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Big and Anxious, Ukraine Wants Clinton's Pat on Back

Summit aimed at reinforcing an ex-Soviet giant's ties with West

FOR a time, President Clinton's visit to Ukraine this week was to be just a stopover in the capital, Kiev, on the way home from Moscow. The Ukrainians were disappointed.

Now Mr. Clinton will spend the night tonight and attend a state dinner. ''It helps cement the personal relationship'' between Clinton and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, says a State Department official.

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Such diplomatic niceties are not trivial for Ukraine -- among the westernmost of the former Soviet republics -- which is struggling to solidify its independence and bolster a struggling economy.

And the trip may do the White House some good as well. After a challenging Moscow summit, Clinton's trip to Ukraine will look like a ''love fest,'' says the State Department official.

Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has made many right moves, in Western eyes. It has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. By next year, it plans to have no more nuclear weapons left over from the Soviet era on its soil. It is willing to close the remaining Chernobyl nuclear reactors (if the West foots a $4 billion bill). President Kuchma is bringing Ukraine back from near-economic ruin with market reform.

Ukraine is also participating in the Partnership for Peace program, a US initiative to draw the old Soviet bloc into military cooperation with NATO. The first US-Ukrainian military exercises are due later this month near Lviv in western Ukraine.

At the summit, Clinton will offer Ukraine about a quarter of the $100 million total that is slated as aid for countries involved in Partnership for Peace.

But Ukrainians remain intensely uneasy about their nation's security. The Russian empire -- which enveloped Ukraine for most of the last three centuries -- has disbanded, but a ''new world order'' has not taken its place. And as NATO works to expand toward Ukraine's western border, Ukraine looks at a possible future in a strategic ''gray zone,'' positioned between a bigger NATO and a Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States eager to incorporate Ukraine into a full military alliance.

''The national security of Ukraine is the No. 1 issue,'' says Ukrainian Ambassador Yuri Shcherbak, showing on a map he sketched the scores of military incursions Ukraine has endured since the 13th century. ''In my opinion, 52 million people in a neutral country after the domination of the Soviet empire is a very difficult case.''

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In recent months, top Ukrainian officials have tried to articulate a vision for European security that avoids drawing a new dividing line across the Continent. But national consensus is difficult to achieve: Ukraine's western region favors closer ties with the West, while the east is more Russo-centric and has a strong ethnic Russian minority. In addition, NATO and the US appear unsure of Ukraine's geostrategic future, say US officials and analysts of European defense.

Ukraine's caution over NATO enlargement can be boiled down to one phrase: fear of Russian retaliation. Ukraine is highly dependent on Russian energy supplies and can ill afford sanctions set by Moscow.

Ian Brzezinski, an American who was until recently a nonpartisan adviser to Ukraine's parliament, points out that if Russia cut off oil to Ukraine, it would also cut off Russia's pipeline access to the West. ''They are like two divers sharing the same oxygen line,'' says Mr. Brzezinski, who advocates bolder efforts by the West to incorporate Ukraine into Europe.

The Ukrainians appear unconvinced that the West will always be there for them. And even though Russia itself is weakened economically and militarily, ''the Russians could try to do something'' in Ukraine, says Sherman Garnett, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who just visited Moscow and Kiev. ''In Moscow, they're not aware that they can't have a sphere of influence.''

And Ukrainian-Russian relations have been prickly. Russian President Boris Yeltsin keeps postponing a summit in Kiev as the two countries dispute how to divide up the former Soviet fleet on the Black Sea, and other issues. Beneath this lies a strong current of resentment among Russians that their Slavic brothers are independent at all.

On NATO, Ukrainians are concerned that expansion up to their border will happen too ''fast,'' before the country is ready to hold its own between the alliance and Russia. (Discussion about NATO enlargement is still vague, since the alliance has yet to determine criteria for membership.) Ukrainians define ''fast'' as an expansion that happens before Ukraine feels secure about its independence and economic reform.

In Washington, Ukraine is starting to be heard. Until recently, says a US official who deals with Ukraine, ''we did not effectively grasp their concerns, though only in the past few months has their government articulated those concerns about rapid expansion.''

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