In December, 1991, as the Soviet Union crumbled into dust, Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence. Thus was created something of a nuclear problem. The new country was the world’s third largest nuclear power. Approximately 1,700 warheads remained on Ukrainian territory, a third of the Soviet arsenal.
The Ukrainians didn’t have control over the weapons, but they had the weapons, and probably could have established full operational control within 12 to 18 months. This gave everyone the jitters, including the Ukrainians. As a result, Britain and the United States helped Ukraine and Russia negotiate the Budapest Memorandum. In return for releasing the weapons to Russia, Ukraine received financial compensation and a guarantee from Russia “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”
Well, that was pre-Putin. Now the country’s borders have been breached by a massive military assault.
Some Ukrainians thought at the time it was a mistake to give up nuclear deterrence, but they were overruled. And not only Ukrainians thought it was a mistake. University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer predicted presciently that Ukraine without a nuclear deterrent was likely to be subjected to aggression by Russia.
But it had little choice. If it had taken that road, it would have faced sanctions from the West and retaliation from Russia, things the new country could hardly afford. It would have become a pariah.
Now consider Iran’s position. It is already a pariah. Not much to lose there. And without a deterrent it can never be sure it won’t find itself in Ukraine’s position. It may consider the fate of Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, two men who aspired to equip their counties with nuclear weapons but were dissuaded and paid the price. And they might contrast those two to Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of a ratty little country of 26 million that, like Iran, may suffer under sanctions but which no one dare invade.
And not only Iran. According to a recent poll, over 70 percent of South Koreans support developing the country’s own nuclear weapons, and it’s not hard to see why. How many other countries I wonder are uneasy about a lack of the ultimate deterrent in an increasingly threatening world.
It is hard to deny other countries the right to nuke up when the current nuclear powers betray the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Under the treaty, the five authorized nuclear weapons states are required to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” They are doing none of this. On the contrary, they are all upgrading their arsenals. And, of course, Russia is employing its arsenal as a big stick to wave at anybody thinking of seriously interfering with their aggression.
When the big boys are leading the world in the wrong direction, we can only expect others to follow.