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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine's Nuclear Gambit Vexes West

KIEV - Western diplomats based in Kiev remained undecided on Thursday whether to be calm or outraged by Ukraine's recent declaration of ownership over the nuclear weapons it inherited from the former Soviet Union.

The general view of diplomats interviewed at three embassies was that Ukraine's declaration of ownership over the 176 missiles on its territory was less a statement of intent to keep the weapons than a negotiating gambit.

They believed the government may be claiming a share of the former Soviet possessions in order to negotiate them away later for a higher share of the U. S. agreement to buy highly enriched uranium extracted from dismantled Soviet nuclear warheads.

"Since Russia has said, 'we control these missiles', Ukraine has been pushed into issuing a counter-declaration", said one of the diplomats. "I don't think that should be interpreted as a statement of intent to use them".

Confused signals have come from Kiev in the past week on the question of its nuclear status. Last Friday, parliament voted to declare ownership of nuclear weapons. On Monday and Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry played down the decision, saying it was unclear what had been voted for.

But in a surprise move Wednesday, President Leonid Kravchuk told reporters that he supported the decision, while still insisting that Ukraine is a non-nuclear power and would remain so.

Another diplomat said that two signals were now emanating from Kiev. The first from president and Foreign Ministry, the second from parliament.

Both Kravchuk and his foreign minister have pledged that Ukraine will rid itself of all weapons on its territory. For them, the diplomat said, the decision to claim ownership may be a negotiating gambit that will later allow them to give the weapons up through an orderly legal process.

However, he believed that some members of parliament were using the declaration of ownership to advance the case for a nuclear-armed Ukraine to defend itself against Russia.

In that case, said one diplomat, Ukraine would be playing into Moscow's hands by appearing to be an unstable state that was seeking to bolster its status.

Russia, he argued, could portray itself as a mature and stable country in which foreign investment could be safe. By contrast in Ukraine dangerous nationalism would appear to be gaining the upper hand.

"They think they are going to get Western aid even if they go nuclear", the diplomat said. "They are just kidding themselves".

From a Western point of view, the more important decisions are still to come. Kiev must now decide whether to ratify two key nuclear arms agreements; START I and the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty. That would commit the newly independent state, with a population of over 50 million, to permanent non-nuclear status.

But the diplomats believed that it is also important for Russia and Ukraine in the meanwhile to agree bilaterally on ownership and control of the nuclear arsenal.