Should Ukraine have given up its nuclear arsenal?

e13-iconThe Guardian reports: Ukraine’s prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has accused Russia of demonstrating unacceptable “military aggression” which has “no reason and no grounds”.

Moscow has deployed 10,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, deepening the crisis in Crimea ahead of a last desperate effort by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, to broker a deal with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in London on Friday.

Yatsenyuk told the UN security council on Thursday he is convinced Russians do not want war. He urged Russia’s leaders to heed the people’s wishes and return to dialogue with Ukraine. “If we start real talks with Russia, I believe we can be real partners,” Yatsenyuk said.

He said Ukraine gave up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal in 1994 in exchange for guarantees of its independence and territorial integrity. After Russia’s recent actions, Yatsenyuk said, “it would be difficult to convince anyone on the globe not to have nuclear weapons”. [Continue reading…]

In an op-ed for the New York Times yesterday, John Mearsheimer wrote: The West has few options for inflicting pain on Russia, while Moscow has many cards to play against Ukraine and the West. It could invade eastern Ukraine or annex Crimea, because Ukraine regrettably relinquished the nuclear arsenal it inherited when the Soviet Union broke up and thus has no counter to Russia’s conventional superiority.

No doubt, if Israel’s leaders are ever pushed into a position where they need to defend retaining their own nuclear arsenal, they will surely be tempted to cite Professor Mearsheimer’s position — that giving up such weapons can turn out to be regrettable.

Let’s suppose, however, that Ukraine was still bristling with nuclear weapons — at its peak its arsenal was larger than those of Britain, France, and China combined — are we to imagine that its interim government would now be making veiled threats to incinerate Moscow? Are we to suppose that Russian forces would have stayed out of Crimea? After all, how many wars have Israel’s nuclear weapons prevented?

It seems just as likely that in the current situation, Putin would be arguing that Russia had no choice but take over the whole of Ukraine — not under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians but in the name of defending global security, his argument being that in an unstable Ukraine, “loose nukes” pose a threat to everyone.

What seems regrettable is not that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons but that the security guarantees it was given for doing so appear to have been worthless.

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1 thought on “Should Ukraine have given up its nuclear arsenal?

  1. Julian Zinovieff

    Mearsheimer’s position may be a deal more nuanced than you suggest. Of course Israel’s possession of nuclear clout has not prevented aggression, it enabled it. At least, it has been unchallenged. Mearsheimer sees sanctions against Russia as “a big mistake”. With a perceived “direct threat to Russia’s core strategic interests” and a clear track record of NATO expansionism, Russia is unlikely to back down. The immediate context of your quote is advice to Obama “to stop talking to lawyers and start thinking like a strategist. If he did, he would realize that punishing the Russians while trying to pull Ukraine into the West’s camp will only make matters worse.”

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