If the undertaking is kept, Europe will be spared the prospect of a nuclear war between Russia and Ukraine and there will be no increase in the number of nuclear states worldwide. But much is still unclear, including the precise timing of Ukraine's denuclearisation and the conditions of ratification, and serious doubts must remain about its effectiveness.
Ukraine itself has compelling reasons for not hurrying to dismantle the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union. Chief among them is a genuine concern for security that has only been compounded by the successes of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's so- called Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the Russian elections. Kiev had been warning for two years that Russian imperialism had not been vanquished with the disintegration of the USSR. But Ukrainian demands that its security fears be taken into consideration by Western leaders fell on deaf ears. Indeed, the wholesale pursuit of Russo- centric policies by the West only helped to swell Ukraine's nuclear lobby.
The second reason for doubt is that this is only the latest 'historic' deal relating to Ukraine's nuclear weapons. The last was reached at a Russia- Ukraine summit only five months ago, but it came to nothing. Will President Clinton's presence today make this agreement any more solid? Third, signing an agreement is only the beginning of the process. It still has to be ratified by Ukraine's parliament, which is wary of undermining Ukrainian security at a time of growing Russian threat, and is even more pro-nuclear than it was.
Fourth, even if parliament is persuaded to ratify the agreement by the mooted dollars 12bn in Western aid on offer, implementation could still not be guaranteed. Dismantling the weapons is likely to extend beyond 1996 - the year when Boris Yeltsin's term as Russian president ends. If a more nationalistic leader, not necessarily Zhirinovsky himself, were elected in his place, this would inevitably jeopardise the completion of Ukraine's denuclearisation.
The main concern, however, remains security. In Ukraine's view, the warning signs from Russia have long been evident. The Russian foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, recently claimed that the Crimean port of Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea fleet and a source of Ukrainian-Russian friction, had always been a Russian base - and would remain so. In July the Russian parliament voted to annex Sevastopol; only one deputy voted against.
Kozyrev has also admitted that there will be changes in Russian foreign policy to take account of Zhirinovsky's success. This will be 'because it is necessary to take account of the problems that came to light during the election and the mood of the people'. President Yeltsin's press spokesman outlined Russia's policies for 1994, saying an 'undisputed emphasis in foreign policy will be given to protection of Russia's national interests and the rights of Russians and Russian-speaking people . . .'
Long before the Russian elections, Russia was making vocal and persistent demands to be given UN and Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe mandates to undertake peacekeeping operations throughout the former USSR, a demand backed by the formation of a government agency to defend the rights of Russians living outside the Russian Federation. In October Kozyrev admitted that peacekeeping forces were particularly concerned not to 'lose geopolitical positions that took centuries to conquer' in the Near Abroad (the non-Russian republics of the former USSR).
Whenever the Russian foreign ministry demands the right to undertake peacekeeping missions to 'defend the 25 million Russians' outside the Russian Federation alarm bells ring in Kiev. Nearly half of this exile Russian community lives in Ukraine (including 1.5 million in the highly sensitive Crimea). The right to intervene militarily on behalf of these Russians is outlined in Russia's new military doctrine, which was favourably received by Western governments last year.
Ukraine is the 'jewel in the crown' for the rebuilding of a new Russian empire. Acceptance of Ukrainian independence would be the best guarantee that Russia had finally moved to a path of democratic reform and abandoned its imperialist heritage. As a test, Ukrainian leaders have called upon the new Russian parliament to annul its predecessor's vote to annex Sevastopol, but this seems highly unlikely.
Russia's inability to accept Ukrainian independence is deeply ingrained within the Russian leadership, including its leading democrats. Its territorial demands on Ukraine have been persistent and aggressive, and have encountered little criticism from the West. Moscow's unwillingness to accept the current Russian-Ukrainian frontier has prevented the signing of an inter-state treaty between the two countries. Russia has agreed to recognise the current frontier only if Ukraine remains within the Commonwealth of Independent States, which is unacceptable to Kiev.
If a conflict is to occur between Ukraine and Russia in future, it is likely to be ignited by events in the Crimea, Europe's next potential Bosnia. Zhirinovsky's LDP won the largest vote of any group among Russian sailors of the Black Sea fleet. Zhirinovsky has argued that 'Kuwait is to Iraq as Crimea is to Russia. Both should be back where they belong.'
The Russian election results gave greater credibility to those advocating a nuclear deterrent in Ukraine. They also demonstrated the urgent need for Ukraine's democrats and reformists to unite, or, at the very least, co-ordinate their efforts, in the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in March.
If, however, the existence of a Russian threat continues to place security questions at the top of the Ukrainian political agenda, the chances for reform will be damaged, because those who campaign for a strong Ukraine are by and large those less interested in economic reform. Although there is little likelihood of a war at this stage, Russia will probably continue its political shift to the right and increase pressure on Ukraine, in relation to energy supplies, integration into the CIS, and jurisdiction over Crimea.
In the aftermath of Zhirinovsky's election successes, the West urgently needs to forge a new set of policies towards Ukraine that will at last take into account its genuine security considerations, including its opposition to Russian peacekeeping forces and revival of empire. So far, Western policies have merely entrenched the national communist ancien regime in Ukraine, which could return to power in the country's parliamentary elections next spring.
Without a secure foreign environment, Ukraine's leaders will feel too insecure to implement the domestic reforms that are so urgently required. Any new Western policy should combine strong support for domestic reform with greater consideration of the country's justified security fears.
The author is director of the Ukraine Business Agency. His study, 'Russia-Crimea-Ukraine: Triangle of Conflict', is to be published on 24 January by The Research Institute for the Study of Conflict & Terrorism.
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