Should Ukraine Have Gotten Rid of Its Cold War Nukes?

A woman protests against Russian military intervention in the Crimea region of Ukraine on Sunday in New York City.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
Add to Briefcase
Elaine M. Grossman
March 3, 2014, 8:55 a.m.

With Rus­si­an troops now oc­cupy­ing Ukraine’s Crimean Pen­in­sula, Kiev’s belea­gered in­ter­im lead­ers may be think­ing twice about their na­tion’s 1994 de­cision to aban­don nuc­le­ar weapons.

The East European coun­try ac­tu­ally held the world’s third-largest nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al after the dis­sol­u­tion of the So­viet Uni­on. But Kiev in 1994 agreed to trans­fer all its atom­ic arms to Rus­sia for elim­in­a­tion, shortly there­after joined the Nuc­le­ar Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty as a non-nuc­le­ar na­tion, and with­in two years was weapons-free.

At the time, John Mearsheimer was one of very few who saw it as an un­wise move.

“As soon as it de­clared in­de­pend­ence, Ukraine should have been quietly en­cour­aged to fash­ion its own nuc­le­ar de­terrent,” the Uni­versity of Chica­go schol­ar wrote in a 1993 For­eign Policy piece. “A nuc­le­ar Ukraine … is im­per­at­ive to main­tain peace between Ukraine and Rus­sia. … Ukraine can­not de­fend it­self against a nuc­le­ar-armed Rus­sia with con­ven­tion­al weapons, and no state, in­clud­ing the United States, is go­ing to ex­tend to it a mean­ing­ful se­cur­ity guar­an­tee.”

Today Mo­scow is send­ing more troops to Ukraine, where it bases its Black Sea Fleet, amid con­sterna­tion in Wash­ing­ton and throughout Europe that the na­tion’s en­tire east­ern re­gion might soon fall un­der Rus­si­an con­trol. Pres­id­ent Obama last Fri­day threatened there would be “costs” to Rus­sia if it in­ter­vened, but stopped short of of­fer­ing spe­cif­ics.

Is Mearsheimer — still a polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or at Chica­go — feel­ing vin­dic­ated?

“I do think they should have kept their nukes,” he said on Sunday via email. “If Ukraine had a real nuc­le­ar de­terrent, the Rus­si­ans would not be threat­en­ing to in­vade it.”

Even giv­en Rus­sia’s Cold War-re­min­is­cent ac­tions over the past week, oth­ers are think­ing Ukraine’s two-dec­ade old move to jet­tis­on its nuc­le­ar stock­pile was the right call. In fact, Krem­lin-backed Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych in 2011 called for oth­er na­tions in the re­gion to join his coun­try in cre­at­ing an East European nuc­le­ar weapon-free zone.

“Ukraine with nuc­le­ar weapons is one heck of a dan­ger­ous idea,” John Isaacs, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Coun­cil for a Liv­able World, said in a Monday email. “There is already in the mix east­ern Ukraine vs. west­ern Ukraine, East vs. West Cold War over­tones, Rus­si­an vs. U.S. in­ter­ven­tion­ism. … It would be like toss­ing a pack­age of lighted matches in­to a vat of flam­mable flu­ids. The res­ults would be un­pre­dict­able, but haz­ard­ous for every­one’s health.”

Yet, re­wind­ing his­tory just a few weeks, Mearsheimer said it is pos­sible that none of the re­cent in­stabil­ity in Ukraine would have oc­curred if the na­tion had kept its atom­ic arms at the close of the Cold War.

“I doubt wheth­er we would have been so anxious to foster a coup,” Mearsheimer said of the United States, had Ya­nukovych and his gov­ern­ment wiel­ded a nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al. “One treads very lightly — to put it mildly — when threat­en­ing the sur­viv­al of a nuc­le­ar-armed state, or even the re­gime in charge of it.”

Isaacs, however, sees the risk of nuc­le­ar war as simply too high for these arms to act re­li­ably as a sta­bil­iz­ing tool for con­flict de­terrence.

“There is no pre­dict­ing what Rus­sia would have done if Ukraine had re­tained nuc­le­ar weapons,” he told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. “We do know that the risk of nuc­le­ar holo­caust would have in­creased im­meas­ur­ably.”

What We're Following See More »
DOCUMENTS OBTAINED BY U.S. INTEL
Putin-Linked Think Tank Developed Plan to Influence U.S. Election
3 days ago
THE LATEST

A Russian government think tank run by Putin loyalists "developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system." Two confidential documents from the Putin-backed Institute for Strategic Studies, obtained by U.S. intelligence, provide "the framework and rationale for what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was an intensive effort by Russia to interfere with the Nov. 8 election."

Source:
HELPED WIN FISA APPROVAL
FBI Relied on Dossier Allegations to Monitor Page
4 days ago
THE LATEST

"The FBI last year used a dossier of allegations of Russian ties to Donald Trump's campaign as part of the justification" to monitor Carter Page, who was then a defense adviser to the Trump campaign. "The dossier has also been cited by FBI Director James Comey in some of his briefings to members of Congress in recent weeks."

Source:
AIR FORCE SCRAMBLES JETS IN RESPONSE
Russian Bombers Fly Near Alaska
5 days ago
WHY WE CARE
A MESSAGE TO RUSSIA?
Pentagon Deploying F-35s to Europe
1 weeks ago
THE LATEST

"The Air Force is set to deploy its high-tech, fifth-generation F-35A fighter jets to Europe this weekend as part of an effort to assure U.S. allies there who are worried about Russian aggression." The new, state-of-the-art fighters will train with European air units. "The Pentagon noted that the deployment had been long planned, meaning it was not a reaction to recent increasing tensions between the United States and Russia," although a statement noted the move is part of the "European Reassurance Initiative," which began three years ago when Russia annexed Crimea.

Source:
NOT ON SCHEDULE
Tillerson Meets Putin
1 weeks ago
BREAKING
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login