THE Western media have missed one of the biggest military stories since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. A country so little known that writers must remind their readers it is about the size of France, emerged overnight as the world's third largest nuclear power and formed the second largest army in Europe. No one foresaw this radical and sudden military development: spy satellites could not pick up any military buildup or mobilization. Nor were there any indications that this country was engaged in an Iraqi -like nuclear weapons acquisition program.
The country is Ukraine. Its August 1991 declaration of independence not only changed the European balance of power, but helped accelerate the collapse of the Soviet Union - leaving the United States as the only real superpower. For US foreign policy, the dissolution of its traditional military rival and Ukraine's unexpected newfound status as a military nuclear power has become a vexing dilemma.
The formation of Ukraine's military might did not occur in secret. While still a Soviet republic, Ukraine's parliament announced in July of 1990 its intentions to build an independent army and thus break up the Red Army's nuclear, air, ground, and naval forces. But no one took this declaration seriously. The Soviet general staff all but ignored it. A Soviet Army marshal was dispatched to Kiev to point out to Ukraine's provincial parliament just how ludicrous the notion was. Half a year later, in August 1 991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev recruited President Bush to scold these very same parliamentarians about the dangers of "suicidal nationalism" and to urge them to forget their far-fetched dreams of independence.
Only three weeks after Mr. Bush's so-called "Chicken Kiev" speech (when the US president went to Kiev and argued that Ukraine should stay in the Soviet Union) the Ukrainians declared their independence and went on to conduct one of the most brilliant military operations in modern history - gaining control of much of the Soviet Red Army.
The first phase of this operation precluded a possibility that the 700,000 Soviet troops in Ukraine could launch a coup against the newly independent state. This was done through massive propaganda aimed at pacifying the ranks. Ukrainian politicians promised to address the sub-standard living conditions in the military and guaranteed military job security. Equal opportunity for servicemen was stressed, regardless of nationality.
To drive the point home, an ethnic Russian was appointed the first defense minister of independent Ukraine. Not only did this effort pacify the armed forces, it also convinced a majority of the troops to vote for Ukrainian independence in the popular referendum on Dec. 1, 1991. For example, more than two-thirds of the Black Sea Fleet's sailor-supported independence.
A month after the referendum, troops stationed in Ukraine were given the option of taking an oath of allegiance. Officers who refused to take the oath were asked to continue their military service elsewhere, or retire. Enlisted men were given the choice of completing their military hitch in Ukraine or returning to their native country. Military personnel swore allegiance to the "people of Ukraine" rather than the "Ukrainian people." This wording was conceived to acknowledge the ethnic diversity of the Uk rainian state. Since ethnic Ukrainians constituted a minority of the officers stationed in Ukraine, this was particularly important.
BY mid-February 1992 more than 80 percent of the soldiers in Ukraine had taken the oath, despite objections from Russian politicians and Commonwealth of Independent States military officials. Thus, without firing a single shot and without any serious negotiations with other former Soviet republics, Ukraine gained control of a half-million-soldier military and most of its weapons.
This was a remarkable feat, especially considering that a majority of the officers who swore allegiance to Ukraine were ethnic Russians. It was a clear indication that ethnic Russians in Ukraine did not feel threatened by independence. This is particularly noteworthy since 11 million ethnic Russians call Ukraine home.
The oath clearly established a Ukrainian military chain of command over the formerly Moscow-controlled forces. But did the non-Ukrainians take the oath simply to save their jobs? Would the Russian soldiers remain loyal should a conflict break out with Russia? These are vital questions for Ukrainian national security.
Ukraine's attempt to gain control of the Black Sea Fleet were less successful. The fleet's commander, supported by Russian leaders, including President Boris Yeltsin and Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, was initially successful in preventing the swearing of the Ukrainian oath.
However, as tensions between Russia and Ukraine grew over rights to the fleet, discipline within the Black Sea Fleet began to break down and more and more sailors secretly swore allegiance to Ukraine. Following several incidents that came dangerously close to armed confrontation, the Russian and Ukrainian presidents met in August 1992 and agreed to joint control over the fleet and a division of its assets by 1995.
The strategic consequences of these developments have yet to be digested by the US. Exactly what Ukrainian independence means in terms of American interest remains ill-defined.
What is certain is that an independent Ukraine is viewed as problematic by the US foreign policy bureaucracy which until recently was managing a bipolar superpower rivalry with the USSR.
The cold-war agencies that make up this bureaucracy have tended to focus on Moscow mainly because the Soviet empire was ruled from the Russian capital. The republics were simply a periphery that could be largely ignored.
America's 50-year-old cold-war apparatus has reacted slowly to the radical strategic military changes brought by Ukraine's independence. Although most agencies have changed their names to reflect the USSR's demise, and several have created Ukrainian desks, Ukraine is still basically "managed" under the Commonwealth of Independent States rubric. This overemphasizes the role of the commonwealth and essentially concedes to Russia a sphere of influence over former Soviet republics.
ACKNOWLEDGING a Russian Monroe Doctrine sends the wrong signal to Russia's leaders, a majority of whom have not come to terms with the collapse of the Soviet empire and the perceived loss of Russian prestige. This concession has also stifled any real discussion or reconsideration of US interests in this region of the world. Our post-cold-war approach remains much the same: deal with Moscow and let the Russians worry about the former republics.
This unimaginative policy is welcomed and promoted by many American cold-war agencies which, like all bureaucracies, avoid and resist change. It is certainly easier for these offices to continue a Russo-centric approach and avoid realigning their bureaus, not to mention their institutional mind-set, to reflect the significance of an independent Ukraine.
However, Ukraine's hesitation to ratify START I suggests America can no longer continue its myopic policy toward Central Eurasia. Instead of hoping Ukraine will fall under Moscow's sphere of influence, the US must face up to the new balance of European power and its challenges. Although US interests in Ukraine are connected with its interests in Russia, American policy toward Ukraine should not be subordinated to and simply a byproduct of its Russian policy. This calls for a total review of US policy vis -a-vis Ukraine and the other newly independent states. Some cold-war agencies need to be dissolved, others need to be restructured and restaffed, and still others need to be created to support these new interests.
Failure to take such steps will greatly hamper any hopes the US may have to positively influence the new world order.