Ukraine’s nuclear lesson: Don’t trust Russia’s security ‘guarantees’

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KYIV — Around 30 years ago, Ukraine handed all its nuclear weapons to Russia in exchange for promises of peace from Moscow. Western powers brokered the deal. 

The promises proved empty. 

Now, Yuri Kostenko is fearful history may be repeating itself. Kostenko, a 70-year-old Ukrainian politician, was at the forefront of Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament in the 1990s, with stints as environment minister and nuclear safety minister. For six months, he was also Kyiv’s lead negotiator over the nuclear deal.

In retrospect, he said, Ukraine should have managed its own nuclear disarmament and held out until it had more ironclad protections from Western allies, such as NATO membership, instead of trading short-term concessions for pledges of peace and security. 

“Looking back, Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament, in the way it happened, was a terrible mistake,” he said.

Now, he’s worried a similar situation is playing out as Russia encircles Ukraine with well over 100,000 troops and demands that Western countries withdraw key protections for Kyiv. 

While Western leaders have called the proposals nonstarters, Kostenko still frets they may eventually pressure Kyiv into another security deal — one where Moscow pulls back in exchange for Ukraine shelving its NATO ambitions to instead serve as a neutral buffer state between Russia and the West. Recent rhetoric from major Western leaders like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has only fueled this fear.

“My big concern is that there will be some kind of situation like we had in the early 1990s,” he told POLITICO in a recent interview. “Ukraine is again the center of big political gambles.”

Trust destroyed

Kostenko sees parallels between the current standoff and the aftermath of the Soviet Union collapse. 

When Ukraine became an independent state in 1991, the country inherited a third of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, instantly making it the world’s third-biggest nuclear power. But Kyiv eventually struck a deal with Russia and Western powers to give away those weapons as the world community sought to limit the number of nuclear powers. 

In return, Ukraine received security guarantees from Russia and others via the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. In the document, the U.S., Russia and Britain committed “to respect the independence and sovereignty” of Ukraine and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against the country. 

Yet Moscow has not lived up to that pledge.

In 2014, Russia fully trashed its commitments when it annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Since then, the Kremlin has funded and facilitated eight years of ongoing armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian forces. Violence spiked again in the region this week, with Ukraine on Thursday accusing Russian-backed forces of shelling a school building. Similar reports continued to escalate into Friday.

Then, of course, there are Moscow’s massive troop build-ups on Ukraine’s border — not just in the past few months, but also in the spring of 2021.

Russia’s track record should provide current leaders with an important lesson, said Kostenko, who is still politically active as the leader of the small Ukrainian People’s Party: You can’t ensure Ukraine’s security through commitments on paper.

“Past history shows that something signed by Russia never means they will respect it,” he said. “Russia will never stop their endeavor to reestablish control over the countries of the former Soviet empire.”

While Kostenko does not think Ukraine should have necessarily stayed a nuclear power, he argues the country gave up hard-power leverage too soon by simply handing over its weapons, and not overseeing their dismantling. 

At the time, Western powers like the U.S. were pushing a broader campaign to limit the number of nuclear powers, wary of the unsteady politics in newly independent countries like Ukraine and fearful nuclear material could end up in the hands of rogue figures. 

Kyiv conceded then to Western appeals — much to the regret many in the current Ukrainian government.

“Upon the request of the United States, our country has [given up] 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 6,000 nuclear warheads. We transferred them to Russia upon request of the United States,” Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told POLITICO in an interview on Friday.

“So what we are talking about here: The signature of presidents and prime ministers is worth nothing? What’s the world we are living in today?” Danilov wondered.

Both Danilov and Kostenko are urging Western diplomats to resist putting such pressures on Ukraine again.

What Russia wants now

Currently, Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding that Western allies guarantee Ukraine will never join NATO. And while Western leaders have stood united in refusing to offer such a guarantee, their rhetoric has shifted in recent days. 

After meeting with Putin earlier this week, German Chancellor Scholz conceded that Ukraine’s accession to NATO would not be “on the agenda” for many years to come, even as he reaffirmed Kyiv’s right to join eventually. 

“Everyone has to step back a bit and realize that it is unacceptable that there could be a military conflict over an issue that is not on the agenda,” Scholz said. 

“Now it is our task to find a way that is okay for everyone,” he added. “This cannot be read out of a computer program, but it can be worked out politically.”

Scholz had expressed a similar sentiment the day before with Zelenskiy, who also downplayed the likelihood of Ukraine’s NATO membership in the near future. Zelenskiy described the prospect as a “dream” and suggested the country could instead receive “guarantees” to ensure its sovereignty in the meantime. 

It’s unclear what those “guarantees” might look like, however. Western countries have been supplying Ukraine with weapons and military training, but big powers like the U.S. have ruled out sending troops to the country to fend off Russia.

And as long as Ukraine remains at war with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbass region, it would be logistically hard for the country to join NATO, given that an attack on one NATO member is considered an attack on all NATO members. 

While Zelenskiy continues to reaffirm Ukraine still has the goal to join the military alliance one day, he also acknowledges that the decision is not up to Kyiv but all 30 NATO members, which would have to give their consent. Given current world politics, such unanimous consent is a long shot.

Kostenko argued the threats toward Ukraine in the wake of its nuclear disarmament have troubling implications for safety and diplomatic trust on the entire planet.

“What happened in 2014 and what we’re seeing today totally destroyed 70 years of security architecture and trust” established after World War II, he said. “Today, our example is a key motivation for countries like Iran or North Korea not to drop their nuclear ambitions.”



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