By now, it should be obvious that there isn’t much we in the West can do about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine. This is a tremendous crisis, easily the worst of the post-Cold War world. U.S. and Allied policymakers are all scuffing their toes along the ground with their hands in their pockets while they mumble things about “sanctions” and “exercises” and other phrases, but they know there is little left for them to do that will change the facts on the ground along the Black Sea.
There’s a lot to do to provide for the future, including a full reconsideration of twenty years of policy that has clearly gone wrong. But before we take another step, it’s time to dispense with the loose talk concerning nuclear weapons. This crisis is bad enough, and we don’t need a lot of half-baked theorizing and rash recommendations. Nuclear weapons could not have prevented this crisis, and they cannot solve it.
Nuclear weapons are, as far as this whole sordid business goes, irrelevant. The exception, of course, is if Putin completely loses what’s left of his marbles and decides to threaten NATO, in which case we are headed for a nightmare that will make Cuba in 1962 seem like a mere misunderstanding among drinking buddies. (The Russians are already making growling noises about Estonia. This is unwise.) Short of that, nuclear weapons have no real role here.
There are two main lines of argument about nukes in this crisis. The first is that if Ukraine hadn’t given up its Soviet nuclear stockpile, it wouldn’t be in this mess today. The second is that now that Putin has bared his Soviet fangs, it’s time to put nuclear weapons back up front in NATO, perhaps even in places like Poland.
The first idea is wrong, the second is pure crazy talk. Let’s take them one at a time.
The idea that Ukraine is now paying for giving up its nuclear arsenal — well, technically, it was the Soviet arsenal, not Ukraine’s — some 20 years ago is coming from from a lot of directions, including the usual people whose ignorance of foreign affairs is often in direct proportion to their aggressiveness. (Two words: Sarah Palin.)
But other, more sensible people have made this argument, too, including the Ukrainians themselves. And understandably so: Ukraine, at least in theory, traded nuclear weapons for sovereignty over its own territory in 1994.
This agreement, the Budapest Memorandum (trivia points: where was it signed?) obligated the U.S., Britain, and the new Russian Federation to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in return for Ukraine’s agreement to give up the Soviet weapons on its territory. Should any party violate Ukraine’s territory, the memorandum obligated each party to…well, to do nothing. Actually, it does require us to go to the UN Security Council, which is in fact the very definition of “doing nothing.”
Back then, this wasn’t all as feckless as it seems now. Remember, people saying “Ukraine should have kept its nuclear weapons” are thinking of today’s Ukraine, not the post-Soviet chaos of the 1990s in which Russia looked like the most stable remnant of the wreckage.
As Ambassador Steven Pifer later pointed out, the Americans were clear that they could not, and would not, extend military guarantees to Ukraine in such uncertain times. Hindsight is easy, but the negotiators did the best they could in the world they faced. The goal was to stabilize the world left in the wake of the Soviet implosion. The diplomats did their job and bought us more than two decades of breathing room.
The larger issue here is that those critical of the Budapest process are attached to the complete fantasy that anyone, especially in Washington, was going to agree to Ukraine keeping those nukes. That wasn’t going to happen. There were hundreds of strategic weapons on Ukrainian soil, including some two hundred ICBMs that for all we knew were still targeted at the United States.
Worse, Ukraine at the time was run by a guy named Leonid Kravchuk, whose previous job had been — wait for it — as a top member of the Soviet Communist Party in Ukraine. (He had even held the ideology portfolio, usually a hard-liner’s job.) Kravchuk was a classic Soviet bureaucrat who, like so many clever men in 1991, was in the right place at the right time when the Soviet Union went down.
When Kravchuk decided to try to shake down the West for about six billion bucks in 1992, it prompted me to write one of my very first national op-eds. Published in the Christian Science Monitor 22 years ago, I was scathing in my denunciation of Kravchuk’s cheap nationalism, as I was of all the Soviet bureaucrats who had suddenly gotten religion (some, literally) after the fall of the USSR. The Russian Federation was the Soviet successor state, and like most Westerners, I wanted to deal with one nuclear state, not three or four new ones.
I was vicious to the Ukrainian regime of the time, maybe too much so. But Kravchuk was an operator, and he was less concerned with Russia than money. What he was doing was straight-up nuclear blackmail.
This, by the way, was my first career dust-up with the public. Ukrainian-Americans started a coordinated letter-writing campaign to my department at Dartmouth College, demanding that I be censored, disciplined, or even fired. My chairman, with a small and ironic smile, patiently wrote letters to anti-communist Ukrainians explaining to them that this was not the old Soviet Union, and that I was free to write as I wished.
I am obliged to report as well that I got a nice mention, too, in the pages of Pravda. This was pretty hard for a Cold Warrior like me to take, to be considered a smart young American scholar by the creeps who ran one of the worst papers in the world. (My then-wife was working in the intelligence community at the time, and you can imagine how much fun it was for her to find out from the guy down the hall at work that her hubby had made the Cool Kids List in Pravda before I knew it myself. Good times.)
Anyway, for those who think that Kravchuk made a bad deal, consider the alternative: a divided, unstable Ukraine between NATO and Russia, sitting on enough nuclear firepower to obliterate most of the Northern Hemisphere. That’s the kind of crazy situation only political scientists love. No one was going to let that happen, and it didn’t.
Kazakhstan, also home to Soviet nukes, got similar ideas for a time. Imagine if we’d caved on Ukrainian nukes in 1992, and the Kazakhs had followed suit. Try that world on for size. As it was, the Clinton administration had to spirit a lot of fissile material out of there on the sly, and if you think Ukraine or Kazakhstan should have kept those weapons, read this article about it all in the Times first.
More important, not only would a Ukrainian nuclear arsenal have played no role in deterring Putin from acting up in Crimea, it probably would have led to a Russian invasion far earlier than this.
