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NEWS ANALYSIS : Ukraine Faces New Challenge: Affirm Old Ties

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence from the Soviet Union, breaking with decades of failed socialism and centuries of Russian domination, the priority for their newborn nation-state will be to affirm many of the political, economic and security ties it now has with its neighbors, primarily with the Russian Federation.

Ukrainian President-elect Leonid M. Kravchuk, chosen to lead his republic to independence, will be trying, in fact, to reshape the relationship that many of his people believed they were voting to end--a close coordination of policies with Russia, the perennial “big brother.”

But hard realities give him, and the Ukraine, little choice.

Even a country of the size of the Ukraine, larger than France and nearly as populous, remains a prisoner of its geography and history. And the Ukraine is handicapped by economic backwardness and political inexperience. Yet the ease with which Kravchuk can guide the Ukraine through an inherently difficult process will not only fashion this new state but frame what emerges more broadly from the ruins of the Soviet Union.

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Just as the Ukraine’s participation was central to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s plans to reconstitute his country as a “confederative state,” its decision to seek full independence will affect the course that other Soviet republics, most of all the Russian Federation, now choose.

Although Gorbachev continued to hold out hope on Monday for his proposed “Union of Sovereign States,” with his spokesmen declaring that the Ukraine’s vote for independence will now allow it to enter the new union on “a fully voluntary basis,” Kravchuk flatly told a press conference in Kiev that the process is “effectively at an end.”

Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin had already warned other republic leaders here last week that “until the Ukraine inks the political treaty, Russia will not sign it either.” And if the Ukraine left, Yeltsin told the newspaper Izvestia last week, “the situation for Russia will change radically” and its strategy will need to be rethought.

Russia does not intend, Yeltsin has made clear, to be maneuvered into a union with the impoverished republics of Soviet Central Asia so that Gorbachev can continue to preside over a central government while Russia’s wealth is drained away.

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Nor will Russia, a vast land stretching across the Eurasian land mass from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, tie its future to that of a much smaller nation that it regards as a country cousin without real understanding of the problems resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Let the Ukraine be “free as the wind” and pursue the course it chooses, Yeltsin said he had told the other republic leaders, but he added, “We will have to respond accordingly . . . not to be taken unawares.”

On Monday, Yeltsin declared Russia’s readiness to recognize the Ukraine’s independence, but a key adviser said the new relationship would be “as close or as distant, as trusting or as confrontational as the Ukraine wants it.”

“The Ukrainians have in their hands the fate of their nation, that of other republics of the former Soviet Union and of our neighbors in Europe,” the Yeltsin adviser said. “They have enjoyed their nationalism, but now let them think hard about what they say and do. Much depends on it.”

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Few of the nations to have won independence in the 20th Century--even those in Africa and Asia that emerged from prolonged colonial exploitation and bitter struggles for freedom--have entered into life with problems of the import as those that the Ukraine faces.

As a new military power in Europe with a nuclear arsenal larger than that of Britain or France, and with plans for an army bigger than Germany’s, the Ukraine will need to quickly declare its adherence to the major arms control accords--or risk confrontation with Russia, the rest of Europe and even the United States.

Yet Ukrainian officials arouse concern with almost every statement, including those meant to reassure. Once determined to become a nuclear-free state, the Ukraine now takes the position that it must negotiate with other nuclear powers over the withdrawal and destruction of the weapons, many of which are already covered by the U.S. agreement with the Soviet Union to reduce strategic arsenals.

The very borders between Russia and the Ukraine also must be agreed on. Gorbachev and several Russian leaders warned last week that Russia might seek to reclaim major areas, such as the Crimea and the industrial region around Kharkov, that were given to the Ukraine by the Kremlin. Border conflicts and civil unrest are quite possible, Gorbachev said, and establishing demarcated frontiers could itself prove to be very provocative.

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Even those Western nations, including the United States, that have declared their readiness to recognize an independent Ukraine are not sure where this new state begins and ends--and whether Russia agrees.

Amid the collapse of the Soviet economy, an alternative must be found to the economic union of former Soviet republics that the Ukraine agreed in principle to join but the terms of which it dislikes and wants to renegotiate.

Although the Ukraine objects to Russia’s domination of the pact, Russia is its biggest market and its biggest supplier and will likely remain so because of the economic integration that resulted from 70 years of Soviet central planning. And Yeltsin’s Russia is forging ahead with fundamental economic reforms, telling other republics to run if they want to keep up.

“If the Ukraine decides to break off ties with the economic union, we shall be building relations with it as a foreign state,” Ivan S. Silayev, the head of the Soviet Union’s transitional government, commented on Monday.

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That would mean goods would be sold to the Ukraine at world prices, without the present subsidies, and would have to be paid for in dollars.

“The Ukrainian economy is not ready for all these measures,” Silayev said. “The Ukraine will suffer heavy losses if it decides to isolate itself from other republics.”

The West, meanwhile, has warned the Ukraine in the bluntest of terms that it, like other former Soviet republics, must accept responsibility for the Soviet Union’s foreign debts; it faces a complete cutoff of credits in its future trade if it continues to hold out.

Agreement must also be reached on the fate of those Russians who might now want to leave their homes in the Ukraine and those Ukrainians living elsewhere in the Soviet Union who might want to resettle in their now-independent homeland. Millions of people could be involved in a massive exchange of population as Ukrainian nationalism gains in strength.

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Kravchuk on Monday declared emphatically that the Ukraine has become “an independent state based on the will of the people.”

“Its relations with others will be built on inter-state principles,” he told his press conference in Kiev, acknowledging that much depends on recognition by the West of Ukrainian independence and even more on the position that Russia takes. “They will be resolved,” he said of the pending and potential disputes with Russia. “But that depends not only on us.”

All this leads some Soviet officials to speculate that, after months of posturing, then negotiating, the Ukraine will agree to participate in a loose confederation like that proposed by Yeltsin--but with a veto for every member, not just Russia.

“The proclamation of independence does not necessarily entail quitting the union,” Silayev said, although it will take more time, less emotion and greater reason and common sense to form a new union. In the end, he said, “the people of the Soviet Union, linked by a common history and reality, will gather together and create a union in some form, and the Ukraine will be present.”

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