Ukraine and Russia lock horns over nuclear arms: Kiev wants safety guarantees from the West, writes Tony Barber, East Europe Editor

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LESS than two years after declaring independence, Ukraine is locked in an angry dispute with Russia over nuclear weapons. Western governments are watching with concern, for the argument threatens to torpedo two far- reaching disarmament treaties between Washington and Moscow.

Like Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, Ukraine emerged as a nuclear power after the Soviet Union's break- up. Kiev says it does not plan to retain that status but wants international security guarantees to protect its independence. Dmytro Pavlychko, chairman of the Ukrainian parliament's foreign affairs committee, proposed in New York last week that Ukraine should give up its nuclear arms in return for a pledge by the world's other nuclear powers to respect Ukraine's independence and neutrality.

However, some Ukrainian politicians, ever suspicious of Russia, contend that Kiev should be in no hurry to give up its weapons. Parliament recently came close to adopting a military doctrine that would have conferred at least temporary nuclear status on Ukraine. Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, last month described certain Ukrainian attitudes as 'primitive and reminiscent of the Cold War'.

In 1991, about 15 per cent of the Soviet nuclear arsenal was based in Ukraine, making it potentially the world's third biggest nuclear power, with forces larger than those of Britain, France and China combined. The arsenal included 176 intercontinental missiles with 1,240 warheads and about 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons.

Since then, Ukraine has given up its tactical weapons. However, unlike Belarus and Kazakhstan, Ukraine has yet to ratify the 1991 US-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start 1). It has also failed to approve the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would confirm it as a non-nuclear state.

The United States is worried that failure to ratify Start 1 will derail the more ambitious Start 2 treaty signed by Boris Yeltsin and George Bush last January. If implemented, Start 2 would reduce US and former Soviet strategic nuclear arsenals by almost 75 per cent.

Ukraine's parliament had promised to approve Start 1 by the end of 1992, but the ratification debate was put off. Yury Kostenko, the head of parliament's commission on Start 1, suggested last month that it would be cheaper for Ukraine to keep its nuclear weapons. 'Latest estimates show that the disarmament process will cost about dollars 3bn ( pounds 1.93bn). What part of the state budget is this money supposed to come from?' he said. Because Start 1 contained no provisions for dismantling nuclear arms on Ukrainian soil, Kiev feared that the weapons might be deployed elsewhere. 'Start enhances the security of some states at the expense of others.'

Two sentiments frame Ukraine's approach to nuclear matters. The first is a fear that Russia will one day question Ukraine's borders, or even its right to independence. This fear is stoked by the dispute over who owns Crimea; the fact that one in five of Ukraine's 52 million people are Russians; and Russia's attempts to turn the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) into a closer union.

It does not reassure Ukrainians when politicians such as Viktor Aksyuchits, the leader of the Russian Christian Democratic Movement, question the Ukrainian identity. 'I am absolutely sure that Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians even today continue to belong to one great Russian nation, formed during our joint history on the basis of the Orthodox faith,' he said in January.

The second sentiment is frustration with the West. Ukrainian leaders complain that the West seems only to take notice of them because of the nuclear weapons issue. Leonid Kuchma, the Prime Minister, said last month that the West had provided insufficient economic aid to Ukraine and even a US offer of dollars 175m to demolish nuclear weapons was too low.

Paul Goble, a US expert on Soviet nationality problems, said that too much Western pressure might cause Kiev to keep its weapons. 'If they want to send a signal to the Ukrainians that they are isolated and nobody loves them and therefore they might want to think about how to defend themselves, this is a good way to do it,' he told the New York Times.