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Ukraine Vows to Cut Nuclear Arsenal, But Doesn't Say When

By Saul Friedman

KIEV, Ukraine

Promising the carrots of economic aid and a possible summit with President Clinton, Secretary of State Warren Christopher won a pledge from Ukraine's leaders Monday to give up the long-range nuclear weapons deployed here by the former Soviet Union. But they didn't say when.

Nevertheless, Ukraine and the United States Monday night signed an "umbrella agreement" that State Department officials said could lead to the removal of the weapons. The agreement calls for dismantling the 130 SS-19 missiles, among Ukraine's oldest weapons. Washington will make available $177 million in funds to help pay for the dismantling, along with $153 million in economic aid.

But Ukraine had already begun to dismantle these missiles, and Monday's agreement was not a commitment to give up the rest of the arsenal that has made Ukraine the third largest nuclear power behind the United States and Russia, each with about 8,000 warheads.

U.S. officials added, however, that Ukrainian leaders privately indicated they would end insistence on remaining a nuclear power if Washington provided compensation for the weapons and security guarantees against possible Russian expansion.

Ukrainian leaders have pointed to a combination of Russian instability and expansionism to explain their reluctance to become a non-nuclear power.

In the weeks leading up to Christopher's trip, Ukraine's government and parliamentary leaders had insisted that it would not give up all of its nuclear arsenal, which totals 176 missiles, holding 1,240 warheads, plus 42 bombers carrying 596 cruise missiles or bombs. Although they remain, for now, under Russian control and the Cold War is over, most of them are targeted on the United States.

But Christopher, struggling to make the best of the situation, stressed at a news conference that President Leonid Kravchuk had given him unambiguous personal assurances that Ukraine intended to abide by a 1992 agreement, calling for his country to dismantle the weapons and ship them back to Russia -- although he didn't say when.

The secretary also reported that Kravchuk Monday had sent to Parliament the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, as well as a recommendation to join the international 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as a non-nuclear state.

But Dmytro Pavlychko, chairman of the Parliament's foreign relations committee, told reporters after the meeting with Christopher: "We would keep our 46 SS-24s for seven years, 10 years or 20 years." Valentyn Lemish, chairman of the defense committee agreed. And Stephan Khmara, head of the Ukraine Conservative Republican Party, said, "I don't see a possibility of our security if we do not have nuclear weapons."

And although the legislators said the Parliament, called the Rada, might approve START, they saw no chance of joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"We would be in one moment a non-nuclear nation," Pavlychko said. "Events in Russia are developing in a very dangerous direction."

As for Kravchuk's private promise, he has said repeatedly in the past three years that Ukraine had no nuclear ambitions. But he has cited fears of Russia and has blamed Parliament, playing both sides and spinning out a delaying game.

One senior U.S. official suggested the delay had a financial objective.

Foreign Minister Anatoly Zlenko noted that the Ukrainian economy, suffering from 100 percent inflation per month, is near collapse. Hhe appealed to the the West for aid in getting rid of the nuclear weapons, estimating the process would cost $2.8 billion.

Other Ukrainians have asked for $5 billion for the enriched nuclear material in the weapons.

Washington has pledged help, but when Christopher heard this figure, an aide quoted the secretary as saying: "Are they talking rubles?"