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 »
WITH LIVE BLOGGING
Trump Deposition Video Is Online
23 hours ago
STAFF PICKS

The video of Donald Trump's deposition in his case against restaurateur Jeffrey Zakarian is now live. Slate's Jim Newell and Josh Voorhees are live-blogging it while they watch.

Source:
SOUND LEVEL AFFECTED
Debate Commission Admits Issues with Trump’s Mic
1 days ago
THE LATEST

The Commission on Presidential Debates put out a statement today that gives credence to Donald Trump's claims that he had a bad microphone on Monday night. "Regarding the first debate, there were issues regarding Donald Trump's audio that affected the sound level in the debate hall," read the statement in its entirety.

Source:
TRUMP VS. CHEFS
Trump Deposition Video to Be Released
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"A video of Donald Trump testifying under oath about his provocative rhetoric about Mexicans and other Latinos is set to go public" as soon as today. "Trump gave the testimony in June at a law office in Washington in connection with one of two lawsuits he filed last year after prominent chefs reacted to the controversy over his remarks by pulling out of plans to open restaurants at his new D.C. hotel. D.C. Superior Court Judge Brian Holeman said in an order issued Thursday evening that fears the testimony might show up in campaign commercials were no basis to keep the public from seeing the video."

Source:
A CANDIDATE TO BE ‘PROUD’ OF
Chicago Tribune Endorses Gary Johnson
1 days ago
THE LATEST

No matter that his recall of foreign leaders leaves something to be desired, Gary Johnson is the choice of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board. The editors argue that Donald Trump couldn't do the job of president, while hitting Hillary Clinton for "her intent to greatly increase federal spending and taxation, and serious questions about honesty and trust." Which leaves them with Johnson. "Every American who casts a vote for him is standing for principles," they write, "and can be proud of that vote. Yes, proud of a candidate in 2016."

NEVER TRUMP
USA Today Weighs in on Presidential Race for First Time Ever
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

"By all means vote, just not for Donald Trump." That's the message from USA Today editors, who are making the first recommendation on a presidential race in the paper's 34-year history. It's not exactly an endorsement; they make clear that the editorial board "does not have a consensus for a Clinton endorsement." But they state flatly that Donald Trump is, by "unanimous consensus of the editorial board, unfit for the presidency."

Source:
×