The Ukraine Crisis Is Unsettling Decades-Old Nuclear-Weapons Agreements

The acting president of Ukraine has taken to the pages of an American newspaper to warn Russia and other nations.

Bombs and torpedoes in military soviet bunker, Korosten, Ukraine.  
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
March 12, 2014, 7:21 a.m.

The crisis in East­ern Europe has promp­ted many com­par­is­ons by U.S. law­makers to the Cold War. But the latest men­tion comes from an ocean away, from Ukraine it­self, and it re­sur­rects a fo­cal point of that con­flict: nuc­le­ar weapons.

Oleksandr Turchynov, the act­ing pres­id­ent of Ukraine, took to the pages of The New York Times on Wed­nes­day to warn Rus­sia that us­ing force in Crimea could back­fire.

“Ukraine and Rus­sia are two sov­er­eign states, and the Ukrain­i­an people will de­term­ine their path in­de­pend­ently,” Turchynov wrote. “The re­fus­al to ac­cept this fact will lead, at the very least, to a new Cold War.”

In 1994, Ukraine sur­rendered its en­tire nuc­le­ar-weapons stock­pile — the third largest in the world at the time — in ex­change for se­cur­ity as­sur­ances from the United States, Bri­tain, and Rus­sia. The agree­ment called for the three na­tions to re­spect Ukraine’s in­de­pend­ence and ter­rit­ori­al in­teg­rity, and pro­hib­ited them from the use or threat of force against the coun­try.

“If this agree­ment is vi­ol­ated, it may lead to nuc­le­ar pro­lif­er­a­tion around the world,” Turchynov said. 

“An es­cal­a­tion of con­flict would be cata­stroph­ic for the whole of West­ern Europe,” he con­tin­ued. “It would put an end to the glob­al se­cur­ity sys­tem, breach­ing its very found­a­tion. These are very real risks.”

Pavlo Riz­an­en­ko, a mem­ber of the Ukrain­i­an Par­lia­ment, told USA Today on Tues­day that Ukraine may have to arm it­self with nuc­le­ar weapons if the U.S. and oth­er world powers don’t hold up their end of the bar­gain. “We gave up nuc­le­ar weapons be­cause of this agree­ment,” he said. “Now there’s a strong sen­ti­ment in Ukraine that we made a big mis­take.”

On Fri­day, a spokes­man for Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin de­fen­ded Rus­sia’s ac­tions in Ukraine. However, he said he hoped a new Cold War would not break out, des­pite “ex­tremely deep dis­agree­ments of a con­cep­tu­al nature between Rus­sia and the European Uni­on and the United States.”

In his Wed­nes­day op-ed, Turchynov said Ukraine is open to “con­struct­ive dia­logue” with Rus­sia. “Rus­sia must choose how it will re­spond,” he said. This sen­ti­ment il­lus­trates the nature of the cur­rent stan­doff between Ukraine and Rus­sia. Each side is ant­ag­on­iz­ing the oth­er — Rus­sia by send­ing in­creas­ing num­bers of troops in Crimea, Ukraine by sid­ing with the West — but neither will shoot first.

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