KIEV, Ukraine — When Ukraine declared in July, 1990, that it would be a "nuclear-free zone," nothing seemed more natural. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster four years earlier had been a grim lesson in the atom's terrible power.
So when Ukraine's Declaration of Sovereignty was passed by Parliament on that hot summer day, it was in a fit of patriotic emotion and without much talk about its "non-nuclear" provision. At the time, the oversight seemed hardly to matter.
But when an independent Ukrainian state emerged from the Soviet Union's ruins last December, it suddenly found itself the reluctant "owner" of the world's third-biggest nuclear arsenal. And it is only now facing up to the full, and troubling, implications.
For a time, free Ukraine signaled its abiding aversion to nuclear weapons by rushing headlong into formal pledges of disarmament--again, as during the adoption of the sovereignty act, without even the most elementary expert analysis.
But clearly, events of recent weeks have shown that those days are over. As Ukraine begins seriously confronting the economic, political and security implications of nuclear disarmament, a growing pro-nuclear faction in Parliament, the Supreme Rada, is threatening to derail ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that was forged between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The fate of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under which Ukraine must eventually give up all its nuclear weapons, may also be in doubt. How the Kiev government resolves these issues seems likely to present a knotty challenge to Russia and Ukraine's other neighbors, as well as to the Bush Administration and President-elect Bill Clinton.
The changed tone in Ukraine's disarmament debate can be traced to the election of Leonid Kuchma as prime minister last month. A straight-talking rocket engineer who used to direct the largest missile factory in the world, the 56-year-old Kuchma contrasts sharply with President Leonid Kravchuk.
The avuncular, silver-haired president has been hinting about Ukraine's disarmament problems for months but always with slippery ambiguity. At a news conference last week, for example, Kravchuk said that Ukraine "should have appropriate compensation" for giving up its nuclear weapons but didn't specify.
By contrast, sophistry is not the forte of the premier. In a rare interview with The Times, Kuchma seemed forthright and in command of the technical details about his government's nuclear policy.
He repeatedly insisted that the Kiev leadership is committed to disarmament, saying, "There should not be nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory under any circumstances." But, he added, Ukraine needs more support from the West to get rid of them.
One of the biggest problems is purely financial. Ukraine's 15% share of the Soviet arsenal was quickly reduced when it handed over about 2,000 short-range battlefield nuclear weapons to Russia last spring. But it still has 176 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with more than 1,200 warheads, and the staggering price tag for neutralizing all of them will run into the billions of dollars.
To disarm, Ukraine needs to build factories to process the highly toxic liquid propellant that fuels its 130 SS-19 missiles. As for the 46 SS-24s, special hothouses must be built to prevent the solid fuel they carry from exploding while scientists figure out how to dispose of it.
"All of this costs money," said Kuchma, though he hesitated to name precise figures at a time of runaway inflation. In any case, he said, Ukraine by itself cannot afford it.
Under START, Ukraine is also supposed to demolish the ICBM launchers and the silos where the missiles are housed. But Ukraine's two ICBM bases near Derazhnya and Pervomaysk are planted in the midst of its agricultural heartland, and Kuchma contends that exploding the silos would threaten to transform large swaths of Ukraine's famously fertile black earth into barren desert.
Instead, he says, Ukraine wants to negotiate "more civilized means" of demilitarizing the missile shafts.
"Ukraine wants this land for plowing, sowing and growing," he says--and not only around the silos but in them.
One western Ukrainian agribusiness firm is already planning to supplant nuclear warheads with mushrooms by growing champignons in the abandoned shafts. Then there is the vexing problem of Ukraine's 1,240 nuclear warheads--six per every SS-19 and 10 for each SS-24. They appear to have fallen into something of a legal loophole, as START does not address their fate at all.
And the Lisbon protocols, which the Soviet Union's nuclear heirs--Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine--signed last May to formally commit themselves to START, leave such details to be hammered out among the "nuclear republics."