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Op-Ed: Unreality in Thinking about the Unthinkable

Op-Ed: Unreality in Thinking about the Unthinkable

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn argued for “a world without nuclear weapons, [as] dangers continue to mount.” Lamenting “a dangerous policy paralysis” among the US, its allies and Russia, they write that the road to denuclearization is through “re-engagement” with Russia, a “joint declaration,” and “dialogue,” all with a goal of reaching “stability”.

The authors’ respective positions as former Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and Senator and Chair of the Armed Services Committee lend an implicit gravitas to their writing. But their writing  does them no credit. They remain damningly silent about what happened to the largest country in Europe that also took their advice.

Following the fall of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine became the world’s third largest nuclear power (only after Russia and the US). Three years later Ukraine acceded to the very Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (“NPT”) that the authors celebrate. Kyiv surrendered its nuclear arsenal (under American hectoring) to, yes, Russia: 176 ICBM’s armed with 1,240 nuclear warheads, 44 strategic bombers armed with 1081 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, and an unspecified number of tactical nuclear warheads. Predictably enough, this also meant the implosion of Ukraine’s scientific-military-industrial complex that produced or maintained that arsenal, including the worlds’ largest ICBM plant. Never did anything even remotely resembling Ukraine’s surrender occur. Nor will it ever again. 


In exchange for Ukraine’s denuclearization, the infamous 1994 “Memorandum on Security Assurances” (signed by Russia, the US, and the United Kingdom in Budapest) was intended to ensure Ukrainian sovereignty and national security. In early 2014, Russia (itself an NPT signatory and, bizarrely, the very recipient of Ukraine’s arsenal) nonetheless invaded, occupied and annexed Ukrainian territory, shattering its obligations under the Memorandum. Both from the standpoint of preventing any such violation by Russia in the first place (which was the entire purpose of the Memorandum) and from the standpoint of causing Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine, America “policy” has failed. Ukraine’s human costs, alone, in the ensuing more than half a decade has been heinous–the disemboweling of children is a war crime. The costs to our own, and regional and global security, has been accelerating, and may easily expand beyond the monetary.

It can be argued that the Memorandum literally obligates the US only to enter into “consultations” with the other parties. Yet that hardly rises to an “assurance of security.” It manifestly was never the intention of the parties to hinge Ukraine’s denuclearization on  Washington’s commitment to place a phone call to the UN in the event of a Russian invasion.  Further, the Memorandum essentially restates the obligations already extant in the UN Charter and other international agreements of the parties. Regardless, given Russia’s breach there is nothing to keep Ukraine from withdrawing from the NPT and renewing its nuclear arsenal. Little wonder that the authors don’t mention this reality.

A year before invading Ukraine, Putin wrote in a  New York Times Op-Ed: “[I]f you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus, a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen non-proliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.”  While we intone the need for denuclearization, our flaccid response endorses Putin having turned the very concept into a sad joke. Why should tyrants or allies ever again trust an arrangement such Ukraine entered into? Moreover, Ukraine’s was not the case of foregoing hypothetical acquisition of a nuclear arsenal, but of surrendering an existing one–as stated, the world’s third largest. And to its historic and predictable persecutor, no less. 

Interring any realistic prospects for denuclearization that the WSJ article champions is bad enough. But the proximate consequences have been even greater. In that same NYTimes Op-Ed, Putin further wrote: “We . . . believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law and we must follow it whether we like it or not.  Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council.  Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”  True to form, Putin crow-barred denuclearization, using Ukraine as a fulcrum to upend the world order that has prevailed since WWII, sliding the world precisely into that very chaos. Overnight, he collapsed the “stable security architecture” that Messrs. Schultz, Perry and Nunn assume he wants to rebuild.

