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Ukraine Nuclear Warheads Decaying and Dangerous

By Fred Hiatt
The Washington Post


Senior Russian generals, pressing for early fulfillment of an arms treaty brokered by President Clinton last week, said Tuesday that nuclear warheads in Ukraine are decaying and becoming increasingly dangerous.

Col. Gen. Yevgeny Maslin, chief of nuclear systems in the main directorate of the Defense Ministry, warned that Ukraine's storage facilities are overloaded and its nuclear weapons are not being properly maintained. He said the danger of an accident in handling or transportation increases daily.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk agreed during a meeting Friday with Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin to ship Ukraine's nuclear weapons to Russia for dismantling. But many Ukrainians, fearing what they see as resurgent Russian nationalism and imperialism, are reluctant to cede their arsenal.

Such fears are likely to increase following an assertion Tuesday by Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev that Russia should maintain a presence, including military, in former Soviet republics. Kozyrev said a Russian pullout would open the way for forces hostile to Russia to step into a "security vacuum," the Russian Tass news agency reported.

"We should not withdraw from those regions which have been in the sphere of Russian interest for centuries, and we should not fear the words" military presence, he said.

Kozyrev has generally been regarded as a liberal in international affairs who opposes Russian bullying. But in the wake of nationalists' strong showing in Dec. 12 parliamentary elections here, almost everyone across the political spectrum has been staking out more assertive positions in foreign policy.

The growth of Russian nationalism is certain to complicate Kravchuk's efforts to win approval for last week's agreement on nuclear disarmament.

The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 left Soviet nuclear weapons in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Ukraine Since then, Ukrainian leaders have promised to become nonnuclear, but resistance in parliament has stalled all disarmament efforts.

Tuesday, Maslin said there are about 2,000 nuclear warheads in Ukraine, including 1,300 for SS-19 and SS-24 intercontinental ballistic missiles and more than 600 for air-launched cruise missiles. Ukraine has 176 missile silos and about 40 nuclear-capable bombers, he said.

"The condition of nuclear safety in Ukraine continues to worsen," he said. "A moment may come when (Russian experts) will just simply refuse to accept such warheads for disassembly."

Ukrainian officials have denied that nuclear weapons on their territory pose an immediate danger. They also have accused Russians of exaggerating the risk for political purposes. But this week, falling in line behind Kravchuk, military and Foreign Ministry officials agreed that the weapons already pose some risks.