Beware of wishes

December 03, 1991

The Chinese have a proverb: Be careful what you wish for; it may be granted.

The overwhelming vote on Sunday of the Ukraine declaring independence from the Soviet Union no doubt represents the devout wish of unregenerate cold warriors who wished for the instant obliteration of the "evil empire."

In face of that vote, it is difficult to see how Mikhail Gorbachev can carry on any longer now that a major republic has chosen to cut its ties with the Soviet Union. But before we celebrate, let us consider a couple of loose ends that need to be tied up.

Not only do we have an instant new nation, but we also have an instant new nuclear power. Probably no one knows how many of the 30,000 nuclear warheads of the old Soviet Union still lie on Ukrainian soil, but no doubt the figure is substantial.

But is the world safer with nuclear weapons in the hands of Leonid Kravchuk, the old communist who was born again as a democrat and was elected president of the Ukraine, than in the hands of Mikhail Gorbachev? After all, Russia and the Ukraine have ethnic and religious differences that are potentially as explosive as those in Yugoslavia. And they have disputed borders as well. Add to this mix the economic interdependence of the two countries -- Russia has the oil, the Ukraine has the food -- and you have all the makings for trouble. Will that trouble culminate in the world's first war in which both sides have nuclear weapons? Is there any doubt that the Yugoslavs might have used nuclear weapons if they had had them?

Another question: Now that the Soviet Union is flat broke, who is going to pay its international debt obligations -- including debts to already shaky American banks? Will the Ukraine honor its part of the debt? Or will President Kravchuk simply say, "We didn't borrow that money, and we got none of it. If you want to collect, go to the people you gave the money to."

Yes, Gorbachev may soon be gone, but we suspect that it won't be long before the world longs for the day when he exerted as steady a hand as possible on the collapsing Soviet Union.

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