Posted by on January 13, 2022 11:09 pm
Categories: News Washington Examiner

In 1994, the US succeeded in convincing Ukraine to give up its nukes but failed to secure its future

In 1994, the US succeeded in convincing Ukraine to give up its nukes but failed to secure its future

Jamie McIntyre January 13, 11:00 PMJanuary 13, 11:00 PM

In March 1994, I stood in a chilly, windswept field in the fertile farmlands of Pervomaysk, Ukraine, where, as the last of the spring snow was melting, William Perry and other U.S. officials were peering into a deep underground missile silo to see something that wasn’t there.

I had traveled to Pervomaysk with Perry, the first U.S. defense secretary, to visit a former Soviet ICBM base to observe how U.S. tax dollars were helping to fund the denuclearization of Ukraine, a top priority of the Clinton administration.

Perry’s tour guide, Ukrainian Defense Minister Vitaly Radetsky, pointed to a Soviet SS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile still in the ground, but with its nose cone containing 10 independently targeted warheads gone, loaded on rail cars and shipped to Russia for dismantling.

Radetsky had already shown Perry around the underground command center. A giant wall map of the United States and Europe had cities marked with tiny lights, and Ukrainian missileers demonstrated the launch sequence for their guests.

“We watched the countdown and stared at the targets highlighted on the maps — cities in Germany and England, in Kansas and Oregon,” Perry would later write in his 1999 book Preventive Defense.

“Never had the ‘balance of terror’ seemed as real and terrible … as at that moment.”

Just two months earlier in Moscow, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, along with President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, signed a trilateral agreement, brokered by the U.S., to transfer all nuclear warheads to Russia for elimination.

In return for becoming a nonnuclear weapons state as a signatory of the Nonproliferation Treaty, Ukraine would get financial compensation, economic assistance, and essential security assurances from the U.S., United Kingdom, and Russia recognizing Ukraine’s “independence and sovereignty” and specifying its existing borders could be changed “only peacefully by mutual agreement.”

Those assurances would prove worthless two decades later when Putin’s Russia illegally annexed Crimea and, through proxies, took control of the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Ukraine inherited nearly 2,000 nuclear weapons, including 176 ICBMs and some of the Soviet’s most modern bombers armed with long-range nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

Had Ukraine retained the Soviet arsenal, it would have been the third most powerful nuclear nation on Earth after the U.S. and Russia, and it arguably would have been vulnerable to threats from Putin.

But in 1994, the U.S. was far more concerned with America’s security than Ukraine’s, mainly because there was no predicting what kind of government would emerge from the fledgling democracy.

Plus, Ukraine wasn’t the only former Soviet republic with nuclear weapons. Belarus and Kazakhstan had them, too.

Secretary of State James Baker was among those who believed that in the bitterly divided former Soviet Union, allowing the newly independent states to remain armed with nuclear weapons would be folly, something Baker compared to a “Yugoslavia with nukes” in December 1991.

“That could be an extraordinarily dangerous situation for Europe and for the rest of the world — indeed for the United States,” Baker said on CBS’s Face the Nation.

Giving up its nukes was controversial in Ukraine at the time, but ultimately, the new country had little choice if it wanted to forge better relations with the West.

It also wasn’t clear if Ukraine had operational control of the weapons or whether Moscow retained the launch codes.

Ultimately, Ukraine’s miscalculation was not so much giving up its nukes but giving them up in return for vague assurances that could be ignored with no consequences.

It’s a hard lesson that has been absorbed by aspiring nuclear states and is a significant complicating factor in negotiating nonproliferation and denuclearization agreements with leaders of countries worried about being invaded by a militarily superior power.

At his 2018 Singapore summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump signed a joint declaration committing the U.S. to unspecified security guarantees in return for Kim’s pledge of “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

But in the end, talks broke down, and Kim calculated his hold on power was better secured with his nascent nuclear arsenal than paper pledges from a U.S. president who might soon be out of office.

During his term, Trump demonstrated, by ripping up the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, exiting the Paris climate accord, and withdrawing from several Cold War-era treaties, that U.S. promises are only good as so long as the administration in office backs them.

Iran thought it had a sweet deal with the U.S. and other world powers negotiated under President Barack Obama, only to have Trump pull the carpet out from under it.

President Joe Biden thought he could convince Iran to rejoin the agreement under the original terms, but burned once, Iran added a condition: that the U.S. guarantee that no future president would renege on the deal as Trump did.

But that’s not a promise the U.S. can make, particularly considering the distinct possibility Trump could be back in office in three years.

With the nuclear talks stalled, Iran has been ramping up its production of weapons-grade uranium, while the U.S. and Israel have been contemplating possible military action.

The unfortunate implication is that nuclear weapons trump security assurances whenever it comes to deterring attacks.

Iran’s leaders, for example, see what happened to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who failed to obtain nuclear weapons, and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up his nuclear ambitions, while North Korea’s Kim comfortably thumbs his nose at the international community because he’s sitting on a small arsenal of rudimentary but nevertheless powerful nuclear bombs.

The lesson is that while other countries may sanction a nuclear weapons state, they won’t dare invade it.

No one understands the questionable value of unenforceable assurances better than Russia, which has violated numerous agreements since Putin took over, not the least of which was the promise made by his predecessor Yeltsin not to violate Ukraine’s sovereign territory.

So, there was a rich bit of irony after the latest U.S.-Russia talks in Geneva this month when Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov insisted Moscow must have more than vague assurances that Ukraine would never join NATO.

“We need ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees. Not assurances, not safeguards, but guarantees,” Ryabkov told reporters.

He knows whereof he speaks.

Jamie McIntyre is the Washington Examiner’s senior writer on defense and national security. His morning newsletter, “Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense,” is free and available by email subscription at

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Originally appeared at Washington Examiner

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