Ukrainian Missile Defenseless

Though eliminating Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal seemed like a good idea after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it could have been a valuable deterrent now that Russia has become a potential threat.

The crisis over Georgia has abated, but its ramifications will only increase. People across Europe are worrying, What of Ukraine? At this moment the denuclearization of Ukraine looks like a shortsighted nod to foreign-policy correctness, putting mostly theoretical nonproliferation concerns ahead of very real international security interests.
When the Soviet Union broke up, thousands of nuclear weapons remained in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus (as well as Russia, of course). Ukraine ended up as the world's third-largest nuclear power, with 1,240 nuclear warheads on 130 SS-19s and 46 SS-24s, 564 bomber-mounted cruise missiles and about 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons. Although the codes were controlled by Russia, the systems could be hacked and the weapons retargeted. One of America's principal foreign policy goals became disarming these inadvertent nuclear-weapons states.

The objective was valid, but there were countervailing foreign-policy interests. As has just been made clear-the Soviet break-up, a sudden response to the USSR's worsening internal political crisis-did not necessarily result in final boundaries. Which means that the events of 1989, though truly glorious in terms of human liberty, sowed the seeds of future conflict, such as between Russia and Georgia. Unfortunately, the importance of assuring stability and security throughout the former Soviet empire received little consideration.

With a strong push from both Washington and Moscow, removal of nuclear weapons from Belarus and Kazakhstan proceeded with minimal controversy. The case of Ukraine, the largest Soviet secessionist state, was more complicated. The new nation had a population of 52 million and tore a huge hole in not just the Soviet Union but also in what had been imperial Russia. Although yearning for independence long permeated western Ukraine, ethnic Russians, who make up about 20 percent of the total population, predominate in the south and east. Moreover, the Crimea-in which 58 percent of the people are ethnic Russians, and many retain Russian passports-only became part of Ukraine in 1954, a then-meaningless geopolitical gift from Ukrainian Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Joseph Stalin as the USSR's Communist Party General Secretary. When the Soviet Union broke up, Russians and many Crimeans believed that Crimea should revert to Russia. Indeed, in 1993 the Russian parliament approved a resolution to reclaim Sevastopol, and the two countries bickered bitterly over disposition of the Black Sea Fleet, most of which went to Russia.

Despite their general euphoria at escaping Soviet control, some Ukrainians perceived clouds on the horizon. And they believed that their unexpected nuclear force could act as a source of national pride and military security. The denuclearization process stretched out more than two years as first Ukraine's president temporized and then the parliament, or Rada, resisted.

Thus, the Clinton administration had to apply substantial diplomatic pressure-even refusing a Ukrainian request to send President Clinton to Kiev to meet with Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk-and offer substantial economic inducements to get Kiev to yield its arsenal and send the nuclear material back to Russia. Even after Ukraine's government signed on the dotted line, nationalists opposed the plan in the Rada. They loudly voiced their fears about future threats from Moscow and demanded security guarantees. They received an invitation from America to participate in the Partnership for Peace and an association with NATO, in addition to an offer to mediate security disputes with Russia.

The Clinton administration celebrated its success. It eased negotiations with Moscow to implement the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which resulted in dramatic cuts in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. But there were dissident American voices as well. For instance, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago argued for preserving a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent, leaving Kiev with sufficient force to deter a revanchist Russia. He wrote in Foreign Affairs, 

it is imperative to maintain peace between Russia and Ukraine. That means ensuring that the Russians, who have a history of bad relations with Ukraine, do not move to reconquer it. 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. Ukrainian nuclear weapons are the only reliable deterrent to Russian aggression.

No doubt, there were reasons many people slept easier after Ukraine yielded its nuclear missiles. Although there has been no state failure in Ukraine, the disputed 2004 elections resulted in at least a temporary regime crisis. And the dysfunctional Yuschenko/ Timoshenko tandem has created political instability. Yet while Kiev seems to have institutionalized black political comedy, there is no reason to believe that a small arsenal of nuclear weapons would have been compromised. All other things being equal, it is better that Ukraine does not have an atomic capability, but all other things are not equal.