The agenda for this week's visit to Washington by Kazakhstan's President, Nursultan Nazarbayev -- as well as the one put forward earlier this month when Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk was in town -- includes a crucial national security issue.
After months of trying to pin down the two leaders on the future of the nuclear weapons left behind in their countries by the former Soviet Union, the United States finally persuaded Mr. Kravchuk, and very likely will succeed in convincing Mr. Nazarbayev this Tuesday, to make three very important commitments:
* To renounce nuclear weapons and to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state;
* To undertake, during the seven-year reduction period in the strategic arms treaty (START), to remove all long-range nuclear weapons from their territory; and
* To assume all the obligations of the START treaty.
Why are these commitments obtained from Ukraine's Mr. Kravchuk -- and to be sought from Kazakhstan's Mr. Nazarbayev -- so vital?
First and foremost, it is clearly in the national security interest of the United States not to allow any new nuclear weapons states -- apart from Russia -- to be created out of the former Soviet Union. Any country in possession of long-range strategic nuclear weapons, whatever its political character may be today, would represent a potential threat to the United States.
Moreover, acquiescing to the possession of nuclear weapons by these former Soviet republics would severely undercut U.S. efforts to convince other states, more politically mature and technologically advanced, to maintain their non-nuclear status.
Getting the Ukrainians and Kazakhs -- along with the Belarusans -- to publicly confirm their intent to remain non-nuclear and to sign the NPT has only been part of the battle. Over the past few months, both countries have sensed the leverage afforded them by the mere presence of nuclear weapons and have used this leverage to attempt to bargain with Russia and the West over their political ad economic future.
For example, on the eve of his trip to Washington, Mr. Kravchuk argued that before Ukraine would agree to eliminate its nuclear weapons, it "will need some [security] guarantees from the world community." And despite the deep-seated revulsion since Chernobyl with all things nuclear, some of the ultra-nationalists in the Ukrainian parliament want to keep these weapons as a counter to Russian designs on the Crimea.
Mr. Nazarabayev recently made the same request for security guarantees and linked the elimination of nuclear weapons on Kazakh soil to the elimination of all U.S., Russian and Chinese nuclear arms. He has also claimed that his country was "entitled to belong to the nuclear club," at least temporarily, because nuclear tests were conducted on its territory. And both leaders continue to view extensive Western aid as a quid pro quo for agreeing to relinquish nuclear weapons.
The best way to ensure that these three new republics honor their non-nuclear commitment is to remove the weapons from their territory. This would reduce the opportunity for misuse or misappropriation of these weapons by ethnic or political factionalists or by some future retrograde leadership.
And, by actually withdrawing these weapons, it will keep these nations from being viewed and potential nuclear rivals -- Ukraine and Kazakhstan would be the third and fourth largest nuclear powers in the world -- and make it easier for Russia and the United States to consider steeper reductions in their own long-range, strategic nuclear arsenals.
Finally, there is some utility in having Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus assume the obligations of START: it satisfies their desire to be treated as full-fledged parties to the agreement and it will impose on them full-fledged international responsibilities.
START has become the instrumentality for managing a whole complex of key security issues. It contains the pledge to join the NPT. It provides the basis for overall reductions in nuclear weapons. It establishes the seven-year time period for the removal of weapons from the outlying republics. And it opens the new republics to inspection by the United States.
Unfortunately, Mr. Nazarbayev's likely approval this week of the terms hammered out with the Ukrainians will not be the end of the story. The START treaty still has to be reviewed and approved by five parliaments: at best, the U.S. Senate will not begin to hear administration testimony until June and then will have to rush if it is to complete work on ratification before the elections.
In the meantime, the clock on the actual removal of strategic nuclear weapons doesn't actually begin until START enters into force. Even though the parties promise to join the NPT "at the earliest possible time," this process will take months, or even longer, to run its course.
Obtaining Mr. Kravchuk's and Mr. Nazarbayev's commitment to the NPT, to weapons removal and to START is critical, but it is just as critical to begin promptly to implement these commitments. Given the nature of events playing out within and among the former Soviet republics, the uncertainty of any long-term political undertakings, and the high stakes involved for the United States, the seven-year clock can't begin ticking soon enough.
Jack Mendelsohn, a former senior foreign service officer, is deputy director of the Arms Control Association, a public policy organization in Washington