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The new commonwealth may soon be the ex-commonwealth

One diplomat I know describes the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that replaced the Soviet Union as "a fiction for the children _ like a failed marriage."

There's a good chance even that fiction will disappear when the leaders of the 12 independent states meet Friday in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and especially when and if Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk then meet alone.

If they fail to agree on dividing the Black Sea fleet, on Soviet land forces and weapons and on the powers of a unified commonwealth command, then diplomats believe that for all intents and purposes the CIS, thrown together only in December, will be finished.

Ukraine, which doesn't like the CIS much in any case, will go its own way. Russia, which most wants to hold the CIS together, will have to decide with the others whether to go their own ways also or try to keep some semblance of the commonwealth without Ukraine.

The Soviet armed forces, only yesterday 4.5-million strong and at least the second most powerful entity on the planet, are now an army without a country just as, officially at least, Russia is a country without an army.

If the CIS fades at Minsk, then Russia is likely to go ahead with forming its own army as some Soviet commanders are urging, just as Ukraine has already done and some others are beginning to do. Diplomats believe the necessary staff work has already been done.

Kravchuk has aggressively moved ahead with forming Ukrainian forces, calling on all Soviet officers stationed in Ukraine to swear allegiance to it, and thousands, Russians included, have done so.

But Russia wants to be the last of the 12 states to take that decision on forces of its own. It can then always say that it tried to make the commonwealth work.

The revamped Russian army would probably be about a million men. You hear a lot of estimates in Ukraine but it may end up with about 600,000 men. Both of those armies would be far larger than any in Europe.

The two leaders, Yeltsin and Kravchuk, sometimes appear to be playing chicken with each other. They alternate in sounding tough and conciliatory. The nightmare scenario is, of course, that someday Russia and Ukraine will go to war like Serbia and Croatia in Yugoslavia.

The major hopeful sign is that Ukraine has promised to become non-nuclear, turn over its tactical nuclear weapons for destruction by July and concur in the control of the strategic, long-range weapons by a unified command and the Russian president.

Nevertheless, the question inevitably arises of whether it wouldn't have been better for everybody if Ukraine had stayed in the Soviet Union _ it had been part of the Russian empire for more than three centuries _ and the Soviet Union had stayed together. Its defection was fatal.

The answer is well, yes, it would have been easier for other countries to deal with Moscow alone rather than 15 new and inexperienced republics, not all of which know where they are going or what they really want. It might even have been safer for the world.

President Bush certainly tried, boosting former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev whenever he could and turning away from the independence movements first in the Baltic states then in Ukraine itself.

Only last August, he was making a speech in Kiev, telling Ukrainians that they would be better off to stay with Gorbachev, with whom he had just signed the START treaty cutting back strategic nuclear arms by a third.

Most Ukrainians didn't want to hear it, and voted overwhelmingly last December for independence. And if democracy is about anything, it is about self-determination and free choice, maybe not for every neighborhood but for major recognizable peoples who meet the territorial and historical tests of nationhood.

You can argue that dealing with 12 nations trying to force their own democracies is better than trying to help prop up an empire held together by force. Just now, Secretary of State James Baker is whisking around Central Asia again trying to patch together new relations.

Historically, nationalism has vied with religion in provoking bloodshed between peoples, but it need not be so. Russia and Ukraine do not have to fight any more than do Azerbaijan and Armenia, two other former Soviet republics.

This kind of nationalism is the refuge of scoundrels, and when they happen to be politicians on the make, watch out. The leaders of Russian and Ukraine and the other 10 newly independent republics bear a heavy responsibility to keep the peace among themselves, and the other nations of the world should make relations strictly dependent on what they become and how they act.

I will be in Ukraine today. By the time the Minsk meeting takes place I should be on my way by train to Sevastapol in the Crimea, home of the Black Sea fleet. Communications allowing, I may be able to catch up with all the above for Sunday's newspaper from there.