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
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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.”

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