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Russia Got Ukraine’s Nuclear Weapons. It Did Not Have to Be Like This

A newly independent government in Kyiv was set to become the custodian of more nuclear weapons than those of China, the United Kingdom, and France put together. Years of wrangling about their control ensued. Recently released archival documents demonstrate the ironies that underlay successive attempts to disinherit Ukraine from this cache

Russian mobile missile. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Russian mobile missile. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Rarely does a presidential address abroad irk American audiences at home as much as it does the locals. Thirty-two years ago this month, however, George H.W. Bush managed that dubious accomplishment with what William Safire dubbed the president’s “chicken Kiev” speech. The White House sought to dampen Ukraine’s surging aspirations for sovereignty with 23 minutes of rhetorical ambivalence

In less than six months, the U.S. would recognize Kyiv’s sovereignty unconditionally. But Bush’s speech in August flopped for its frostiness. Many Ukrainians remembered the Holodomor, the Stalinist purges, and their brief interregnum of independence after World War I, and they chafed at Bush’s support for a quintessentially communist retrenchment. To American ears, meanwhile, Bush’s exhortations toward “freedom, democracy, and economic liberty” seemed to pair poorly with his warnings about “suicidal nationalism” and his admonitions to beware independence lest it should “replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism” that the U.S. could not support.

Soviet oppression, decried for decades, appeared to be on the brink of demise at that time, so why not instead cheer on the end of “suicidal” imperialism?

Reheated Sentiment

Russia’s latest incursions into Ukraine, culminating with their full-scale invasion in 2022, make the long-ago speech seem even worse in retrospect. As the current conflict wears on, Western commentators begin to imagine a cessation of the war that requires Ukraine to trade some land or independence for what Bush once prized, namely “peace and stability.” It is crucial now to recall Washington’s tendency to miscalculate at precisely the moments when it most matters. America’s foreign policy in Central and Eastern Europe has long prioritized answering the demands of a belligerent great power, rather than supporting its weaker neighbors.

It wasn’t only Bush whose grasp of the moment missed the mark. Safire in 1991 skirted over an issue whose magnitude few grasped at the time. “The fear [of disunion] is not irrational. Tight central control of the Soviet nuclear command ‘football’ is in our vital national interest,” he noted, adding that “with the Soviet monolith broken up and a commonwealth established to negotiate arms reductions, the world will be a far safer place.” 

In hindsight, that prediction proved just as pollyannaish as Bush’s stolid reproach to the Ukrainians.

A newly independent government in Kyiv was set to become the custodian of more nuclear weapons than those of China, the United Kingdom, and France put together. Years of wrangling about their control ensued. Recently released archival documents demonstrate the ironies that underlay successive attempts to disinherit Ukraine from this cache. The paradoxes run almost as deep as Bush’s ill-timed appeal for gradualism. As events moved faster than the administration could respond, the U.S. government tended, reflexively, to favor Moscow’s wishes about control over the nuclear arsenal.

Questions arose amid the earliest signs of Soviet collapse. In July 1990, Ambassador Jack Matlock sent a top secret cable from Moscow stating that “the prospects of the [Mikhail] Gorbachev regime have deteriorated over the past year and Soviets themselves are increasingly talking in apocalyptic terms.” 

The ambassador reckoned that “some republics will leave the Soviet Union and there will be a substantial redefinition of the remaining republics’ relationship to the Center.” He argued this disintegration created the potential for “truly dangerous scenarios — ranging from civil war and the loss of control over nuclear weapons to a truncated, belligerent, nuclear-armed Soviet or Russian state.” 

Matlock’s prophetic report would soon haunt the Bush administration.

Following a failed Soviet coup in late August 1991, Secretary of State James Baker began a monthslong campaign to press Ukraine to confirm it would renounce control over the nuclear weapons on its territory by fully accepting various treaty obligations, including the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START. The U.S. knew its most powerful lever would emerge after December 1, 1991, when a referendum was expected to endorse Ukrainian independence. The U.S. would have to choose when and how to recognize the new government.

