KIEV, Ukraine — Worried by territorial claims, political pressure and possible economic boycotts from its powerful neighbor Russia, Ukraine will demand international guarantees for its security as it gives up the nuclear arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk said Tuesday.
Kravchuk, speaking on the eve of a visit to the United States, finally made plain that Ukraine's reluctance to surrender its nuclear weapons despite its pledge to become a non-nuclear state stems from its fear that Russia, which ruled the country for nearly 350 years, will again be able to subjugate it.
"The question of security arises rather acutely when our neighbors tend to present territorial claims," Kravchuk said. "This is especially true of our big neighbor, but other neighbors also have claims on our existing borders. The problem of security does exist, it does exist."
Kravchuk, 58, a silver-haired former Communist Party leader, said he will raise the question directly with President Bush next week when they meet in Washington and that Ukraine will pursue it as well with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Community.
"Ukraine, rather naturally in these conditions of instability and particularly with territorial claims against us, raises the issue of security guarantees for the country and its people," Kravchuk said. "We must have this guarantee."
Ukraine does not consider itself to be a nuclear state despite the strategic and tactical nuclear arms it inherited from the Soviet Union, Kravchuk said, for it lacks the vast industrial infrastructure necessary to produce such weapons.
Yet there is a clear reluctance among many Ukrainian political leaders to disarm without, for example, membership in a defense alliance such as NATO or a U.S. commitment to its security.
"We do not have to change our concept (of becoming a non-nuclear state)," Kravchuk said. "But we will request the international community to provide guarantees of our security."
Ukraine faces a difficult diplomatic struggle in establishing its own international identity, Kravchuk acknowledged, asserting that even the United States, which encouraged Ukrainian independence at a crucial point in November, has continued to see it primarily in terms of relations with Russia and not as a European power in its own right.
"We have the feeling that the United States is just now formulating its policies toward Ukraine," Kravchuk told American correspondents in a 90-minute press conference before his trip to Washington. "Up to now, U.S. policies have been formulated through the prism of Russian-American relations."
But Ukraine's often contradictory approach to nuclear arms--initially declaring its desire to become a non-nuclear state but then retaining nuclear weapons and bidding for a role in future disarmament talks--has made this the No. 1 issue in Kiev's relations with the West in the five months since its citizens voted overwhelmingly for independence.
Kravchuk said the problem's prominence stems directly from the huge arsenal of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons that Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union, which based as many as 1 million of its troops here.
Immediate disarmament was impossible, Ukrainians believe, as was handing over all the weapons directly to Russia.
"I must know with full confidence and accuracy that I can block the action of any 'foreign' leader if he decides to use the nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory," Kravchuk said.
Ukraine has now reached agreement with Russia on the transfer of more than 4,000 tactical nuclear weapons to Russia for controlled storage and verified destruction.
Recalling former President Ronald Reagan's frequent use of the Russian proverb "Trust but verify" in Soviet-American arms negotiations, Kravchuk underlined Ukraine's determination to ensure that these tactical nuclear weapons will indeed be destroyed--and, he implied, not turned against it.
Ukraine will continue to insist on joint control of the Soviet strategic weapons remaining on its territory, Kravchuk said, but not because it wants to become a nuclear power, as Moscow alleged this month.
"If we had a different concept, then we would have to admit there is an occupying army on Ukrainian territory with nuclear weapons controlled from another state," he said. "And who would bear the responsibility if a nuclear accident occurred on Ukrainian territory then? And why should the Ukrainian people suffer a retaliatory strike if these weapons were used?"
Kravchuk argued that Russia, Ukraine and the other Soviet republics "created nuclear weapons together, and since we share that responsibility and since we are legally successors together to the Soviet Union, then decisions on these weapons should be taken together."
This sums up Ukraine's bid, still not resolved, for a role in talks with the United States on further cutbacks in the American and former Soviet nuclear arsenals.