To many Ukrainians, nuclear disarmament deal looks more like surrender

January 14, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Here in Russia, politicians describe their nation's changing relationship with Ukraine as a friendly embrace growing pleasantly warmer.

Ukrainians, however, look northward and see Russian arms open for a bear hug that can lead only toward suffocation.

In agreeing to nuclear disarmament -- in a document to be signed here today -- Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk was accepting the inevitable:

Ukraine gets money from the United States to avert economic disaster and cheap fuel from Russia to keep its power plants running, but Russia gets the upper hand.

Though Russia gets what it wants -- a nuclear-free Ukraine -- it could only do so with the help of the United States, not an entirely palatable idea to many nationalists here.

Pravda, the former newspaper of the Communist Party in Russia, wrung its hands at the idea that "two fraternal nations cannot come to terms without U.S. mediation."

Thus the landscape shifts in the post-Cold War years, and it's more than a little ironic that the end of the Cold War finds the United States bolstering Russia so it can once more dominate its region.

"Russia and the United States must work together to build a new future for Europe," President Clinton told Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin yesterday.

For Ukraine, which joyfully turned its back on Russia when it declared independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, these are bitter days.

"Ukraine will be relegated to the backyard of the world community," said Vyacheslav Chornovil, leader of the nationalist Rukh movement and a member of the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada.

Such feelings make it quite possible that Mr. Kravchuk will not be able to get parliament to endorse his agreement with the United States and Russia.

Although many Ukrainian lawmakers, including some moderates, are complaining that they were not told about the agreement and that it represents capitulation to Moscow and Washington, Mr. Kravchuk and his allies argue that the inevitable must be accepted.

"It is in the interest of both Ukraine and the United States," said Vladimir Grabin, a member of the parliament. "I think the parliament of Ukraine has become wiser. It is time to reconsider our decision."

Whether Ukraine goes along quietly or not, it is clear that Russia is managing to reassert itself over its neighbors.

The Commonwealth of Independent States, which succeeded the Soviet Union, was established as an organization of equals. Russia has steadily advanced itself as more equal than the others.

In Georgia, which refused to join the commonwealth, Russia aided rebellion until Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze was forced to beg for membership in return for Russian help -- and his nation's survival.

In the case of Ukraine, which joined the commonwealth if only to keep an eye on its giant neighbor, Russia began charging world prices for oil that Ukraine had always bought cheaply. Russia supplies 96 percent of Ukraine's energy needs, and the sudden drain on the economy, complicated by politicians who have been unable to agree on reform, has meant near-collapse in Ukraine. The money is nearly worthless, and there's little to buy in the stores.

This winter Ukraine has been so short of heat that on a Sunday in December it brightly declared a new holiday -- the Day of Power Engineers. This meant that energy workers got the day off, consumers got a day off from heat and electricity and Ukraine won a short postponement of a fuel disaster.

"This time of year, Ukraine feels the lack of fuel deeply," said Vassily Selyunin, a Russian political analyst. "That's why they are making concessions. When spring comes, they will try to find all possible ways not to stick to the agreement."

Still, without Mr. Clinton's offering sweet talk and dollars, it is unlikely Mr. Kravchuk would have agreed to give up his nuclear weapons. It would have been politically impossible for him to agree to requests simply from Russia, which is seen in Kiev as a predator only temporarily at bay.

"We have a sense of imminent threat," Konstantin Hrischenko of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a recent interview. "No one can say what kind of government Russia will have next."

Mr. Selyunin said that Russia is a natural power in the region. It is big, and it has more industry and natural resources than its neighbors.

But any hopes of Ukraine's developing trust for its giant neighbor were destroyed by the strong showing of the ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky in the recent Russian election, he said.

"His party is threatening not only the whole world but Ukraine in particular," Mr. Selyunin said. "That is why Ukraine is afraid to lose its nuclear weapons."

Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of Russia's Communist Party, accused Mr. Yeltsin's government of worsening relations with Ukraine by an inept foreign policy. "It has slipped their mind that if we go on ruining links with Ukraine, the process will be irreversible," he said.

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