UKRAINE became the world's third-largest nuclear power overnight when the Soviet Union broke up. It has the second-largest army in Europe. For two years, since the Soviet breakup, Ukraine has been relatively stable. But recent events indicate its economic and political compass is beginning to sway in uncertain directions. Nationalists in the parliament are challenging centrists on the threat posed by Russia, on the dispensation of 176 nuclear missiles (1,600 warheads) formerly under Soviet control, and o n the question of whether Ukraine should sign the START I treaty, which it earlier agreed to do.
In recent months, Ukraine has faced hyperinflation, which has put the economy in a nose dive and has caused a major strike by miners in the Don Bass coal region. With world oil prices beyond reach and Russian delivery of oil a fickle matter, the coal miners hold the key to Ukrainian energy. They have forced Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma and President Leonid Kravchuk to agree to a referendum on the government this September. Messrs. Kuchma and Kravchuk are already in a struggle over the direction Ukraine s hould take, with Kuchma threatening and trying to resign numerous times in the past month, and Kravchuk recently declaring emergency powers and control of the central government, then withdrawing the claim June 22.
For these reasons, now is the time for the United States to develop a more energetic policy toward Ukraine. The time prior to September's referendum could be crucial. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin's trip to Ukraine earlier this month was a step toward such a policy. By attempting to create a separate international committee to oversee the dismantling of most of Ukraine's nuclear weapons, rather than hand them over to Russia, Mr. Aspin told Kiev it would be treated evenhandedly. This is a good sign. But the White House must continue to find ways to treat Ukraine as a sovereign state, not a second fiddle to Moscow.
A policy that brings more economic aid, technical assistance, and innovative ways to promote reform and democratic impulses inside Ukraine is needed. The White House has done this for Boris Yeltsin. But so far it has done very little either for Ukraine, or for neighboring Belarus, which has begun to disarm. Washington must take an active role if it is to help Kiev, in concert with European states. The "multilateralism" President Clinton has said is a hallmark of his foreign policy must not be used as an excuse to shovel off problems on others. Only by an engaged and earnest policy can the US wield the kind of leverage it will need if matters in the Ukraine turn for the worse.