WASHINGTON -- Facing the prospect of a Ukrainian vote for independence Dec. 1, a deeply divided Bush administration is struggling to come to grips with a disintegrating Soviet Union whose vast nuclear arsenal is moving inexorably out of tight Kremlin control.
The vote is expected to sever the second-largest republic from the Soviet Union. And the National Security Council staff is spearheading a major review of policy toward the Soviet Union.
Until now the State Department has been seeking to preserve relations with central authorities while the Pentagon is leaning toward independence-minded republics. White House officials, mindful of President Bush's loyalty to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, are sitting on the fence.
"When it comes to assessments of the Soviet Union, we've been remarkably all over the map," a senior administration official said, predicting that the review "is guaranteed to be confused. We won't speak with one voice."
Of paramount concern to the administration is the fate of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, still under the control of Kremlin authorities whose power and sources of funding are diminishing.
The stance articulated by the White House and State Department continues to be that the arsenal should remain NTC under the central control of longtime nuclear specialists. Officials have expressed a deep fear of newly emerging republics becoming nuclear powers.
But in the Pentagon at least, that stance is giving way to a more positive view of a diminishing nuclear force whose control is shared by a collective authority in which the Ukraine would have a voice.
"As long as there are weapons on Ukrainian soil, the Ukrainians have a legitimate interest" in arrangements for their possible use, a senior U.S. defense official said in an interview last week.
In testimony Nov. 13 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. David E. Jeremiah, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "I think it's in our interest to see [the nuclear arsenal] under the collective control of a single authority.
"But I do not believe that pushing to have them all withdrawn to Russia, and all put under Russian control, in effect establishing a Russian monopoly, is the right way to go about that. I think pushing them all into some kind of collective mechanism [has] got much greater chance of success."
Giving the Ukraine a voice in forces already on its territory, said a senior defense official who declined to be identified, is different from allowing an independent nuclear power to emerge.
The Pentagon may just be bowing to the inevitable. Already, negotiations are under way among the Soviet Defense Ministry and leaders of Russia and the Ukraine in which the Ukraine is seeking a share in nuclear command and control, a role in negotiations over removal of nuclear weapons from the republic and a veto over their use on its territory, according to Bruce Blair, a Brookings Institution authority on Soviet nuclear weaponry.
Mr. Blair said the negotiations will lead to the Ukraine getting the capability to block physically the launch of nuclear weapons from its territory. He said this week that U.S. officials have been in contact with Ukrainian officials in the course of their negotiations with Soviet and Russian leaders.
"We're being apprised of developments and meeting with people involved," Mr. Blair said. "Authority and control over nuclear weapons is going to be shared."
Separately, Deputy Defense Secretary Donald Atwood, along with a group of U.S. industrialists, has dealt directly with Ukrainian officials on conversion of defense industries to civilian uses.
While the prospect of independent republican armies has alarmed administration officials who fear future instability, some senior officials are more sanguine.
Noting that Ukrainian leaders say they want to abide by troop limits set under the conventional forces treaty with the United States, Paul Wolfowitz, undersecretary of defense for policy, says even a 400,000-man Ukrainian army shouldn't be viewed "in alarmist contexts."
"By and large, what these leaders are talking about is if they become sovereign countries, they insist on having means of self-defense," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"But if you look at what they're actually talking about in terms of size of armed forces, the consistent theme is, 'We have far too much now, far in excess of reasonable needs of legitimate defense, at levels that in fact jeopardize economic success.' And I think they all want to come down."
Beyond the overriding military concern, the administration review trying to grapple with various scenarios that could grip the splintering former superpower in the next four to six months.
These include "any kind of possibility," including continuation of a union, a reversion to totalitarianism, or total independence of individual republics, one source said.