Zealot for the bomb defends Ukraine: A post-Soviet era 'Dr Strangelove' is passionate about maintaining his country's status as a nuclear power, writes Andrew Higgins from Kharkov

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The Independent Online
IF or, as seems likely, when Ukraine declares itself master of the world's third biggest nuclear arsenal, it will be due in large measure to the zeal of Lieutenant General Vlodymyr Tolubko, Dr Strangelove of the post- Soviet age.

That, at least is how Washington and Moscow see him - and also how the 44-year-old general, formerly a senior officer in the Soviet Union's Strategic Rocket Forces, likes to see himself.

'I look at this positively,' he says, sitting in the officers' block of the Kharkov Military University, focal point of an accelerating pro-nuclear campaign in Ukraine. 'If they criticise me, then I am doing something good for my country. Its interests are more important than those of the United States.'

Ukraine's paramount interest, he says, is to gain control of at least some of the Soviet nuclear weapons on its territory: 'We cannot reject our nuclear status. No country has ever renounced the nuclear weapons it had.' For Ukraine to do so would be 'crazy' or, at best, 'naive'.

He boasts about the talents of his staff of 640 scientists - experts in computers, electronics, electro-magnetics and dozens of other fields. Their skills could enable Ukraine to defeat complex blocking devices, crack Soviet codes and shift control of a formidable stock of nuclear arms away from Moscow: 'I think our scientists and the staff of our military industrial complex are capable of solving any complex technical task.'

Ukraine enjoyed a unique position in the Soviet nuclear network. Other republics had nuclear weapons, but only Ukraine was considered loyal enough to be entrusted with knowledge as well as hardware.

To share this know-how, Moscow set up the Krylov Higher Military Command and Engineering School in Kharkov, 400km (250 miles) east of Kiev, one of four Soviet institutes for nuclear-missile launchers. Renamed and reorganised last year, it is part of Gen Tolubko's Military University. Also in Kharkov is Monolith, a once secret factory that manufactures electromagnetic locks for warheads. It is these devices that Ukraine must break or circumvent if it wants to become a nuclear power independent of Moscow.

Like the President, Leonid Kravchuk, and other Ukrainian leaders, Gen Tolubko was, until two years ago, a loyal servant of the Soviet Union and a champion of Communism. He has dumped both. He has a seat in the Ukrainian parliament and is a vocal advocate of nationalism.

But the habits of the Cold War run deep. Gen Tolubko, short, balding with a mild tic that twists his mouth into a constant snarl, has spent his whole career training for a nuclear showdown with the US. Ukrainian by nationality, he studied in Moscow's Dzerzhinsky Military Academy and General Staff College. His loyalty proved, he was posted to the front line of Cold War confrontation: command over a nuclear missile division in Pervomaysk, south Ukraine.

He still mocks the US and avoids criticism of Moscow, normally the preferred target for converts from Communism to Urkainian nationalism. A world map hanging on the wall shows the Soviet Union intact, its endless mass, Ukraine included, still marked by a vast, uniform expanse of pink. How did the end of the empire affect him? 'It required a certain restructuring of our thinking.' More passionate is his faith in nuclear bombs. 'I want to defend my country. The best way to do this today is with nuclear weapons.'

Propaganda boards around his college have been scrubbed clean of red paint and redone in Ukrainian yellow and blue. Bons mots by Lenin have been replaced by the text of Ukraine's new military oath. But on a brick wall above the central courtyard used for drilling cadets, reads one slogan from the old days Gen Tolubko wants preserved: 'To serve the rocket forces is a duty full of honour and respect.'

Nuclear bombs left on Ukrainian territory include 130 SS-19 missiles and 46 SS-24s, a more modern missile manufactured in Ukraine. Together they have a total of 1,240 warheads. Also up for grabs are the 600 or so warheads of Soviet strategic bombers based in Ukraine. All are controlled from Moscow, which promises to consult Kiev about their use. Such a pledge, however, is worth little. Ukraine's Environment Minister, Yuri Kostenko, another pro-nuclear campaigner, says: 'At the moment, Yeltsin can push the button without asking anyone.'

The problem was to have been solved by the removal of all warheads from Ukraine. Last year Kiev promised to give up all its nuclear bombs and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state. But that promise is crumbling. Gen Tolubko is delighted. He has little faith in diplomats or politicians, though he does have a soft spot for Baroness Thatcher, admiring her sense of realpolitik. 'Your former great political leader, Margaret Thatcher, said that nuclear weapons are a deterrent. Your current leaders say the same. Why should Ukraine think otherwise?'

He sniffs at Western security guarantees. 'I think it is naive to think about security with the help of somebody else's guarantees. History shows that such guarantees end in disaster.'

An increasing number of prominent Ukrainians agree. Recent converts include the Prime Minister, Leonid Kuchma, and the parliamentary chairman, Ivan Pliushch, both of whom suggest keeping at least some warheads, possibly the SS- 24s, for a few years.

To prevent Moscow from launching its missiles, Ukraine must tamper with elaborately coded locks. Such 'negative control' in itself presents little danger. What worries Washington and Moscow, though, is that it would put Ukraine within reach of 'positive operational control' too - the ability to target and even launch Soviet missiles. Gen Tolubko refuses to comment on whether such work is under way.

He does not doubt that Ukraine should and can become an independent nuclear power. 'All the data regarding production, location and specifications (of nuclear weapons) were given to the Americans during the Gorbachev years. I think that experts having all this data available can draw a conclusion that Ukraine has qualified specialists who are capable, technically, of solving these scientific tasks. They are capable of solving very difficult scientific tasks.'

(Photographs and map omitted)