Straw Vote Diplomacy

Declassified in 2015, an “options memo” produced in the National Security Council noted that “agencies differ on how soon the U.S. should move to recognize Ukraine” after the vote. “We have defined two basic options,” it read. The Defense Department, then led by Dick Cheney, favored the first: prompt recognition. The president should move ahead immediately, Cheney argued, without requiring Ukraine to ratify the treaties. It was a matter, Cheney insisted, of taking “yes for an answer,” meaning the U.S. should accept a long-term Ukrainian intention to disarm. 

The State Department preferred the second option, delayed recognition. The U.S. would withhold its recognition of Ukraine, preferably until Kyiv ratified certain treaties, including those that bound it to disarmament. 

Baker won at first, as the White House postponed establishing diplomatic relations. But once Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, expressed moderate views on arms control, Bush proceeded to recognize the country on Christmas. He encouraged but did not compel Ukraine to accept the treaties Baker remained fixated on. At the time, William Potter, an arms control specialist, objected to this “unconditional recognition of Ukrainian independence” in The Wall Street Journal. It was “short-sighted,” Potter argued, not to impose treaties that would separate Ukraine from a nuclear arsenal. 

Bush probably realized how Kyiv’s leaders perceived threats to its chance at self-determination at that stage. Not long after the White House signaled its plans to recognize Ukraine, Boris Yeltsin began the first of many attempts to bring the country back under Moscow’s tutelage. At the tripartite Slavic Summit, held in Belavezha, on December 7, 1991, Yeltsin produced the text of a “union” treaty Mikhail Gorbachev had negotiated weeks before. The treaty sought to fuse Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine under a new political framework. Ukrainian interests would be protected, Yeltsin assured his counterpart, because the text could be modified, but only after Kravchuk signed the document.

Kravchuk rejected the contradictory proposal foisted upon him. He cited the unequivocal results of Ukraine’s referendum. Even Russian-speaking regions, including Crimea as well as the regions in Ukraine’s south and east, preferred political sovereignty. It caught Yeltsin off guard to learn that non-ethnic Ukrainians in the country, then numbering 14 million, appeared to support independence. He asked Kravchuk, “What, did the Donbas also vote for it?” 

“Yes,” Kravchuk informed him, noting that “there is no region in which the votes [in favor] were fewer than half.”

These negotiations eventually produced a much weaker framework. The Commonwealth of Independent States became famous for formally dissolving the Soviet Union; its broader vision withered quickly. Russia insisted on an oath regarding centralized control of the USSR’s nuclear arsenal. Article 6 of the Belavezha Accords stated that “member-states…shall preserve and maintain, under the joint command, a common military-strategic space, including unified control over nuclear weapons.” In a nod toward earlier statements made by Belarus and Ukraine, the agreement required that all parties respect one another’s intentions to “attain the status of nuclear-free zone and [to become] a neutral state.” 

The course of these events likely demonstrated for the Bush administration why officials in Kyiv repeatedly agreed to disarmament and then delayed or obstructed intermediate steps necessary to accomplish that goal. After decades of starvation, repression, and mass murder, the ultimatums that hung in the air at Alma Ata and Belavezha, where Ukrainian representatives stated their non-nuclear intentions, probably left them feeling like they had no choice. Ukraine’s leaders were familiar with Moscow’s vocabulary of veiled threats. They would feign their adherence to Russia’s demands if doing so meant keeping their hopes of independence alive.

Subtler hints of these dynamics had emerged months earlier. Yeltsin had sent the mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, to Ukraine to negotiate Moscow’s response to the declaration of independence proclaimed in the summer of 1991. Sobchak’s new deputy was his former pupil, one Vladimir Putin. “How he came to work for Sobchak,” Catherine Belton, author of Putin’s People, notes, “is the story of how a KGB cadre began to morph in the country’s democratic transformation and attach themselves to the new leadership.” The hiring reverberates today because “it’s the story of how a faction of the KGB, in particular part of its foreign-intelligence arm, had long been secretly preparing for change in the tumult of the Soviet Union’s perestroika reforms.” 

