Ukraine's president said Thursday that the last short-range nuclear weapons in his country have been moved to neighboring Russia, putting to rest an issue that had worried U.S. officials for months.
"We have no more tactical nuclear weapons on our territory. They have all been transferred to Russia," Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk told a news conference. His announcement means that for the first time, all of the estimated 17,000 battlefield nuclear weapons amassed by the defunct Soviet Union are in Russian hands, a longtime policy goal of the United States.
U.S. officials had worried about the arms, which included short-range missiles, artillery shells and even nuclear land mines, because they are more portable--and less securely guarded--than the Soviet arsenal of long-range weapons.
Some officials worried that they could be moved without U.S. or Russian knowledge, either to be sold abroad or retained by Ukraine in case of conflict with Russia.
The fate of the arms had been a major irritant in relations between Moscow and Kiev, and the Ukrainian government had suspended the transfers at one point, demanding guarantees that the government of President Boris N. Yeltsin would not merely add the new weapons to the Russian arsenal.
Confusion over Ukraine's intentions persisted up through Wednesday, when Kravchuk denied a Russian announcement that the last tactical weapons had been moved. On Thursday morning, the Ukrainian explained that he didn't know the transfer was going so fast until his own defense minister informed him in a cable overnight.
Kravchuk said some tactical warheads are still in Ukrainian waters aboard the Black Sea Fleet, whose ownership is being negotiated between Russia and Ukraine.
He reaffirmed his commitment to destroy all long-range nuclear weapons in Ukraine as well and suggested he may seek U.S. assistance in setting up facilities to destroy the weapons.
McManus reported from Washington and Dahlburg from Moscow.