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Will Ukraine Regret Giving Up Its Nukes?

Lee Smith

President Obama has made nuclear nonproliferation one of his highest priorities but, as the Wall Street Journal explains, the White House’s weak response on Ukraine is sending all the wrong messages.

It’s worth recalling that when the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine was left with an enormous nuclear arsenal of 1,800 weapons, more than any other country at the time except for Russia and the United States. The Clinton administration was concerned that these warheads might get loose and convinced Kiev to sign on to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, with which Ukraine agreed to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and send its nuclear arsenal to Russia—in exchange for security “assurances” from Russia, the U.S. and United Kingdom that included “promises to respect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty within its existing borders, as well as refraining from threatening or using force against Ukraine.”

As the Journal notes, the Ukrainians had Russian aggression in mind when they sought those assurances. And yet by 1996 Ukraine had given up its entire nuclear arsenal—a nonproliferation success rooted in the world’s “post-Cold War confidence in American power and deterrence.” All that has changed today. The Obama White House projects at best uncertainty and ambiguity. More often, the administration lets on that America is the problem and the world a safer more stable place with a smaller U.S. footprint.

Facts, those stubborn things, keep proving this American president wrong. The United States underwrites global security, and without Washington’s steady hand the world is a more dangerous place where rogue regimes and criminal kleptocracies like Vladimir Putin’s Russia fill the vacuum. Perhaps with the Ukraine crisis, Obama is coming to understand that agreements, arrangements, and institutions like the Budapest Memorandum, and nuclear nonproliferation more broadly, are simply academic fantasies without a strong United States to enforce them.

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