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THE WORLD FROM...Washington

Concerns mount as Ukraine hints it may assert a claim to the nuclear weapons remaining on its soil

THE United States House of Representatives check-bouncing "Rubbergate" scandal may grab the headlines in this domestic political season, but a potential international problem is still a nagging worry to many in Washington: loose ex-Soviet nukes.

United States officials say that as far as they know, all nuclear weapons in former Soviet republics are still under responsible control. They say they have no information confirming a German magazine's report that two tactical nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan have found their way to Iran.

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But recent backtracking by Ukraine on nuclear-weapons removal has become a cause for US concern. Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk last week announced he would stop shipping tactical atomic arms from his soil to Russian storage sites. Mr. Kravchuk claimed Russia hadn't adequately assured him it would, in fact, destroy those weapons.

The Commonwealth of Independent States had agreed to consolidate all its tactical nuclear weapons in Russia by July for eventual destruction. Until Kravchuk threw in his monkey wrench, the process had been moving along smartly. According to US estimates, almost 60 percent of Ukraine's tactical nukes already have been removed.

If Ukraine remains obstinate it would "entail profound implications" for American policy, notes a just-released report by six US senators who visited the Commonwealth of Independent States earlier this month.

The START treaty reducing long-range strategic nuclear weapons might even be threatened.

Besides the smaller tactical arms, Ukraine has an estimated 176 strategic, nuclear-tipped missiles on its territory, as well as nuclear-capable strategic bombers. Ukrainian officials originally pledged to do away with all these long-range weapons by 1996.

In fact, administration officials have told Congress that only Russia will retain strategic nuclear arms after the START treaty has been fully implemented.

But during their visit, the senators, led by Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, "received strong hints that Ukraine might assert a claim to the strategic nuclear missiles and warheads remaining on its soil."

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All this foot-dragging might just be Kravchuk's plan to give himself more bargaining power. A major Commonwealth of Independent States summit was set to begin March 20 in Kiev.

"There's probably some internal politicking going on," notes one US official.

Meanwhile, the US and Russia continue to pursue reductions in their strategic arsenals even larger than those called for under START. But they have made little progress in the endeavor.

After Secretary of State James Baker III met with Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev in Brussels last week, he said both sides showed a "genuine desire" for some kind of quick START 2, an even stricter strategic arms reduction plan .

But Mr. Baker also said the two sides haven't agreed on the timing of the reductions and exactly what kind of weapons would be cut.

It's assumed that President Bush and President Yeltsin want some kind of new arms cut to sign at their scheduled June meeting. But, if that's to happen, the pace of negotiations needs to pick up.

"An incredibly small amount has come out of these discussions," notes Lee Feinstein, assistant director for research at the private Arms Control Association.

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