Will Ukraine ‘go nuclear’?

In a case of very disturbing bluster (but, we hope, still just bluster) Ukrainian parliamentarian Pavlo Rizanenko told the Western media that Ukraine may have to arm with nuclear weapons if the US and other world powers refuse to enforce a security pact that he said obliges them to act against Moscow's takeover of Crimea. "We gave up nuclear weapons because of this agreement," said Rizanenko of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR). "Now there's a strong sentiment in Ukraine that we made a big mistake." (KSDK, March 10) Rizanenko was refering to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. Late last month, Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, formally invoked the Memorandum. In their statement, lawmakers said: "Ukraine received guarantees of country's security in the 1994 Budapest memorandum on security assurances over Ukraine's accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." (ITAR-TASS, Feb. 28)

Technically, this appears not to be true, as the Memorandum makes "assurances" rather than "guarantees"—an important distinction in diplomatic terms. The Memorandum is not a formal treaty, but a statement of shared principles—so, not actually binding. Under the Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to remove all Soviet-era nuclear weapons from its territory, send them to Russia to be dismantled, and sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This was an extremely substantial arsenal of some 1,900 strategic warheads and hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons—more warheads than held by either the UK or China. Many of these were stored in the Crimea—one of the Soviets' most important weapons sites was at Krasnokamenka, in the Kiziltashsky region of Crimea, where a secret underground facility was used to assemble and store warheads. (RFE/RL, March 12; NYR Blog, March 4)

The first two points of the Budapest Memorandum make clear that Russia is, in fact, in violation:

1. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine…to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;

2. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations;

But the fourth point also makes clear under what circumstances the relevant powers are obliged to act, and how:

4. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used

The current situation, thankfully, falls short of an imminent threat of use of nuclear weapons. Not that that makes it OK.

Black Sea brinkmanship
The US is meanwhile initiating joint military exercises in the Black Sea—just across from the Crimean Peninsula. A US Navy destroyer will take part in the maneuvers with Romanian and Bulgarian warships. In Poland, US fighter jets are arriving at Lask air base for joint exercise. Washington stresses that both drills were planned before the Crimea crisis, but Polish officials say the scope of the air exercise was beefed up in response to Russia's Crimea intervention. (Reuters, March 10)

Ukraine as pawn in the Great Game
The Crimea crisis has also put the People's Republic of China in a strange pickle. It seems that as recently as early December, Beijing entered into an agreement with Kiev to bring Ukraine under China's nuclear umbrella. The "nuclear clause" of a cooperation accord called for China to come to Ukraine's defense in the event of nuclear attack or threat thereof. This seems a ploy on Beijing's part to remind the world (especially Japan and the US) that it is a nuclear power, but events have now placed China's strategic partnership with Russia in jeopardy. Moscow says Beijing supports its position on Ukraine—but Beijing has remained largely silent on the question. China has still not weighed in on whether it considers Ukraine's new government legitimate, which in turn weighs on the question of whether it is still bound by the nuclear agreement.  (Al Jazeera, March 7)

Russia is obviously a more important ally for China than Ukraine, which was likely viewed as a useful pawn. In July 2013, China and Russia carried out joint naval maneuvers in the Sea of Japan—the largest naval drills China has ever conducted with a foreign partner. The Sea of Japan is, of course, just to the north of the East China Sea, the scene of alarming brinkmanship over contested hydrocarbon-rich islands. (NYT, July 11, 2013)

  1. Ukraine closer to nuclear option

    Two of Ukraine's leading political parties, "Fatherland" and "Strike," have jointly introduced a bill in Parliament that calls for the rejection of the country's 1994 accession to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. (CNN, April 16)