MOSCOW -- The 30,000 nuclear weapons on the territory of the former Soviet Union will not fall into reckless hands, both Kremlin presidents, Boris N. Yeltsin and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, said yesterday.
The assurances went to Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who also met with Defense Minister Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov in a day that reflected the unsettling limbo into which the country has sunk.
He talked first with Mr. Yeltsin, as president of Russia and co-founder of the new Commonwealth of Independent States. Later in the day, he conferred with Mr. Gorbachev, who as Soviet president has an office but not a government or a country.
Marshal Shaposhnikov is commander of nuclear forces -- but appears to be neither quite Soviet nor quite Commonwealth at the moment.
Mr. Yeltsin also urged the United States to recognize an independent Russia, said Russia wanted to take over the Soviet seat on the United Nations Security Council and predicted that eventually Russia would be the only republic with nuclear weapons.
After meeting with Mr. Baker, Mr. Gorbachev told reporters, "There is [nuclear] control and nobody should worry about it."
But the issue of military command is one that the new commonwealth must deal with successfully or it could risk disintegration.
The key is Ukraine.
Just five days after the Minsk agreement creating the new commonwealth was signed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus, President Leonid M. Kravchuk of Ukraine declared himself commander-in-chief of the 1.2 million Soviet military personnel stationed in his country. He exempted nuclear forces.
Immediately, officers began questioning whether they reported to Marshal Shaposhnikov, in Moscow, or to Konstantin Morozov, the new Ukrainian defense minister in Kiev.
So far, apparently, no one has tested the issue.
But the question of nuclear control will force the leaders of the republics to deal with several questions.
The commonwealth pact declares that there will be joint control of nuclear forces, but it does not provide for a government structure to handle that control. The republics, particularly Ukraine, are fiercely jealous of their sovereignty.
That means that Marshal Shaposhnikov -- although he recognized political reality and appeared yesterday with Mr. Yeltsin, and not his putative boss, Mr. Gorbachev -- has no one in the commonwealth to report to.
Mr. Yeltsin, who becomes more gradualist every day, said yesterday that some of the structures of the old Soviet government would remain in place well into January, to ensure a smoother transition as their functions are parceled out to the commonwealth or the republics. The defense ministry would be one of these. But when control of nuclear forces moves to the commonwealth, that will force the creation of a commonwealth government.
Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze has urged Mr. Gorbachev not to resign just yet, and he said last night that he expects the commonwealth will evolve a "well-organized coordinating center."
Some reports suggest that Mr. Gorbachev would in fact be interested in heading such a center, despite his disclaimers last week.
Whether Ukraine would go along with a new central government, especially one with a place for Mr. Gorbachev, is not clear.
The second question the republics must deal with is how to define a nuclear force. Ukraine has asked the Soviet military leadership to come up with such a definition.
A high-level military delegation flew to Kiev yesterday for that purpose and, according to the Interfax news agency, is delivering the broadest possible interpretation. Because the navy is "nuclear-capable," because even infantry units can bear battlefield nuclear weapons, almost the entire military establishment in Ukraine would revert to central control under their definition.
There was no report as to Kiev's reaction.
On the one hand, Mr. Kravchuk has said he expects to pare down the Ukrainian army to one-tenth its current size anyway, or to about 100,000 men. On the other hand, the commonwealth pact is less popular in Ukraine than in either Russia or Byelarus, and a perception that Ukrainian sovereignty was being yanked away could deal the commonwealth a mortal blow.
Since the signing of the Minsk agreement, reports suggest that very different motives led Russia and Ukraine into the pact.
Ukraine was concerned about cementing its borders with Russia. For 300 years, until 1954, the Crimean peninsula was a part of Russia. Elsewhere, particularly in eastern Ukraine, the population always has been predominantly Russian.
Some of Mr. Yeltsin's aides, according to the Ukrainians' perceptions, still harbor hopes of a "Greater Russia." It was reportedly to keep that ambition in check that Mr. Kravchuk went to Minsk.