WASHINGTON -- The United States, in a significant policy departure, now plans to offer diplomatic recognition to the soon-to-be-independent Ukraine, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The administration, which long had sought to prop up the central government in Moscow, changed course after President Bush and his senior advisers, in a top-level White House meeting Tuesday, agreed that the tide of Soviet disintegration should no longer be resisted.
"The handwriting is on the wall," a U.S. official said in anticipation of an overwhelming Ukrainian vote for independence Sunday, "and we want to be able to help them manage the transition."
Under terms of a plan outlined by Mr. Bush to Ukrainian-American leaders yesterday, the administration, in an effort to ensure that the Ukraine fulfills its pledges on nuclear weapons security and other policies, might wait several weeks before making an official announcement.
Mr. Bush wants firm assurances that the Ukraine will destroy or remove the estimated 2,000 Soviet nuclear missiles on its territory, adhere to U.S.-Soviet arms treaties and seek economic and security agreements with Russia and its other neighbors, they said.
But senior administration officials, sharply divided over the issue a week ago, said yesterday that their ranks have closed around a policy that calls for the United States to move toward recognition "expeditiously."
The new approach, which the United States conveyed to its allies in the hope that they will embrace it, lays the ground for the rapid emergence of the Ukraine as Europe's newest and second-largest nation. It comes as a setback for Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and appears to doom any lingering hope that the Soviet Union can hold its 12 remaining republics together in a formal political confederation.
For the Bush administration, the change marks the abandonment of a deference to Moscow that had denied recognition to any breakaway republic unless its secession was endorsed by the Soviet central government.
In a signal of that departure this week, the administration simultaneously transmitted to Moscow and Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, the news that the Senate had ratified the U.S.-Soviet treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, an administration official said.
And in the White House discussions yesterday about the impending Ukrainian declaration of independence, the official noted, "there was no mention that this was any longer an issue between the center and the republics. The center is simply over."
"Action by Moscow is not a precondition for what we do," a State Department official added. "We're more interested in seeing how the Ukraine moves ahead on the issues."
The U.S. decision also appears to head off a threatened political mutiny by Ukrainian-American voters, whose 750,000 votes are a source of traditional Republican support but could have been lost to Mr. Bush if he had not reached out to the Ukraine.
Taras Szmagala, spokesman for the group that met with Mr. Bush yesterday, said the question of U.S. recognition had become the "political gut issue" for Ukrainian-Americans and pronounced himself "very
pleased" by assurances from the president.
The delegation was briefed only in general terms about the change in policy, participants in the meeting said. But administration officials, speaking later, on condition of anonymity, detailed the shift that Mr. Bush and his senior advisers agreed to Tuesday.
"We will recognize them," one official said, "and it will be sooner rather than later."
The United States will salute the Ukrainian declaration of independence after the vote Sunday, will quickly expand its contacts with the Ukraine government immediately afterward and probably will move to full rec
ognition within a month, the officials said.
One administration official said there would be no conditions attached to such recognition. But he and other sources said the delay in a formal announcement would encourage the Ukraine's new leaders to fulfill the pledges on arms control and arrangements for the Russian minority populations within their republic's borders.
In particular, White House officials said, the United States hopes to see evidence that the Ukraine will not move to become a nuclear power and will adhere to U.S.-Soviet arms control treaties.