KIEV, Ukraine -- After a Moscow summit shadowed by fighting in Chechnya and quick criticism from Republicans in Washington, President Clinton flew to Ukraine yesterday for a little uncomplicated cheer and mutual congratulation.
The United States' relations with Ukraine have recently taken a sharp upward turn, and the president and his team seemed happy to flaunt the improvement -- and also send a message back to Moscow, a reminder to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin that Russia isn't the only player in the region.
Mr. Clinton spent the day meeting with Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma in the baroque Maryinsky Palace, a former haunt of the Russian czars.
At the end of their session, the two presidents announced that the United States would give Ukraine extra technical and financial assistance to help disarm its nuclear weapons and to convert defense plants to civilian use.
According to aides, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Kuchma devoted their time complimenting each other on Ukraine's economic reforms and its steps toward nuclear disarmament, and on American assistance and security policies.
"This was not a visit for heavy lifting," said Anthony Lake, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser.
Kiev seemed dressed for a holiday -- the streets festooned with banners, American and Ukrainian flags, and posters welcoming the American president, all amid the city's chestnut trees.
The president was traveling with Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, and they came out of yesterday's meetings brimming with admiration for their host.
Mr. Clinton said Ukraine's economic reform program was making "extraordinary" progress. "I am here to reaffirm our country's strong support for your courage and vision," he said.
The praise, particularly for economic reform, may be a bit premature.
Mr. Kuchma has indeed endorsed a reform plan, but real change hasn't yet been felt. Nor has Mr. Kuchma won over his many opponents in the Ukrainian Parliament.
Average income here is far below even what it is in Russia, industrial production is still falling and the local currency has lost most of its value.
The Ukrainian karbovanet, 3,000 to the dollar two years ago, now stands at 150,000 to the dollar. Lunch for two costs a couple of million.
Mr. Kuchma said he hopes to see the Ukrainian economy begin to turn around by the end of the year.
But even if that should happen (and there are plenty of skeptics) that would still put Ukraine 12 to 18 months behind Russia and in the position of trying to recover from a much deeper depression.
But Mr. Clinton and his aides want to see Mr. Kuchma's reforms become reality, and the praise they offered might be seen more as encouragement than congratulation.
Ukraine has become the United States' fourth-largest aid recipient, due this year to receive $700 million. Only Israel, Egypt and Russia receive more.
The two sides also discussed military and security issues, where Ukraine is unable to take bold steps and where the United States has less to offer.
This is because Ukraine's most important security problems have to do with Russia, and in particular with the Black Sea Fleet, claimed by both countries.
Mr. Kuchma knows he must get along with Russia and is anxious not to offend it, so has made clear that he doesn't want the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expanding into central Europe a way that would anger Moscow.
He said yesterday he wished he could have relations with Russia similar to those Canada has with the United States.
Among Mr. Clinton's senior aides, the only expressions of unhappiness were directed at Republicans back in the United States, especially at Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who asserted that the summit with Mr. Yeltsin had been a failure.
The Republican presidential candidate's criticism of the summit's outcome was called groundless by Secretary of State Christopher, who added that while progress on a number of difficult issues was not dramatic, the summit should not be scored like a baseball game.
"You know, in my generation there was an old-fashioned custom that Americans did not criticize the president when he was abroad," Mr. Christopher said. "The thought was in those halcyon days that there would be time enough when the president returned home to as sess his performance."
Before arriving in Kiev yesterday morning, Mr. Clinton met in Moscow with 10 Russian legislators and regional officials, many of them rivals to President Yeltsin.
The two-hour talks marked the first time a U.S. president has held formal talks with such a wide range of Russian opposition politicians.
Grigory A. Yavlinsky, a prominent reformer and presidential candidate, sat next to Mr. Clinton and warned him of growing authoritarianism, citing the unpopular war in Chechnya.
"I told President Clinton that we only have one of the two components of democracy in this country," he said after the meeting at Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. ambassador. "The people and the press can freely say whatever they like, but the authorities can do whatever they like."
Mr. Clinton told them he was impressed with the commitment of most Russian political leaders to continued reforms and to holding scheduled elections for Parliament in December and for president in June 1996.
Yegor T. Gaidar, the former prime minister who broke with Mr. Yeltsin over Chechnya, said he warned Clinton of a growing tendency in Russia toward confrontation.
He urged him to resist those in both countries who, seeking to profit from a renewed arms race, would like to return to Cold War hostility.