Monday that Kiev had again promised to give up the 1,700 Soviet warheads stationed in Ukraine on missiles and bombers. Mr Clinton stopped off in Kiev last night on his way from Prague to Moscow, the penultimate leg of a European tour dominated by Nato and nuclear weapons.

Mr Clinton hailed Mr Kravchuk's 'courageous decision' and said Ukraine would be invited to link up with Nato under the terms of the Partnership for Peace (PFP) offered to the states of Eastern Europe. This arrangement provides for joint training and other co-operation but does not involve a mutual defence pact like that shared by full members of Nato.

Details of the nuclear accord, thought to involve substantial promises of hard currency compensation, remain sketchy. Mr Clinton promised a 'substantial increase' in US aid and 'significant support and investment' from other western countries. No figures were given.

The Ukrainian parliament last summer declared formal ownership of all nuclear weapons left behind by the Soviet military and, in a separate decision in November, attached a string of stringent conditions to ratification of the Start-1 disarmament treaty covering older missiles in its arsenal.

There are few signs yet that legislators are ready to relinquish what many Ukrainians regard as their best protection against Russia and most effective diplomatic bargaining chip. If anything, the case for keeping nuclear weapons has grown stronger, with fear of Russia intensified by the electoral successes of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The catastrophic state of Ukraine's economy, however, could force a change of heart.

Before arriving in Kiev, Mr Clinton succeeded in persuading the leaders of Central Europe to endorse his PFP initiative as a first step towards their possible integration into Nato.

Speaking in Prague after a flurry of meetings with the leaders of the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, Mr Clinton said that there was no longer any question of whether Nato would expand - but simply when and how. Asked, furthermore, whether he could imagine Nato standing by in the event of an attack on a Central European country, he said: 'I think it is doubtful.'

While the Central Europeans welcomed his words, they fell far short of the cast-iron security guarantees that their leaders had wanted. President Lech Walesa of Poland, the staunchest advocate of Nato membership for the so-called Visegrad group, bit his tongue sharply. 'Sometimes small is beautiful,' he said. 'This (PFP) is a step in the right direction. It has been decided by the powers of the world and we shall try to make good use of it.'

It was something of a volte face for Mr Walesa, who, until his meeting with Mr Clinton, had been denouncing as woefully inadequate the PFP proposals, under which former Warsaw Pact countries will enjoy limited military co-operation with their former Nato adversaries.

(Photograph omitted)