Defense Chiefs Plant Sunflowers as Symbol of Hope
PERVOMAYSK MISSILE BASE, Ukraine (AP) _ In a gesture reminiscent of the 1960s peace movement, the American, Russian and Ukrainian defense chiefs planted sunflowers Tuesday in a field where a nuclear missile aimed at the United States once stood Cold War duty.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry joined his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts in ceremonies marking the completion of Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament _ a politically touchy process that began more than two years ago.
Perry likened the moment to the drifting away of a dark cloud of nuclear fear.
``It is altogether fitting that we plant sunflowers here at Pervomaysk to symbolize the hope we all feel at seeing the sun shine through again,″ he said, standing on a small concrete pad in the middle of the now defunct missile field. Nearby, the American, Russian and Ukrainian flags waved in a warm breeze.
It was an event oddly recalling those staged by anti-war activists of decades past in which flowers were used as symbols of hope for an end to the nuclear arms race.
Pervomaysk, one of two main nuclear missile fields in Ukraine, is situated in the south-central part of the country, about 180 south of the capital, Kiev. Just two days before Perry arrived, the Ukrainians shipped out the last of more than 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads they inherited in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With U.S. financial and technical aid, they are going further to destroy their underground missile silos and convert the land to private use.
Here, at Silo 110, a six-warhead SS-19 nuclear missile stood ready to launch toward its targets in the United States. Perry first came here in March 1994 to see the warheads removed. He returned in April 1995 to watch the missile body be hoisted out of the silo and sent off to be dismantled, and he was present again last January to witness the blowing up of the silo and launch pad.
This time it looked as though he might never need to come back, although this is only the first silo conversion project. Ukraine has about 170 other silos whose SS-19 and SS-24 missiles have been decommissioned but not all dismantled.
Perry and his counterparts _ Gen. Pavel Grachev of Russia and Valery Shmarov of Ukraine_ tossed handfuls of sunflower seeds onto the freshly tilled earth. Then they grabbed white-handled spades and planted six sunflower seedlings. The three watered the plants and stood back to admire their work.
Perry has taken a special interest in this project because he believes it can be a key not only to reducing the threat of nuclear war, but also to keeping Ukraine on the path to democracy and improving its relations with Moscow.
``This historic moment is about more than Ukraine renouncing nuclear weapons,″ Perry said. ``Ukraine today has shown the world how the seeds of democracy, tended with care and commitment, can grow and flourish and nourish a nation.″
Perry surprised Grachev and Shmarov by presenting each with a framed collection of color photographs taken at each step of the nuclear disarmament process at Pervomaysk _ including one of their sunflower planting just moments earlier.
Shmarov and Perry signed an agreement giving Ukraine an additional $30 million of U.S. funds for silo elimination and $13 million for other disarmament projects. Since 1992, Ukraine has received about $400 million in U.S. disarmament aid.
Afterward, the three flew on a Soviet built helicopter to a military facility that until recently stored nuclear warheads for the SS-19 missiles at Pervomaysk. Perry was given a tour to see for himself that no warheads remained, officials traveling with him said. Reporters were not allowed inside.
The three men also flew to a residential area of Pervomaysk where a U.S.-financed project is building modular houses for the Ukrainian officers who lost their jobs with the dismantling of the Pervomaysk missile field. So far, 245 of the four-room houses have been erected and 125 are occupied.
Perry spent a few minutes inside with one family to whom he presented a housewarming gift of _ what else? _ a basket of sunflower seeds.
At a ceremony hosted by the local mayor, Perry alluded to the prospect of Ukraine using the stimulus provided by disarmament to create a ``permanent season of peace.″
``Today we celebrate a new season, a time to break down the foundations of war, a time to build up the foundations of peace,″ he said.