Ukrainians learn to love their bombs: Despite the Chernobyl legacy, Kiev now embraces nuclear warheads to guarantee its future, writes Andrew Higgins

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The Independent Online
THE Environment Minister, Yuri Kostenko, following the advice of an English-language ecology poster on his office wall - 'Think Globally, Act Locally' - explains what he sees as Ukraine's smartest local act of global thinking: keeping nuclear bombs. 'If there were no nuclear weapons on our territory the Russians would have done what they did in Georgia and Azerbaijan,' says Mr Kostenko. 'They cannot push us around like that.'

The argument, shared by a majority of Ukraine's political elite - and the public, according to a recent poll - contains a cruel irony of post-Soviet reality. Ukraine, victim of the world's worst nuclear accident in 1986 at Chernobyl, now embraces nuclear warheads to guarantee its future.

The Environment Minister, a former activist in the nationalist Rukh group, considers his first duty the survival of Ukraine as an independent country. And this means holding on to at least a portion of the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal until Kiev gets solid security guarantees and more than the dollars 175m ( pounds 118m) first promised by Washington. 'In the long run we shall be a non-nuclear state, but these weapons have been and still are essential.'

It is this logic that underpinned the Ukrainian parliament's conditional ratification of the Start-1 nuclear arms treaty on Thursday. The accord covers 130 of the 176 nuclear missiles stationed in Ukraine. These missiles, 20 of which have already been de-activated, must now be destroyed. But Ukraine will retain 46 SS-24 inter-continental ballistic missiles, the most sophisticated component of the Soviet strategic rocket forces, and warheads in Tupolev bombers. These, says Mr Kostenko, should 'stay on duty for the time being, like soldiers'. The Lisbon Protocol commits Ukraine to ridding itself of all warheads. Parliament, though, set stiff terms.

A survey last month by the Sociology Institute of the Ukrainian Academy of Science indicated majority support for this stand. At the same time, there is little interest in Ukraine declaring itself a permanent nuclear power: warheads are a bargaining chip, not to be squandered nor to be held for ever.

'It is a fact that attitudes to nuclear weapons, indeed to all things nuclear, have changed drastically in last two years,' says Konstantin Grishchenko, chief arms specialist at the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. 'The overriding concern used to be Chernobyl; you could hardly find anyone who would support anything nuclear.'

Helping to change this, he says, was Margaret Thatcher: 'She made a big impression; she opened our eyes. She said openly nuclear weapons were good for security. We wondered why should Ukraine be any different from Britain.'

The shift also reflects two sources of acute insecurity. One is Ukraine's economic meltdown - tumbling industrial production and a debased national currency now at 25,000 hryvna to the dollar.

The other is Russia, which is still seen as unstable and infected by imperial ambition. The Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, claims that Ukraine's warheads are falling apart and threaten a tragedy 'much worse than Chernobyl'. The exact state and status of warheads is confused. Ukraine has confirmed overheating at a SS-19 site in Pervoamaisk but deny anything as grave as Moscow generals have claimed. In July, it declared formal ownership of all Soviet warheads left on its territory.

The decision changed little: only Moscow can launch them. Even 'negative control' - the technical means to block a launch - remains beyond Kiev's reach.

President Leonid Kravchuk yesterday urged 'realism': 'If we cannot fully control these weapons and cannot replace or service them . . . we must get rid of them.' The Environment Minister disagrees: 'We do not control these weapons but at the same time they protect us. This is the paradox.'