WASHINGTON -- The White House welcomed Ukraine's vote for independence and ordered a special emissary to Kiev this week to discuss what it termed "our future relationship" with the breakaway Soviet republic.
Administration officials said that Washington was "moving toward full diplomatic recognition" of the Ukraine but would first seek assurances on issues of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, human rights, existing international treaties, national borders and commitments to free market policies and fair trade.
Ukraine, according to Western specialists, is one of four "nuclear" Soviet republics. It is estimated to hold 15 percent of the former Soviet Union's 27,000 nuclear warheads -- a quantity second only to the Russian stockpile.
Ukrainian independence would create an instant nuclear power nearly the size of France, complete with existing territorial disputes and uncertain economic, diplomatic and human rights policies.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that the special emissary, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs Thomas Niles, would be seeking assurances on several of these issues when he meets with Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk later this week.
"This is a big, big issue -- given the size and the nuclear dimension -- one that distinguishes Ukraine from all the other Soviet republics, aside from Russia," said another administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said that the United States would try to work closely with other countries in the NATO alliance "to use our influence and ensure that we do this right."
There was "no sense of alarm," he said. "But there is a feeling that if something goes wrong, it could go wrong in a big way."
Before the referendum, and after the abortive August coup in the Soviet Union, Ukrainians said they intended to make their country a nuclear-free zone and to destroy the nuclear weapons on their territory instead of transferring them to other republics.
U.S. officials said yesterday that they intended to find out whether Mr. Kravchuk was still committed to this anti-nuclear stance. They also wanted to wrest commitments from Ukrainians on free market and fair trade policies, as well as to existing international agreements.
They said they would also try to help resolve a long-standing border dispute between Ukraine and Russia, to defuse a potential flash point.
Recognition of Ukrainian independence did not imply Russian recognition, they said, as Russia was not seeking independence.
Mr. Niles is scheduled to report back to President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III over the weekend or early next week. Mr. Baker himself has scheduled a visit to the Ukrainian and Russian capitals next week to carry the discussions further, administration officials said.
Ukrainian independence is widely seen as a telling blow for the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But U.S. officials said that recognition of Ukrainian nationhood would not spell the end of Washington's ties to the Soviet central government under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev -- particularly in regard to military, nuclear, foreign affairs and territorial issues concerning the union.
"The transformation of the Soviet Union as we have known it is of vital significance, not only to us but to our European and other allies, and we therefore will continue to coordinate our approach with them," said Mr. Fitzwater.