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Proliferation and Nonproliferation in Ukraine: Implications for European and U.S. Security

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | July 1994

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When the Soviet Union collapsed the new Ukrainian state inherited the nuclear weapons that had been deployed on its territory. Through 1993 there was growing support in Ukraine for the establishment of a quid pro quo. Many Ukrainians felt that, in return for denuclearization, Ukraine should receive security and economic guarantees from both Washington and Moscow. Until then it would hold back on dismantling and transferring the weapons to Russia, signing the START treaties, and ratifying the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty. But in January 1994, after considerable coaxing and pressure, Ukraine agreed with Russia and the United States to proceed along those lines. This monograph examines the reasoning behind that decision and the implications of it for Ukraine's security and for its relationship with the United States.

Ukraine's primary reasons for retaining the weapons were to deter Russia and to obtain U.S. guarantees and attention. However, because it never even began successful economic reform, Ukraine's economic condition has sharply deteriorated--to the degree that it now finds itself menaced by both economic collapse and ethnic separatism by its Russian population, mainly in Crimea. Despite its best efforts, Ukraine did not secure binding American guarantees of security. Meanwhile, compensation for its expenses is contingent upon ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty which has yet to be consummated.

Ukraine's politics remain deadlocked as does its security profile and it increasingly seems that Kiev believes America will ease its demands for substantial economic reform in order to protect it against the Russian threat. That threat is a real one deriving its power from the omnipresent Russian denial that Ukraine is or should be a sovereign state. Russia has employed nuclear blackmail, economic warfare, political and diplomatic campaigns, and incidents in the Black Sea to isolate Ukraine, diminish its sovereignty, and induce, if not coerce, it back into a military-political union with Russia in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) . Therefore, Moscow regarded the prospect of Ukrainian nuclearization with unfeigned alarm. And precisely for that reason Ukraine's weapons, like Russia's, were used essentially as instruments of political bargaining and deterrence.

However, with the conclusion of the tripartite accord in January 1994, the United States has committed itself to involvement in all aspects of the Russo-Ukrainian relationship that are crucial to the security of the CIS and Europe. Perhaps without realizing it, the United States has become a permanent factor in the regional security equation. The United States is seen by Kiev, whatever U.S. policy is in actuality, as being able to guarantee Ukraine against Moscow's pressures. At the same time, Ukraine's obdurate failure to reform its economy and its deepening political gridlock at home mean that the greatest andmost immediate threats to it are ones that the United States can do little about. While it was appropriate for the U.S. Government to engage itself seriously with Ukraine, the task of ensuring Ukraine's security is so immense and growing so much more difficult due to Kiev's own misrule, that it may not be possible for the United States to avoid entanglement in what could easily be another Yugoslav type situation, albeit in countries with nuclear systems on their soil.