While in Kyiv, Sobchak’s delegation behaved so badly that he had to be reminded he was on foreign soil. The mayor had denied the validity of Boris Yeltsin’s proclamation on Ukraine’s borders, and just over two months after co-authoring the communique that acknowledged Ukraine’s independence, he denied the validity of Ukraine’s referendum in favor of independence. Three days after that, Sobchak mused to Le Figaro that Ukraine’s separation from Russia might lead to a nuclear exchange.

In April 1992, Ed Hewitt, then a national security official, visited Ukraine with Paul Wolfowitz and Dennis Ross. Hewitt advised the administration that “Russia has, in fact, shown an almost arrogant disregard for Ukraine’s sovereignty.” The Kremlin’s vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, made an “unannounced trip to Crimea, where he called upon the inhabitants to secede,” and this was “a good case in point.” 

Hewitt ruminated on the Ukrainian desire for international security guarantees. 

“We will need all the influence we can muster,” he cautioned, “to encourage the Ukrainians to take a reasonable approach to Russia over the next few years and to convince them they have more at stake for their survival in a close relationship with us than any flirtation with nuclear weapons.”

Bush personally observed the basis for Kyiv’s apprehensions in May 1992. When Kravchuk visited Washington, Russia snatched part of the USSR’s scattered arsenal on Ukrainian territory. During the trip, the Crimean parliament, a body heavily influenced by Moscow, declared its independence. A day later, Moscow surreptitiously removed the last batch of tactical nuclear weapons from Ukraine, violating an agreed timetable. The timing smacked of premeditation.

When the Bush administration resumed its efforts to preserve START later that month, it allowed ambiguities to linger in order to accommodate Kravchuk’s concerns. The U.S. begrudgingly accepted Ukrainian demands for a seven-year timeline to give up nuclear weapons. An annex to START known as the Lisbon Protocol vaguely required Ukraine to join the Treaty on Non-Proliferation “in the shortest possible time.” This arrangement would later be derailed by President Bush’s successor. Agreements negotiated by President Bill Clinton’s administration required Ukraine to accept the Treaty on Nonproliferation by 1994 and to remove all nuclear weapons from its territory by mid-1996.

Dissatisfaction Guaranteed

In its first year of independence, Ukraine fought for a security guarantee, akin to the one it seeks now. Just over three decades ago, Baker refused. His aide, Jim Timbie, recalled the telephone conversation that brought Ukraine’s foreign minister to heel by saying, “I have never heard one man speak to another in quite that way.” Baker sequestered Ukraine’s diplomats from publicly balking at the signing of the Lisbon Protocol, forbidding speeches at the ceremony. 

Though Ukraine did not gain all the concessions it sought, the full historical picture suggests that Bush wisely bestowed Kyiv with time. Were Ukraine accorded a parallel schedule to Russia’s under START, it would have had until near the turn of the millennium to haggle for a more favorable position before forfeiting its nuclear arsenal. Later administrations sought instead to hasten disarmament.

Ukraine's President Zelensky. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Ukraine’s President Zelensky. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Volodymyr Zelensky. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Volodymyr Zelensky. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

In his infamous address, President Bush cited a Ukrainian, saying: “When you enter a great enterprise, free your soul from weakness.” Through years of war, the people of Ukraine and their leaders have proven their patient adherence to that proverb. By examining the past, we should ask why so much has been asked of them, so often, for so long, and with so little regard for the threats they have perceived since gaining statehood.

Author Expertise 

George E. Bogden is an Olin Fellow at Columbia Law School. His research for this article was funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation, the German Marshall Fund, and the Kennan Institute.

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Written By

George E. Bogden is an Olin Fellow at Columbia Law School. His research for this article was funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation, the German Marshall Fund, and the Kennan Institute.