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A Great Deal, If It Can Be Done : Ukraine denuclearization would be a bargain for the U.S.

The Defense Department currently counts six nations with long-range nuclear strike capabilities. If the “hopeful and historic breakthrough” announced by President Clinton at this week’s NATO summit meeting in Brussels in fact is achieved, that list would shrink to five, as Ukraine became the world’s first state to voluntarily divest itself of its nuclear arsenal.

But note that all-important if. What exists so far after intense negotiations that have been going on since 1991 is a complicated agreement in principle reached by the leaders of the United States, Russia and Ukraine. Details remain to be worked out, but by any objective assessment the core deal clearly serves the interests of all three countries.

It is not, though, without its powerful foes, most threateningly in Ukraine’s own Parliament, which several times in recent months has blocked President Leonid Kravchuk’s moves toward denuclearization. The U.S. view is that Kravchuk can implement the deal by executive order. That view, unfortunately, is not likely to be shared by Ukrainian legislators. The deal, in short, is not yet done, and getting it done is now a matter of some urgency.

THE BEAST: For one thing, U.S. experts fear that the nuclear weapons that were inherited by Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed have not been well maintained--most of the maintenance specialists were Russians who have gone back to Russia--raising the possibility that catastrophic accidents could occur. The sooner, then, that those 176 land-based long-range missiles and 592 air-carried cruise missiles are dismantled and their warheads transferred to Russia for reprocessing into nuclear fuel, the safer all the parties involved will be. That most definitely includes the United States, which, end of the Cold War or not, is still the place the land-based SS-24 and SS-19 missiles are pointed at.

There are also powerful political and economic reasons for moving speedily to begin dismantling Ukraine’s arsenal. The country, tottering under the twin blows of soaring inflation and a shrinking economy, desperately needs help from outside. The deal on dismantling its nuclear weapons offers that help, providing hard-currency payments from international sales of the nuclear material that the Ukrainians would deliver to Russia for reprocessing into reactor fuel. One not unrealistic fear in Washington has been that economic desperation might tempt Ukraine to sell part of its arsenal to other countries. Dismantling Ukraine’s weapons thus serves the cause of non-proliferation twice over.

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THE BEAUTY: For the United States the cost would be reasonable enough--$175 million already agreed to for dismantling the weapons and a probable doubling of the $155 million in economic aid budgeted for this year. That’s a small price to pay for eliminating the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal.

But it has to be emphasized again that an agreement in principle is still some distance away from becoming an agreement in fact, that the achievement a triumphant Bill Clinton hailed in Brussels for now remains no more than prospective.

Ukrainian legislators worried about the climb to political prominence of those who would restore the Russian empire, of which Ukraine was for long the crown jewel, could prove immovable on the matter of denuclearization. The counterargument to their concerns is that a Ukraine that was seen to pose no nuclear threat to Russia could allay fears in Moscow and lead to greater accommodation between the two countries.

In any case it’s clear that Kravchuk has a formidable selling job in front of him, and he’s going to need all the help and reassurance he can get from Clinton and from Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. Kravchuk has assured Clinton he can deliver. He will very soon have a chance to prove it.


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