Ukraine and nuclear proliferation: Russia’s invasion has made U.S. assurances seem meaningless

A pro-Russian protester waves a Russian flag next to a statue of Lenin during a rally in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on March 10

The damage to world order from Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea will echo for years, but one of the biggest casualties deserves more attention: the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. One lesson to the world of Russia’s cost-free carve-up of Ukraine is that nations that abandon their nuclear arsenals do so at their own peril.

This story goes back to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia’s nuclear arsenal was spread among the former Soviet republics that had become independent nations. Ukraine had some 1,800 nuclear weapons, including short-range tactical weapons, air-launched cruise missiles and bombers. Only Russia and the U.S. had more at the time, and Ukraine’s arsenal was both modern and highly survivable in the event of a first strike.

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Cossack men install a Russian flag and a Crimean flag on the roof of the City Hall building in Bakhchysarai, Ukraine, March 16

The U.S. was rightly concerned that these warheads could end up in the wrong hands, and the Clinton Administration made controlling them a foreign-policy priority.

The result was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances in which Ukraine agreed to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and return its nuclear arsenal to Russia in exchange for security “assurances” by Russia, the U.S. and United Kingdom.

Those included promises to respect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty within its existing borders, as well as refraining from threatening or using force against Ukraine.

Officials in Kiev clearly had the potential for Russian aggression in mind when they sought those assurances, which is one reason they wanted other nations to co-sign as well. China and France later added somewhat weaker assurances in separate attachments to the Budapest Memo.

The 100-meter sword-wielding statue of “The Motherland” is seen in the National Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War in Kiev, Ukraine March 17, 2014

Ukraine also wanted to take many years to turn over its weapons, but the U.S. wanted quicker action and by 1996 Ukraine had given up its entire nuclear arsenal. It was an important victory for nonproliferation—a success rooted in the world’s post-Cold War confidence in American power and deterrence.

Contrast that with the current crisis. President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have blasted Russia for its clear violation of the Budapest accord, but those U.S. and U.K. assurances have been exposed as meaningless. That lesson isn’t lost on Ukraine, but it also won’t be lost on the rest of the world.

Had Kiev kept its weapons rather than giving them up in return for parchment promises, would Vladimir Putin have been so quick to invade Crimea two weeks ago? It’s impossible to know, but it’s likely it would have at least given him more pause.

Ukraine’s fate is likely to make the world’s nuclear rogues, such as Iran and North Korea, even less likely to give up their nuclear facilities or weapons. As important, it is likely to make nonnuclear powers and even close U.S. allies wonder if they can still rely on America’s security guarantees.

People attend a rally to support the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea to Russia in Red Square in central Moscow, on Tuesday

Japan and South Korea are sure to consider their nuclear options as China presses its own territorial claims. South Korean public opinion is already in favor of an independent nuclear deterrent. And several Middle East countries, notably Saudi Arabia, are already contemplating their nuclear options once Iran becomes a nuclear power. Ukraine’s fate will only reinforce those who believe these countries can’t trust American assurances.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that President Obama has made nuclear nonproliferation one of his highest priorities. In April 2009 in Prague, he promised to lead a crusade to rid the world of nuclear weapons with treaties and the power of America’s moral example. But documents and “assurances” have never kept any country safe from the world’s predators. Only comparable military power or the protection of a superpower like the U.S. can do that. When the superpower’s assurances are called into question, the world becomes a far more dangerous place.

On present trend Mr. Obama’s legacy won’t be new limits on the spread of nuclear weapons. Instead he’ll be the President who presided over, and been a major cause of, a new era of global nuclear proliferation.

To underscore the point, next week Mr. Obama will travel to The Hague to preach the virtues of nonproliferation at his third global Nuclear Security Summit. Also expected: Vladimir Putin.