WASHINGTON -- Ukrainian President Leonid M. Kravchuk, signaling a new willingness to give up his country's nuclear arsenal, said last night that Ukraine and the United States now agree on ways to implement an arms treaty signed by the former Soviet empire and Washington.
"I have sent a letter to President of the United States George Bush where we informed him of our stand, our position on the issue, and I understand all the provisions coincide with the stand taken by the United States," Mr. Kravchuk said shortly after arriving in Washington for his first visit as president.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III refused to confirm that a deal was imminent. Standing alongside Mr. Kravchuk, he said he had not yet had a chance to discuss the letter to which the Ukrainian referred.
However, he did say he was "optimistic."
President Bush and Mr. Kravchuk are scheduled to meet today, and disposition of the nuclear weapons Ukraine inherited from ,, the Soviet Union tops their agenda.
Mr. Kravchuk's statement yesterday strongly indicated a breakthrough in prolonged negotiations, paving the way to ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) -- the basis for slashing long-range nuclear weapons belonging to the United States and the former Soviet Union.
Ratification has been severely complicated by the breakup of the Soviet Union, creating in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan three nuclear-armed states demanding a role in implementing START.
The United States has insisted that Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan move ahead with previous commitments to relinquish all their nuclear weapons to Russia, where the missiles would be stored or destroyed according to START. Washington also wants the three new states to become non-nuclear signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In the hours leading up to Mr. Kravchuk's arrival, U.S. officials hadplayed down the prospects of an agreement, indicating that Ukraine had thrown up last-minute objections.
Mr. Kravchuk had previously demanded an exchange of security guarantees against Russian aggression, similar to those of NATO members, for the movement of Ukraine's nuclear arsenal. The United States has refused to agree to the demand.
U.S. officials warned Ukraine that not only the character of the visit but the strength of relations between the two countries depended on Ukraine's nuclear cooperation.
Arms control experts have said that if the United States and Ukraine could agree, Belarus would fall into line. Then, with Russia's help, pressure could be brought to bear on Kazakhstan, the lingering holdout.
The Bush administration had hoped to wrap up an agreement to implement a strategic weapons accord before Mr. Kravchuk's arrival last night and prevent a pall from being cast over his visit.
If a deal in fact is imminent, the visit could proceed as the start of a strong relationship. U.S. officials recognized that they ignored Ukraine for too long early this year while focusing on ties with Russia.
Mr. Kravchuk is to spend much of today meeting with President Bush in what is intended to be a chance to build a personal relationship. He will also meet further with Mr. Baker and with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.
Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan have resisted allowing Russia to be the sole party to ratify the START treaty, which was signed when the Soviet Union still existed.
Bush administration officials fear that without agreement on implementing START, the Russian aid package now before Congress, already a challenge to get through in the current anti-foreign-aid climate, could become bogged down as lawmakers seek to tie aid directly to START terms.
Drawn-out negotiations with the republics, in addition, could imperil prospects of getting START ratified by the Senate this year.
Yesterday, Mr. Kravchuk also opened his country's first embassy in the United States. With Mr. Baker at his side, the Ukrainian leader cut a yellow and blue ribbon to open the embassy near the White House.