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U.S. Set to Forge Full Ties With Ukraine : Diplomacy: Baker will visit republic to discuss its break from Moscow. This signals new support for the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bush Administration said Monday that it is moving toward “full diplomatic recognition” of the Ukraine and announced that Secretary of State James A. Baker III will visit Kiev and Moscow next week to discuss the republic’s transition to independence.

Abandoning the restrained approach that the Administration had followed just days ago, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that “the United States looks forward to the kind of normal relationship with the Ukraine that one would expect it to have with a democratizing country.”

The announcement, signaling new support for the dismantling of the Soviet Union, came one day after Ukrainian voters expressed overwhelming support for independence from the Soviet Union. It was carefully crafted to demonstrate support for the Ukraine, tip the presidential hat to Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin and continue to show support for Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s struggle to retain a role for the central government.

In voicing strong support for an independent, resource-rich Ukraine, which would be one of the largest nations in Europe, the White House is stepping into a confusing world in which it is showing support for independent republics, while also calling for the sort of stability offered by a central government in the Kremlin.

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Four months ago, Bush warned legislators in Kiev against following “a suicidal nationalism based on ethnic hatred"--a comment widely interpreted as pressuring the republics not to secede, even as he said that the United States would not pick “winners and losers” in the emerging struggle.

Recognizing the shifts taking place, Fitzwater said that, in developing a relationship with the Ukraine, “we also intend to continue our cooperation with President Gorbachev and his government and to strengthen our expanding ties with President Yeltsin and the Russian government, as well as the other republics.”

Still, he said, “we obviously are moving toward full diplomatic recognition” of the Ukraine. That is a step for which there is no timetable, officials said, although one senior Administration official said: “I suspect it will come sooner rather than later.”

The next step will be a visit later this week to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, by Thomas Niles, assistant secretary of state for European affairs. His primary assignment, Fitzwater said, will be to:

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* Remind Ukrainian leaders to hold to “democratic values and practices, especially respect for human rights, including equal treatment of minorities.” The Ukraine, with 52 million citizens, is the second-largest Soviet republic, after Russia. But it has a sizable minority of ethnic Russians.

* Discuss Ukrainian adherence to arms control treaties signed by the Soviet Union and, in particular, to consider steps leading to the removal of nuclear weapons from Ukrainian territory.

* Review with the leaders there the Ukrainian commitment to the establishment of a free-market economy.

Each is an area that has led to varying degrees of concern among Bush Administration officials. “As you move toward recognition, there are things you’re smart to get on the table up front, and human rights is on that list,” said a senior Administration official.

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Among other problems on which the Administration is focusing, officials said, are those involving borders between the Russian Federation and the Ukraine, and the Ukraine’s role in paying back the Soviet Union’s foreign debt, now put at roughly $80 billion.

Reflecting a White House effort to gain wider-than-normal attention for its statement, Fitzwater’s opening comments on the Ukraine, read at the daily White House news briefing, were made available for television and radio broadcast.

In the comments, he said that the referendum and election in the Ukraine, in which former Communist Party leader Leonid Kravchuk has become president-elect, were “a tribute to the defeat of the coup in which Boris Yeltsin played such a pivotal role. . . .”

Bush spoke on the telephone with Yeltsin for about 35 minutes over the weekend, with Gorbachev for about the same amount of time, and in a third call with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the White House said.

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The President, the senior Administration official said, sees Russia as “pivotal to the future of whatever there is to the union and the Russia-Ukraine relationship is the most important relationship.”

The two republics are the most powerful, and wealthiest, of the remaining 12 republics of what is increasingly being called the former Soviet Union, as major ethnic areas seek to break away from the Kremlin in the wake of the unsuccessful coup last August.

“Independence raises some complex issues to be resolved among Russia, the Ukraine and the center,” Fitzwater said. “The establishment of a new cooperative relationship between Russia and the Ukraine, based on openness and mutual respect, will be a test of whether they are capable of making the transition to democratic societies, which respect the rights of individuals.”

This concern about the Russian-Ukrainian relationship, and the important role Yeltsin plays, is “the reason for the call and flagging him in the statement,” the senior Administration official said.

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