Popular protests in the streets of Kyiv in, say, 2004, would have led the U.S. and Europe to cast nervous sideways glances at whoever was guarding Ukrainian nuclear arms. At that moment, Putin would have loved to present himself as doing the entire world a favor by intervening to “secure” those weapons. Indeed, the Russian special services might well have made ensured that something would happen to put the weapons in danger so they’d have a pretext for action.
In short, had Ukraine kept its nuclear weapons, something awful would have happened, and it would have been a lot worse, and a lot earlier, than this.
But what about the idea of beefing up NATO’s nuclear forces now that Putin’s gone rogue?
Unless you’ve never read a single word of this blog, you probably realize that I think NATO should just dump its tactical nuclear arms and get it over with, especially since NATO’s former nuclear targets are now all inside NATO itself.
You can pretty much forget all those silly war-gamer scenarios where we and the Kremlin toss nuclear firecrackers at each other in Central Europe. World War III will be short and final, no matter how many Bright Young Things show you the clever grad school papers they wrote proving otherwise.
And yet, the idea persists. Here’s the vice president and director of studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., Jim Thomas, on the subject:
A preliminary step should be making the Polish air force’s F-16s capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons so that they could participate in NATO’s nuclear mission. That should quickly be followed by site surveys to identify suitable locations for potentially storing nuclear weapons on the territory of front-line allies, including Poland, if relations with Russia further deteriorate.
During the Cold War, the notion of placing nukes near the front line was to enhance their deterrent value by making them “use or lose” weapons in the event of invasion. Is that really what we want to do now, premised on a future Russian invasion of Poland?
Or perhaps we should just leave them there as targets for Russia to destroy from a distance — maybe even with preemptive nuke strikes — at the first sign of trouble. The Russians, as analyst Nikolai Sokov notes, already have a desperately crazy military concept that calls for “de-escalation” of a war against Russia with nuclear strikes because they know their conventional forces, especially compared to NATO, aren’t worth spit.
So what does nuclearizing “new NATO” buy us? What does any of this do to stabilize Europe and protect our friends? Nothing. It’s an idea to put nuclear weapons near Russian military activity in hopes of spreading the magical effect of fissionable material. If these weapons had to be used, no one would use them, nor would they make sense in combat. But they’d be there as a sign of our hope in deterrence, like a plutonium-filled rabbit’s foot.
I come from a family of cops, and I learned one thing about cops: they never draw their gun unless they’re quite willing to kill someone. That’s a good rule of thumb for nuclear arms, too. No “demonstrations,” no “signals,” or other actions that sound good at academic conferences. Nuclear weapons only have two settings, “on” and “off,” and off is where they should stay unless the US or Europe is threatened with nuclear violence.
Former Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman has also weighed in:
Reinforcing the NATO air policing mission in the Baltics is a good beginning, but this will also require a thorough reconsideration by the alliance of the self-abnegating undertakings it assumed at the time of the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997. The alliance should consider whether and how it wants to position ground combat forces on the territory of the former Warsaw Pact states that now are members of NATO. It should also reconsider the so-called three no’s—no intention, no plan, no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of the new NATO members. Bringing NATO military power closer to the borders of Russia would impose a real cost on the Russian military and might cause nationalists who support Putin’s current course to reconsider.
Ambassador Edelman is an experienced public servant, and I’m hesitant to disagree with him. In fact, I’m completely on board with increasing the number of Allied forces on NATO territory, including the number of Americans. The Russians seem to have forgotten that war with NATO means war with 28 nations at once, and it’s high time to remind them.
But nuclear weapons close to the Eastern edge? Once again, there’s no clear notion of why we’re putting them there, other than the generic belief that if we can get them close to the bad guys, the halo effect might prove calming. Or something.
The obvious flaw here is that if we’re not willing to beef up NATO conventional forces, to spend at least 2% on defense, to impose sanctions on Russia, then why would the Kremlin think we’re ready to even think about the use of nuclear arms?
In the end, talking about nuclear weapons is not a strategy. It’s a placeholder for a strategy, a nuclear crutch on which we rely when we’ve run out of any other kind of creative thinking, or when we’re not willing to make the material sacrifices that more expensive options require. Nuclear weapons are shorthand, symbols, ornaments meant to demonstrate resolve without the actual presence of resolve.
Crimea is lost. Whining about it, and making empty threats, will only deepen the severe damage the West has suffered in this latest of a string of defeats against a tougher and more seasoned Kremlin team. This is the time to be calm, to be hard, to be cold, and to be consistent.
The best thing we could do now, in general, is to stop talking. We are never as threatening as when we don’t speak, and lately, we’ve been talking too much and to no effect. It is time to to be quiet, to take stock, consult with our allies, and to make Putin ponder the reality that he is now creating a stronger America where he wanted a weak one, a more united Europe where he wanted more division, and a reinvigorated NATO where he hoped there might one day be none.
Let Putin and his henchmen in Crimea blather as they will. It is now time for them to wonder what we’re up to, not vice versa.
We can make Putin pay for his crimes in Ukraine in installments and with hefty interest, until he has to explain to his own people why he is again risking making them into economic paupers and political pariahs. Then the price of his adventure on a small peninsula will be clearer to ordinary Russians, if not to him. It will take time, money, and focus. We have the first two in abundance. We need to summon the third.
What we don’t need are nuclear weapons. We can do everything we need to do and never utter those words. It is time to throw away the nuclear lucky penny, and discard fantasies about nuclear weapons. Instead of notional nuclear arms, we need to sling real rifles, pilot real aircraft, and provide real sustenance and tangible support to our friends as we stand at their sides. Only then will we see what Putin’s recycled Soviet speeches really mean.