UNLESS Ukraine's parliament ratifies the 1991 START I treaty, the historic START II accord signed this month to eliminate "first strike" weapons will become just that - history.
A year after independence, Ukrainian politicians find that the 176 nuclear missiles left on their soil by the Soviet Army are a valuable bargaining chip with the West. Last May, the former Soviet republics with nuclear weapons - Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus - agreed to ratify START I and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. START I is a necessary prelude to the 25 percent to 35 percent cuts in START II. Since then, however, Ukrainian leaders have delayed and complicated the process - making su ch demands as a security guarantee, more money, and a change in the method of dismantling.
The dawdling is partly reasonable, partly mercenary. Ukraine has legitimate security concerns. Politicians at the highest levels in an already destabilized Russia have talked loosely about reabsorbing Ukraine. But Ukraine is also seizing an opportunity to take the West for a ride. This is especially true in regard to Kiev's recent outrageous request for $1.5 billion (the US offered $175 million) to dismantle 46 Soviet SS-24 rockets. This is a sad case of nuclear blackmail.
Regardless, the issue needs resolving, and soon. But to do so may require a more genuine and forward-looking approach than the West has taken. Ukraine wants to be treated as an independent state, not a mere appendage to Russia. So far, Kiev has gotten the message that it is important only insofar as it has nuclear weapons. The West has treated Ukraine somewhat imperiously and reacted irritably when it did not step in line.
Facing terrible economic conditions and a threatening post-cold-war world, Kiev does not want to give up something for nothing - though last spring it did give over its tactical nuclear weapons.
The US, Britain, and France must develop a comprehensive approach to Ukraine - including discussions about bringing it into the West's economic and political fold. The US security guarantee reportedly given Kiev this week is a start. At the same time, Kiev must more seriously contemplate its own status should it derail START II.