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Should Ukraine Have Gotten Rid of Its Cold War Nukes?

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

A woman protests against Russian military intervention in the Crimea region of Ukraine on Sunday in New York City. A woman protests against Russian military intervention in the Crimea region of Ukraine on Sunday in New York City. (Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

With Russian troops now occupying Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, Kiev's beleagered interim leaders may be thinking twice about their nation's 1994 decision to abandon nuclear weapons.

The East European country actually held the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But Kiev in 1994 agreed to transfer all its atomic arms to Russia for elimination, shortly thereafter joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear nation, and within two years was weapons-free.

At the time, John Mearsheimer was one of very few who saw it as an unwise move.

"As soon as it declared independence, Ukraine should have been quietly encouraged to fashion its own nuclear deterrent," the University of Chicago scholar wrote in a 1993 Foreign Policy piece. "A nuclear Ukraine ... is imperative to maintain peace between Ukraine and Russia. ... 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."

Today Moscow is sending more troops to Ukraine, where it bases its Black Sea Fleet, amid consternation in Washington and throughout Europe that the nation's entire eastern region might soon fall under Russian control. President Obama last Friday threatened there would be "costs" to Russia if it intervened, but stopped short of offering specifics.

Is Mearsheimer -- still a political science professor at Chicago -- feeling vindicated?

"I do think they should have kept their nukes," he said on Sunday via email. "If Ukraine had a real nuclear deterrent, the Russians would not be threatening to invade it."

Even given Russia's Cold War-reminiscent actions over the past week, others are thinking Ukraine's two-decade old move to jettison its nuclear stockpile was the right call. In fact, Kremlin-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2011 called for other nations in the region to join his country in creating an East European nuclear weapon-free zone.

“Ukraine with nuclear weapons is one heck of a dangerous idea," John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, said in a Monday email. "There is already in the mix eastern Ukraine vs. western Ukraine, East vs. West Cold War overtones, Russian vs. U.S. interventionism. ... It would be like tossing a package of lighted matches into a vat of flammable fluids. The results would be unpredictable, but hazardous for everyone’s health.”

Yet, rewinding history just a few weeks, Mearsheimer said it is possible that none of the recent instability in Ukraine would have occurred if the nation had kept its atomic arms at the close of the Cold War.

"I doubt whether we would have been so anxious to foster a coup," Mearsheimer said of the United States, had Yanukovych and his government wielded a nuclear arsenal. "One treads very lightly -- to put it mildly -- when threatening the survival of a nuclear-armed state, or even the regime in charge of it."

Isaacs, however, sees the risk of nuclear war as simply too high for these arms to act reliably as a stabilizing tool for conflict deterrence.

"There is no predicting what Russia would have done if Ukraine had retained nuclear weapons," he told Global Security Newswire. "We do know that the risk of nuclear holocaust would have increased immeasurably."

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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