As the crisis in Ukraine deepens, media commentators and members of Congress are returing to Cold War rhetoric on nuclear weapons, calling for a halt to already-negotiated cutbacks in the massive U.S. arsenal and/or extending the reach of our nuclear umbrella to Kiev. Sen. Marco Rubio on 'Meet the Press" called for expanding our so-called "missile shield" defense.
Still, it's worth remembering that it could be much worse. No nukes is good news, in Ukraine.
Remember that when the Soviet Union broke up, several of the breakaway republics took with them some of Mother Russia’s nukes. Ukraine had many of them, the biggest budget and a lot of animosity toward Russia. But somehow, with our help, they gave them up. Bill Maher even shoved this fact down the throat of Bill Kristol last night on his HBO show when Kristol disparaged diplomacy.
The terrific Amy Davidson of The New Yorker reviews the history here.
It was not obvious where all these missiles would end up, particularly not in the case of Ukraine, which was stronger than the others and more sharply at odds with Russia; it thought it might find better friends. (Steven Pifer, of the Brookings Institution, has a useful review.) The new Ukrainian government also thought that Russia was not negotiating in good faith (from a certain perspective, it had absconded with Ukraine’s tactical warheads). Russia, meanwhile, suggested that the Ukrainians were not decent stewards of the weapons: they didn’t know how to take care of them, and they would deteriorate and turn into public hazards—“much worse than Chernobyl,” the Russian Foreign Minister said at the time. The disaster at Chernobyl had given the Ukrainians a look at a nuclear accident; it had also underscored a sense that Moscow was neglectful and mendacious. They also knew that I.C.B.M.s, even if they had no use for them, contained highly enriched uranium that was extremely valuable. And Ukraine needed money. In September, 1993, the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine fell apart.
The United States could have approached this in any number of ways. One might have been heedlessly, without a full understanding of the danger—gleeful about the spectacle, and glad to see the inheritors of the Soviet Union dispossessed of a few more bombs. We could have helped keep Ukraine a nuclear power, thinking that it would make the country, in some way, ours. Or we could have been excessively fearful, and supported Moscow’s contention that the Ukrainians had no right to these things, anyway, encouraging them to just go in and take them. This might have made the dissolution of the Soviet Union look a lot more like a civil war, in which our position was ambiguous. We could have postured, and lost the Cold War peace.
Instead, we offered two things…
Read on to see what happened. And see a full report by a Brookings expert here.
Then Davidson concludes:
What are the lessons for the current crisis, other than to be abjectly relieved that we don’t live in a world where nuclear weapons are even more loosely held than they are? One is to not disparage diplomacy, or treat it as a lesser form of foreign policy, or to think that there is no place for a calm middle. Another is to remember how human and fallible the actors are, and how much listening and getting a sense of their interests can help.
Read Next: Nation in the News: Stephen Cohen: The US Should Promote a Stable and United Ukraine.