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A U.S. delegation led by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn opened four days of talks Friday on converting Russian defense plants to civilian uses and dismantling the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

The delegation was to meet with senior government officials in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus - three of the four republics with strategic nuclear weapons - during its five-day visit.Nunn, D-Ga., praised Ukraine's pledge to transfer all its nuclear weapons to Russia for dismantling by July. Ukraine aims to become a nuclear-free country. "It's our understanding that Ukraine has no intent of retaining nuclear weapons, and we are interested in how that's being carried out," Nunn told reporters after arriving at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.

"We are very encouraged by the pledges that have been made by Ukraine."

Nunn said the delegation also wants to work with republics to avoid proliferation of nuclear, chemical and other high-technology weapons. He said the senators were interested in how members of the Commonwealth of Independent States were centralizing control of their tactical and nuclear weapons.

He said they also hoped to encourage democracy and free-market reforms.

The republics with the nuclear weapons have all indicated they are willing to ratify arms control agreements signed by the former Soviet Union.

Given their economic problems, they also have acknowledged they need Western help in eliminating their nuclear, chemical and conventional arsenals and in converting their defense industry to civilian uses.

The delegation also includes Sens. Richard Lugar, ranking Republican of the Foreign Relations Committee; John Warner, R-Va., ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee; and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., a committee member.