Ukraine's Nuclear Disarmament: A History, Yuri Kostenko

Reviewed by Bennett Ramberg


It is not every day that a nuclear arsenal falls into a country's lap. Yet this is exactly what happened as the USSR dissolved in 1991 and Ukraine inherited the globe's third-largest cache, with nearly 4,000 strategic and tactical weapons. For officials in the newly independent nation who had never grappled with nuclear management, the challenge was both daunting and intriguing, but ultimately overwhelming, as Kiev transferred all its warheads to the Russian Federation.

Detailed firsthand accounts of the politics of Ukraine's nuclear elimination are rare, which is all the more reason that Yuri Kostenko's revealing memoir, Ukraine's Nuclear Disarmament: A History, is welcome. Drawing on the parliamentary and executive government portfolios that Kostenko held during the 1990s, the book lays out a picture of the intense domestic and international political struggles that prompted Kiev to give up the bomb that some Ukrainians today wistfully believe could have deterred Russia from gobbling up Crimea while fomenting separatism in the country's east.

Kostenko's bitter review argues that decision makers could have better finessed international security guarantees and economic benefits in the back-and-forth with Moscow and Washington. In point of fact, the country's deficits made a better outcome unlikely. The depleted statist economy left the impoverished nation incapable of reliably supporting an arsenal over which Moscow kept command and control, although a recent Harvard University symposium argued that Kiev had roundabouts available.

Be that as it may, Russia was determined not to have nuclear competitors among the former Soviet republics. Supported by a proliferation-phobic United States, Moscow applied diplomatic browbeating and economic intimidation to break Ukraine's nuclear hold.

Against these confounding forces, Kostenko and others fought a rear-guard political battle to pump up national leadership to get compensatory economic benefits and security guarantees from the United States and Europe that could link NATO or European defense structures.

In other forums, Moscow and Washington worked to wear Kiev down: the December 1991 Minsk agreement that committed the Commonwealth of Independent States to place strategic forces under a joint command was one. The 1992 Lisbon Protocol called for relocation of nuclear weapons from all former Soviet republics to Russia, coupled with the requirement that Ukraine accede to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty as a non–nuclear weapons state as well as START I. The 1994 Trilateral Statement committed Kiev to nuclear disarmament in exchange for economic benefits and security pledges.

On 5 December 1994, the protective effort wrapped around the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. The agreement committed Britain, the United States, and Russia to protect Kiev “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine” (p. 12). Ultimately, only Russia was assured that its forces marching into Crimea would be met with talk rather than steel, the United States conceding that its security assurance was not a military guarantee.

Truth be told, once Ukraine surrendered the arsenal, its importance to Washington became marginal. Although Russia's 2014 aggression sent shockwaves through the post–Cold War political order, it did not “put the entire world in the brink of War War III” (p. 271), as Kostenko curiously contends.

Looking back, without a functioning arsenal, Ukraine's weapons were more mirage than not, leaving Kiev with little bargaining space to garner safeguards for nuclear elimination. Most significantly, it suffered from geography that put it adjacent to a rapacious Russia. Time has long passed to lament the country's nuclear what-ifs. Today, Kiev's challenge is to navigate as nimbly as possible the difficult security environment it finds itself with marginal American and European support.

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