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Ukraine grimaces as Russia steals the show

The Soviet Union died here; the successor Commonwealth of Independent States was conceived here. Now it's dying, too.

"Love stories have their beginning, go through various stages and then they die," says Nikolai Mikhailchenko, a close adviser to Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk. "The commonwealth will follow the same course."

The prediction highlights not only Ukraine's intention to turn its face to the West but its already contentious relations with a Russia that until December had ruled it for most of the last three centuries.

Their relations may be the central drama of a revolution still continuing throughout all of the once vast Soviet Union. The threat of a conflict between them is certainly its worst nightmare.

Aside from Russia, Ukraine is the largest state in Europe with the largest army and the world's third-largest nuclear force. But if promises are kept, the nuclear weapons will be gone by 1995, and Ukraine will have to run very fast even to begin catching up with Eastern Europe in this century.

The differences between Russia and Ukraine are personified by two old Communist Party apparatchiks, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, 60, and Kravchuk, 57, both of whom a few years ago might have been contenders within the Soviet party itself.

"Some people think Kravchuk will win the battle of nerves," another Western diplomat here says, "because Kravchuk's nerves are steadier."

When Ukrainians voted for independence Dec. 1, as Kravchuk knew they would, it was the end of the Soviet Union. There hardly could be one without this rich industrial and agricultural land of 52-million, the second-largest of the 15 Soviet republics.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev wasn't the only Russian that Ukraine's withdrawal left in shock _ it ran right through the Russian establishment. A week later, without even advising Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Kravchuk and Belarus leader Stanislav Shushkevich met in Minsk to form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which eight other republics joined just before Christmas.

The story here is that the commonwealth was a Ukrainian idea. But whereas Ukraine sees it as a makeshift arrangement to wind up the Soviet Union's estate, Yeltsin and Russia see it as something very different: an organization with continuing close economic ties and a common strategic armed forces under a unified command that still will be dominated by Russia.

Ukraine abhors the very idea.

"The commonwealth has no bright future," said Dimitro Pavlichko, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Ukrainian parliament and the man largely credited here with the idea in the first place. "It won't survive."

And as I've reported after traveling here from Moscow and then on to the Crimean coast (64 hours in overnight trains), their dispute first and foremost centers on the armed forces, including the Black Sea fleet, with the army high command in Moscow trying to maintain central control and Ukraine opposing it in a rush to form its own armed forces.

Ukraine has won the battle for its own army. Ukrainian Defense Minister Konstantin Morozov, a Russian himself, said last week that 80 percent of the former Soviet troops in Ukraine have taken the oath of allegiance.

While Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov still heads a joint command of all nuclear forces, Ukraine and three CIS members _ Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Moldova _ have refused to take part in a similar joint command for conventional forces.

"The CIS is not a state, and armed forces are an attribute of statehood," Pavlichko said.

Kravchuk warns that a joint military command sooner or later would escape any political control. Others speculate about the danger of a military coup to prevent the breakup.

But even Shaposhnikov, the main defender of armed forces unity, conceded last week in Moscow that they eventually would break up into national forces. No political center remains for them to answer to, and this, too, can be seen as a political victory for Ukraine.

Another dispute came 10 days ago when the pilots and crew of six Su-24 long-range bombers based in Ukraine took off and flew away with both the planes and the regimental banner rather than take the oath of allegiance to Ukraine. Kravchuk angrily demanded the crews be returned to be court-martialed. Shaposhnikov refused, but the fate of the planes themselves is still in question.

Meanwhile, the commander of the air division swore allegiance to Ukraine, raising the question of whether it still would answer to Shaposhnikov's joint command.

In all this confusion, the question is how cuts will be made in manpower and weapons to fulfill the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty signed with the United States and Western Europe.

Suspicion and fear of Russian intentions quickly surfaces in every conversation with officials here, sometimes along with a little hurt and resentment that the United States and others seem to regard Yeltsin as the only heir of the former Soviet Union.

Ukraine's leaders complained that Yeltsin announced former Soviet strategic missiles no longer would be targeted on American cities. They complained not because Ukraine wants cities to be targeted but because, officials here said, targeting is not his decision alone.

Ukraine's resentment resurfaced Thursday when Kravchuk told a group of foreign correspondents that the leaders of all four nuclear republics, himself included, and not just Yeltsin, should be negotiating with President Bush on the reduction of the former Soviet Union's nuclear weapons.

"It's hard dealing with politicians who say one thing at breakfast, another at lunch and still a third thing at dinner," Kravchuk adviser Mikhailchenko said in an obvious swipe at Yeltsin.

For Pavlichko, chairman of the foreign relations committee, there is no way to bridge the gap between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine wants to be nuclear-free, he said. Russia will remain nuclear. Ukraine wants to be neutral. "Russia is forming alliances within the CIS . . . (and) wants to dominate its members.

"There is no way to bridge the gap. The only way is to live apart."

For the time being, economic cooperation with Russia is necessary _ "We need oil. Russia needs wheat." But later, he said, when Ukraine is nuclear-free and the economic ties linking it with other parts of the Soviet Union are broken, the new ones in the free market will be between industries as well as governments. New sources of supply will emerge.

What Ukraine's leadership intends after the centuries of Russian rule is hitching up with Europe. Pavlichko suggested that Ukraine could be the "mediator between Russia and the rest of Europe."

"We want to be Russia's gateway to Europe," he said.

All this seemed a little optimistic last week, given his other comments about Russia, and their present relations.

Getting off the train in Kiev, I was surprised to see Lenin, as always larger than life and covered with gilt, standing with outstretched arm at the top of the main stairway. Doubtless he soon will come down as he has on Kiev's main thoroughfare. But much of the old order remains, including Kravchuk himself.

More nimble than Lenin's statue, he and many of those around him remain, sometimes sitting in the same offices of what was once the Communist Party central committee building. It now houses the presidency.

The drive for independence and differences with Russia have overshadowed almost everything else, but now an emerging opposition in the Ukrainian parliament has attacked the "incompetence" of Prime Minister Vitold Fokin's government and its indecision over privatization.

The parliament has demanded that President Kravchuk come up with changes, and on Friday, he said half of Fokin's Cabinet would go, but not Fokin himself, who, like Morozov, is an ethnic Russian.

Elected on Dec. 1, Kravchuk still seems to command widespread support. And he called for early multiparty elections to replace the parliament, chosen under the old Soviet system two years ago.

"Kravchuk is not committed to any particular ideology," one Western diplomat here commented. "He is first and foremost a politician, not an ideologue."

That, probably, is why the original independence leaders are out in the cold and he is president of independent Ukraine after the collapse of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union he served for so long.