Ukraine as victim of nuclear non-proliferation

Author Victor Rud is past Chairman of the Ukrainian American Bar Association, and currently chairs its Committee on Foreign Affairs

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn argued for “a world without nuclear weapons, [as] dangers continue to mount.” Lamenting “a dangerous policy paralysis” among the US, its allies and Russia, they write that the road to denuclearization is through “re-engagement” with Russia, a “joint declaration,” and “dialogue,” all with a goal of reaching “stability”.

The authors’ respective positions as former Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and Senator and Chair of the Armed Services Committee lend an implicit gravitas to their writing. But their writing does them no credit. They remain damningly silent about what happened to the largest country in Europe that also took their advice.

Following the fall of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine became the world’s third largest nuclear power (only after Russia and the US). Three years later Ukraine acceded to the very Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (“NPT”) that the authors celebrate. Kyiv surrendered its nuclear arsenal (under American hectoring) to, yes, Russia: 176 ICBM’s armed with 1,240 nuclear warheads, 44 strategic bombers armed with 1081 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, and an unspecified number of tactical nuclear warheads. Predictably enough, this also meant the implosion of Ukraine’s scientific-military-industrial complex that produced or maintained that arsenal, including the worlds’ largest ICBM plant. Never did anything even remotely resembling Ukraine’s surrender occur. Nor will it ever again.


In exchange for Ukraine’s denuclearization, the infamous 1994 “Memorandum on Security Assurances” (signed by Russia, the US, and the United Kingdom in Budapest) was intended to ensure Ukrainian sovereignty and national security. In early 2014, Russia (itself an NPT signatory and, bizarrely, the very recipient of Ukraine’s arsenal) nonetheless invaded, occupied and annexed Ukrainian territory, shattering its obligations under the Memorandum. Both from the standpoint of preventing any such violation by Russia in the first place (which was the entire purpose of the Memorandum) and from the standpoint of causing Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine, America “policy” has failed. Ukraine’s human costs, alone, in the ensuing more than half a decade has been heinous–the disemboweling of children is a war crime. The costs to our own, and regional and global security, has been accelerating, and may easily expand beyond the monetary.

It can be argued that the Memorandum literally obligates the US only to enter into “consultations” with the other parties. Yet that hardly rises to an “assurance of security.” It manifestly was never the intention of the parties to hinge Ukraine’s denuclearization on Washington’s commitment to place a phone call to the UN in the event of a Russian invasion. Further, the Memorandum essentially restates the obligations already extant in the UN Charter and other international agreements of the parties. Regardless, given Russia’s breach there is nothing to keep Ukraine from withdrawing from the NPT and renewing its nuclear arsenal. Little wonder that the authors don’t mention this reality.

A year before invading Ukraine, Putin wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed: “[I]f you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus, a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen non-proliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.”