What A Free Ukraine Could Cost The Soviet Union

In the Ukraine, a cutback of oil from the Russian republic has already hampered this year's corn harvest, and sugar mills are grinding to a halt because of a lack of spare parts. But Ukrainians are pressing ahead with independence from their Russian neighbors, whom they have viewed as oppressors since the days of the czars. In a referendum scheduled for Dec. 1, they are likely to vote overwhelmingly for full secession. "The Ukraine must take its place in Europe," vows Ukraine parliamentary Chairman Leonid Kravchuk, who is expected to be elected President at the same time.

The breakaway of the No. 2 Soviet republic -- in both population and economic clout -- will be a death blow to President Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to rebuild a united Soviet state on the ruins of the former Soviet Union. Boris N. Yeltsin, President of the Russian republic, has already done grave damage with his decrees aimed at grabbing control of natural resources. Without the Ukraine, Gorbachev and Yeltsin will be left vying for control of Russia and a grab bag of impoverished Asian republics.

BORDER SCUFFLES. The Ukraine's departure will also hurt Russia economically. The Ukraine has long provided the Soviet Union with 33% of its steel, 25% of its coal, 60% of its corn, and 25% of its wheat. But soon, according to Kravchuk, a wily former Communist boss, Russia will have to pay world prices for Ukrainian goods and deal with it as a sovereign state. By the end of 1992, Kravchuk plans to have a Ukrainian currency, the grivna, and a 400,000-strong national army.

A trade war is already raging between Russia and the Ukraine, which has 52 million people. Motorists in Kiev now have to wait all night to fill up their tanks, because Russia is curbing supplies of oil -- along with timber and natural gas. At new customs posts, Ukrainian border guards stop vegetables and machinery bound for Russia. The Ukrainians are also bickering with Russia about paying off Soviet debt to the West. Before agreeing to share in this burden, they want assurances that Russia will respect their independence.

This skirmishing is just the beginning of a chain reaction likely to be unleashed by the Ukraine's independence. Russia has already announced that it will respond to a Ukrainian currency with one of its own. Kazakhstan may create its own army. Soon, Western observers note, nearly all former Soviet republics could boast their own armies, money, and not-necessarily-responsible governments. That will have scary strategic implications. While the Ukrainian parliament plans to ratify the START and Conventional Forces in Europe arms-control accords, the U. S. is still nervous about the nuclear aspects of a Soviet breakup. There may have to be new rounds of talks with Kazakhstan and the Ukraine over arms control. But at present, the Ukraine is saying it will turn itself into a no-nuke state by 1995, mainly by destroying or shipping strategic missiles to Russia.

Immediately after the referendum and elections, the new Ukrainian President will apply for International Monetary Fund and World Bank membership and try to sidle up to the European Community. A privatization program is likely to follow. But the cost of Ukrainian independence will prove high. The fear in Kiev is that Russia will react with an economic blockade, which would worsen this winter's shortages and provoke clashes between Ukrainians and the republic's 11 million ethnic Russians. But if cool heads prevail, the Ukraine's independence could mark the end of fruitless efforts by Moscow to salvage its empire. Only then, over time, can the former republics form viable new links.

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