But it’s a shared accomplishment.  Measured against the egregiousness of Russian shattering of the very notion of denuclearization, as well as a dozen solemn international agreements,  our impotent  sanctions, furrowed brows and sonorous condemnations amount to little more than barring Russia from Disney World. Our lack of political will, naivete and, indeed, pusillanimity, have multiplied the consequences of Putin’s war against Ukraine.  We have been  the accelerant, not only for  Putin’s marauding elsewhere (including the Potomac), but also for much of the chaos roiling the globe. “Dangers continue to mount,” as the authors write. Is this consistent with the author’s urging that “we [must] respond firmly to Russia’s aggressions,” “maintain our values and protect our vital interests,” and “where treaties are not likely or feasible, understandings and red lines are imperative”?

Except that Messrs. Schultz, Perry, and Nunn don’t recognize the “red line.” It was identified already in 1997 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and to which I have referred in the past: “Whether Russian led integration on the territory of the former USSR will pose a serious, long-term military challenge to the West, depends in large part on the role that Ukraine plays or is compelled to play. . . . Ukraine will do much to determine whether Europe and the world in the twenty-first century will be as bloody as they were in the twentieth.” 

Twenty two ensuing years have not muted, but reinforced, that reality. The just released Special Counsel Mueller’s report records that Paul Manafort acknowledged a “backdoor” plan for Russia’s control of Ukraine.  Putin most certainly understands the stakes even if America’s “Cold War statesmen” do not.  They either  do not understand or–rather to their credit–do not remember that Ukraine’s reclamation of its independence in 1991 ensured the unravelling of the USSR and the seeming end of the Cold War. And here, it should be recalled, it was the US that strove to derail Ukraine’s independence. Where is the logic or consistency, where is the recognition of our fundamental national self-interest, in not having correspondingly supported and reinforced from the very outset the player that was the determinative factor in securing that epochal event? That was not done then, and the failure was compounded with the Memorandum and since. How more monumental can it all be?  How do friend and foe assess our judgment and common sense?

And Russia? It suffers none of the “policy paralysis” that the authors ascribe to it.  Russian military doctrine has jettisoned the notion of non-survivability of a nuclear war and embraced a doctrine of first-strike capability . . .  and more.   Underway are a score of nuclear modernization programs for land-based, air and sea weaponry, much of it hypersonic, such as the Tsirkon and Avangard missiles successfully tested last December.  And in an interview for the  documentary “The World Order 2018,” Putin commented on the prospects for nuclear war, asking, “Why would we want a world without Russia?” A performance by the Saint Petersburg’s Concert Choir in the Isakyev Cathedral on 23rd February 2019, Russian Armed Forces Day, unveils the mindset:  

Aboard a nuclear-powered submarine

With a dozen 100-megaton bombs

I crossed the Atlantic and told the gunner:

“Take aim, Petrov”, I said, “at Washington city!”

*           *          * 

Hail the enemy’s New World!

My friend, little Vova [Putin], flying in the airplane above

Didn’t come to visit with his bomb bay hatches empty

Aboard the nuclear-powered submarine

The crew sang a merry song:

*           *          * 

Burn, you Land of the Enemy!

The lights along Norfolk’s shore are napping sweetly

Tired toys and negroes [sic], all sleeping quietly,

Forgive me, good America,

But five hundred years ago they discovered you in vain. 

*.          *           *

Half burned is the land of the Enemy!

This is not because Putin seeks nuclear Armageddon, but because our sophomoric understanding of Russia and lack of political will provide Putin with predictability and certainty. Each step for him is less and less a roll of the dice.  At a conference in November 2014, I warned that that pattern will spawn another Cuban missile crisis, except that it will not end as characterized by then Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other guy just blinked.”

Truly, it’s not (as the authors captioned their WSJ article) that  “The Threat of Nuclear War is Still With Us.”  It’s rather that our fecklessness has increased that threat.  Monumentally. The only unassailable part of Messrs. Schultz’, Perry’s and Nunn’s assessment is their conclusion that American policy is “dysfunctional” . . . but not in the way they think or deign to admit.



Op-Ed: Unreality in Thinking about the Unthinkable

Victor Rud is past Chairman of the Ukrainian American Bar Association, and currently chairs its Committee on Foreign Affairs