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A book, nuclear weapons, means and ends

Jun 20, 2023Jun 20, 2023

May 31, 2023

By John Erath

One of the benefits of working at the Center is the opportunity to collaborate with some of the top experts in the field, people who bring knowledge, insight and a variety of different viewpoints to discussions of international security. Earlier this year, I was privileged to chair a panel including one such expert, Mariana Budjeryn, who has recently published a new book, Inheriting the Bomb , a study of Ukraine's nuclear legacy and the process by which it gave up the nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union. The story of Ukraine's progress toward disarmament is intimately connected with Ukraine's realization of its regained status as an independent state and the way it defined its nationhood. In researching the book, Mariana was able to gain access to previously unavailable sources and recently declassified records — as well as interviews with some of those involved — to tell the story in a more complete way than has been previously related.

With Ukraine under attack from its larger neighbor, this book assumes a greater importance. Some commentators have suggested that Ukraine was wrong to give up its nuclear weapons, and that possession of such weapons might have been enough to deter Moscow from invading. Mariana demonstrates conclusively that this was never an option. Ukraine lacked much of the necessary command and control and support infrastructures and was not in a position financially to build them. Additionally, the international community, on whom Ukraine depended for assistance, was strongly against adding nuclear weapons states. Perhaps most importantly, the legacy of the Chernobyl accident and first-hand experience with the effects of radiation led to reluctance to rely on anything nuclear for national security.

One aspect of the book which I had not previously considered was the crucial role of the United States in Ukraine's denuclearization process. U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) was a key facilitator and enabled the destruction of thousands of nuclear weapons throughout the former USSR. Even more important was Washington's insistence on a non-nuclear Ukraine in the process of managing the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Although this was undoubtedly the right, and really the only possible, outcome, it was the way that U.S. leaders went about getting there that possibly could have been done better. Thinking about the process as it was described in the book, it seems as though there was a major error.

Both the Bush and Clinton administrations chose to define the problem to be solved as denuclearizing Ukraine. In reality, this should have been a means to an end, one element in a broader strategy to make the Eurasian region more stable following the demise of the Soviet empire. By treating Ukraine's ratification of the START treaty and accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear state in return for a rehashing of existing security assurances as the goal, U.S. policy did not address the other challenge to security in the former Soviet space: Russian revanchism, or determination to dominate what had been their empire. This was demonstrated early on by Russian attempts to influence Ukrainian politics and by the encouragement of separatist elements in Crimea and the Donbas, a playbook implemented with varying degrees of success in the Baltics, Georgia, and Moldova.

By making the nuclear issue the primary focus of Ukraine policy, Washington may have inadvertently undermined its own non-proliferation goals. The message seemed clear that America cared only about weapons of mass destruction, so that defining the problem as getting Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons may have contributed to the perceived importance of such weapons. The decades following the Cold War saw this played out again and again, in North Korea, Iraq, Libya, South Asia and most recently, Iran.

The question of how to manage Ukraine's denuclearization also brought about a rare communion of U.S. and Russian interests. Both large countries prioritized having Russia as the sole inheritor of the Soviet nuclear capability, and both brought pressure on Ukraine to achieve the goal. In the end, though, Russia let the United States do most of the diplomatic heavy lifting, effectively getting what it wanted for little more than symbolic concessions. The most important of these, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the nuclear states "guaranteed" Ukrainian sovereignty, proved easy to discard in 2014 when the time came to seize Ukrainian territory.

It is not possible to state that had Washington identified the real issue — the peaceful succession of independent states to the USSR — correctly and molded its policy to use denuclearization as a means to that end, Russia would not have invaded in 2014 or 2022. As Mariana writes, "Nuclear decisions are multicausal." Keeping Ukraine as an appendage, or ersatz colony, of Russia is perceived in Moscow as too vital an interest to forego. However, the current situation shows that subordinating all other issues to the question of how to induce Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons was ultimately unsuccessful in terms of averting Russian aggression and did not lead to a secure Ukraine able to deter revanchism. Arms control remains a tool, when done correctly a highly effective one, to improve international security, but becomes less effective when treated as an end in itself. The Clinton administration scored an important success in helping Ukraine divest its nuclear weapons, given that keeping them would have been all but impossible. It needed to do more in helping Ukraine build its own security.

For this reason, I hope that Mariana's book becomes required reading for students of arms control and policymakers alike. As many are starting to question the future of arms control, it is good to be reminded that it continues to have an important role as part of broader diplomatic efforts and should be an element of future security arrangements. As we look to the eventual end of the current war, it is well to consider what contribution arms control can have in building stability.

Posted in: Europe, Factsheets & Analysis on Russia, Nuclear Security, Nukes of Hazard blog, Russia, Ukraine