Ukraine Crisis Could Have Been Nuclear

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Jon Wolfsthal
March 11, 2014

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a crisis reminiscent of the high days of the Cold War. Yet as bad as the situation is, were it not for past US efforts to remove nuclear weapons and materials from Ukraine, the current crisis could have been one with a more dangerous nuclear dimension. The story of how this nuclear crisis was prevented has important lessons for US-Russia cooperation, even in the face of Moscow’s dangerous behavior. Keeping these lessons in mind is critical if Washington is to carefully walk the right line between condemning Russia’s actions but maintaining its cooperation on other issues, like nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Born Nuclear?

Ukraine Missile Silo, Wikimedia Commons - Ukraine Crisis

Ukraine Missile Silo, Wikimedia Commons

When Ukraine became independent in 1991, 4,400 former Soviet nuclear weapons remained on its territory, along with enough highly enriched uranium for perhaps ten nuclear weapons. Few people today seem to remember the real nuclear dangers created when the USSR ceased to exist. In fact, nuclear weapons were left in four of the former Soviet Republics – Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. These included a large number of portable and poorly protected tactical nuclear weapons, as well as several thousand strategic nuclear weapons deployed on ground based long-range missiles. With the help of US taxpayers and persistent efforts by officials in the White House, and the Departments of State and Defense, Ukraine agreed in May 1992 to sign the Lisbon Protocol to the START Treaty, by which Ukraine (and Belarus and Kazakhstan) agreed to accede to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state. The result was a legal obligation for the three non-Russian republics to return all of the former Soviet weapons to Russia territory.

Ukraine returned the 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons left on its territory in early 1992, but some elements within the newly independent Ukrainian state pressed for Ukraine to retain the 1,900 strategic nuclear weapons that remained in country. It was no certainty that Ukraine would agree to return these weapons – which always remained under Russian military control – to Russian territory. Ukraine, however, insisted on several conditions for doing so, including receiving assurances against territorial and economic threats from any other state – in this case meaning Russia – and US money and technical assistant to return the weapons safely to Russia and eliminate the delivery systems in Ukraine.

Cooperation and engagement by the United States, Moscow and Kiev, as well as London, resulted in the 1994 Trilateral Statement agreed to by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. As a result, the last strategic nuclear weapons in Ukraine returned to Russia in 1996. Russia has now violated these commitments, posing questions about the value of security commitments provided by the United States and other major powers in the context of nonproliferation efforts. Russia’s blatant violation on this pledge, and Washington’s inability to enforce the same, has raised doubts about other commitments linked to nonproliferation, something that helps explain recent steps by the United States to expand air flights of F-16s and AWACS aircraft to Poland and Romania. New NATO members are understandably asking these tough questions of the alliance, necessitating a viable US response.

These concerns, however, are not relevant only to the history of the 1990s. The commitments to Ukrainian security also played a major role in the recent removal of highly enriched uranium from Ukraine. In fact, one reason Ukraine may have been willing to return the Russian nuclear weapons to Russia in the 1990s was the knowledge that over 230 kilograms of highly enriched uranium remained in the country. US officials had tried unsuccessfully for over 2 decades to convince Ukrainian officials to have this material shipped out of the country, knowing that under the surface some Ukrainian officials consider this material a kind of nuclear insurance policy.

The last of these materials were removed in 2012, as part of the Nuclear Security Summit process launched by President Obama in 2010. Direct and often repetitive negotiations with the now deposed President Viktor Yanukovych convinced Ukraine finally to ship the material out of country in between 2010 – 2012. In exchange, Ukraine received less sensitive nuclear material and advanced reactor technology that can be used in civilian applications, but not for weapons. The fact that less than two years later the country is facing upheavals validates the attention given to the issue by the President, Vice President and the leaders on the National Security Council.

What Are Commitments Worth

Russia, in violating its commitments to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity has put its leadership position in nonproliferation efforts very much in doubt. Likewise, the Obama Administration now needs to decide how far it is willing to go in backing up its own commitments to Ukraine’s integrity, with uneasy new NATO members watching closely. And as the United States and its allies struggle to determine an appropriate response, we would do well to remember that even during the worst days of the cold war, the United States and Russia maintained close cooperation on key nonproliferation issues – something that still serves the hard security interests of both countries. This was true even in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War when the disintegration of the Soviet Union threatened to undermine the entire system of nonproliferation.

The challenges ahead are multiple. One of the most difficult is how can Washington ensure that Moscow pays a sufficient price for its unlawful and dangerous actions without creating more instability and losing Russia’s needed cooperation in other areas, including ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. And can such a balance be maintained without undermining the value of security commitments, such as those given to Ukraine in the 1990s to convince them to return nuclear assets to Russia? White House officials are clearly trying to walk this line, knowing that legitimate concerns about what Moscow has done must be weighed against the need to maintain Moscow’s cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program. And while Moscow cannot ensure the success of talks with Iran, they can ensure their failure – even if doing so is not in Russia’s own strategic interests. It was mutual interest that led former Cold War enemies to cooperate in removing nuclear weapons from Ukraine, and it is this mutual interest in preventing a nuclear Iran that must continue to moderate US-Russian behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere.

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