Ukraine: No More Nukes

January 11, 1994

In the context of America's debate over policy toward Europe, chalk one up for the "Russia-firsters." Ukraine's agreement to get rid of all its long-range nuclear weaponry -- a breakthrough to be signed Friday in Moscow at the high point of President Clinton's overseas journey -- buttresses the argument that Russia must be a major player if there is to be peace in Europe.

Even as NATO diplomats labored to bring forth the Partnership for Peace proposal as a substitute for the full membership sought by Eastern European nations, administration negotiators kept working for the elusive nuclear accord with Russia and Ukraine. Now that it is virtually in hand, implementation of the two landmark START treaties to reduce strategic nuclear arsenals can begin at last.

Ukraine's willingness to give up the world's third largest nuclear weapons stockpile, which it inherited upon the breakup of the Soviet Union, also is a major leg up for the Non-Proliferation Treaty just one year before it is due for renewal.

In terms of U.S. security and vital interests, these nuclear goals rank higher than anything under deliberation at the NATO summit in Brussels.

On Bosnia yesterday, Mr. Clinton's warning that the alliance should really mean it before it threatens air strikes at Serbian forces trying to strangle Sarajevo reflects a lesson painfully learned. When the president first proposed air strikes last spring, France and Britain demurred lest their peacekeeping forces in former Yugoslavia be put at risk. With France now clamoring for tougher U.S. measures, the NATO summit soon revealed Paris is still against air strikes but wants U.S. ground reinforcements for U.N. peace-enforcement -- a step Washington rightly shuns unless the Serb, Croat and Muslim forces sign a peace agreement.

As for the Partnership for Peace proposal, it is taking shape only as a half-step toward future membership and full NATO security guarantees for the nations of Eastern Europe and, possibly, former Soviet states. While this is a disappointment to those who favor immediate membership, the administration's Russia-firsters led by Deputy Secretary of State-designate Strobe Talbott insisted the immediate enlargement of NATO would be an intolerable provocation to Russia. By nailing down the Ukraine accord, which was his special project, Mr. Talbott has advanced his cause.

Not only that; he has secured an agreement that includes Russia's acceptance of existing borders with Ukraine, a nation with historic reasons for fearing its huge neighbor. Whether this will be reassuring to other nations that have experienced Russian imperialism will depend on how President Boris Yeltsin contains the Zhirinovsky syndrome. On this, President Clinton will try to make a real contribution when he shows up in Moscow to sign the nuclear accord. It will underscore an American-Russian relationship that still remains -- as it was through the long Cold War -- the best guarantor of peace in Europe.

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