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.
Today Ukraine faces a resurgent Russia and the bear is in an ugly mood. While an attempt at outright annexation seems unlikely-Ukraine would be far less digestible than tiny Georgia-the potential for conflict is growing. Agitation by Russian nationalists, including Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov, about the Crimea, which is connected to Ukraine only by a narrow causeway, grows louder as Ukraine's president Viktor Yushchenko says there will be no extension of the lease for the Russian navy's base in Sevastopol, which runs out in 2017. Moreover, in the midst of Russia's war with Georgia, he signed a decree curbing Russian naval missions out of Sevastopol. Moscow insisted on its treaty rights and Kiev gave way. The Ukrainian government had no power to enforce its threat, but the squabble further embittered relations. President Yushchenko subsequently declared that Ukraine would increase rent on the base's land facilities.
More ominously, many ethnic Russians living in Crimea express their support for returning to Russia. Some of them organized protests against Ukrainian-NATO naval maneuvers in July. One Crimean told Reuters that, "The fleet is a protection against everything-including NATO." Moscow recently promised to deal "shattering blows" against anyone who threatened the Russian-speaking community.
Ukrainians have taken notice. Student leader Oleg Yatsenko warned that, "These people are separatists. They want to do the same thing here that was done in Georgia." Oleksandr Suchko of the Kiev-based Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation worried: "If the West swallows the pill and forgives Russia the Georgian war, the invasion of ‘peacekeeping tanks' into Ukraine will be just a matter of time." President Yushchenko warns that, "What has happened [in Georgia] is a threat to everyone, not just for one country. Any nation could be next, any country."
Moreover, a split has developed within Kiev over relations with Russia. Although Yulia Timoshenko played the role of pro-Western firebrand in 2004, as prime minister she has become the reasonable moderate towards Russia. Her staff reportedly contains officials with access to the Kremlin and she appears to have become the government leader with whom Moscow can do business. President Yuschenko's deputy Chief of Staff, Andriy Kyslynskyi, charged that she "systematically works in the interests of the Russian side" and that her actions "show signs of high treason and political corruption." With Yuschenko-at a dismal seven percent in the polls-and Timoshenko headed towards a bitter presidential contest next year, relations with Russia, an important issue for the country's Russian-language speakers, may become an electoral wild card. One office worker in Kiev told the New York Times: "We're next. Sooner or later our president is going to say or do something that goes too far, and then it will start."
Ukraine might survive these challenges unscathed. But it is vulnerable to Russian intimidation primarily because Moscow could apply disproportionate military force if it desired. Ukraine's internal demographics and politics make it less stable, but its vulnerability to outside pressure largely stems from its military weakness vis-à-vis Russia.
All of this would make for interesting political theater if the United States and Europe were not involved. But Washington has invested heavily in the Yuschenko government, just like the Saakashvili government. The United States aided the supposed pro-West reform team of Yuschenko and Timoshenko during the 2004 election campaign and has advanced Ukraine for NATO membership. The politically active Ukrainian diaspora in America is heavily weighted towards nationalists who despise Moscow. The Europeans also backed Yushchenko in the disputed election and have provided financial aid and economic ties since then.
Vice President Dick Cheney is preparing to visit the region, and last week his national security adviser declared, "The overriding priority, especially in Baku, Tbilisi, and Kiev, will be the same: a clear and simple message that the United States has a deep and abiding interest in the well-being and security in this part of the world." British Foreign Secretary David Milibrand recently visited, proclaiming that his trip was "intended to send a simple message. We have not forgotten our commitments to you. Nor shall we do so."
But the West has been remarkably short with meaningful assistance. The EU won't even commit to bringing in Ukraine, something to which Moscow has voiced no objection. Thus, it should come as no surprise that President Yuschenko wants more than words from Washington and Brussels. To celebrate his country's 17th anniversary of independence on August 24, he ordered, against the wishes of the prime minister, a military parade, rather like the old Soviet military displays through Red Square. He joined the leaders of the Baltic nations and Poland in a "show of solidarity" with Georgia. He offered to give the United States and Europe access to Ukraine's missile warning systems-which is the old Soviet system. Most importantly, he avidly supports Ukrainian NATO membership. He explained in the Washington Post: "This conflict has proved once again that the best means of ensuring the national security of Ukraine and other countries is to participate in the collective security system of free democratic nations, exemplified today by NATO."
That might be the best option for Ukraine, but it certainly isn't a good policy for the United States or Europe. Of course, some Americans talk about rushing Kiev into the alliance as if doing so were no more significant than rushing a college fraternity. National Review demanded that the first step in response to Russia "must be for the U.S. to agree with its NATO allies to confirm an offer of NATO membership for both Georgia and Ukraine," perhaps at an emergency NATO summit. At least some NATO advocates understand that NATO remains a military alliance. Clinton's political strategist, Dick Morris, and Eileen McGann say that Ukraine "can and must be defended by NATO." Yet going to war with Russia-which in this case means peering into the nuclear abyss-over Ukraine is little more palatable than doing so for Georgia.
Moreover, NATO membership isn't even an effective guarantor for Kiev. Just joining the alliance won't ensure that the other members will be prepared to confront Moscow militarily in a crisis. The likelihood of German, French, Italian, and British legions suiting up to rescue Kiev in a territorial squabble with Russia is low at best. America's willingness would be little greater, especially if the other major NATO members opted out. Ukraine wants a real security guarantee, but it is not likely to be forthcoming from NATO even if membership is offered.
But imagine if Ukraine had kept a few of its Soviet-era nuclear weapons and missiles. Talk of Russian pressure, let alone attack, would disappear.
The nuclear force would not have to have been large. For instance, the 46 SS-24s, which Ukraine's President Kravchuk once suggested keeping, each held 10 warheads. Every missile could include warheads targeted on Moscow and St. Petersburg, with the other eight warheads randomly covering other large cities. Even if only one survived a preventive Russian attack, it would be capable of inflicting massive destruction on Russia. A few hundred tactical nuclear weapons would be capable of devastating any conventional forces used in a Russian attack.
Ukraine would be more secure, without having to hope for rescue from the West. The United States and Europeans would not find themselves pushed to defend a country with no intrinsic security value to them. They would not be contemplating a policy of confrontation with a nuclear-armed power.
There obviously would be downsides to Kiev's possession of a nuclear arsenal, and the past cannot be reclaimed. But there is a lesson to be learned for the future: idealistic policies adopted in haste might actually make the world a more dangerous place. If America and Europe eventually find themselves at war in Ukraine, they are likely to rue the day that the final Ukrainian nuclear warhead was sent back to Russia at Washington's behest.
Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire (Xulon).