In a worst-case scenario, the Ukrainian situation could fuel a new nuclear arms race involving Iran and North Korea and mark the crisis of the nuclear non-proliferation movement around the world.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during a news conference at the Nuclear Security summit (NSS) in The Hague March 24, 2014. Photo: Reuters
The Ukrainian crisis appears to have curtailed, if not completely derailed, the recent movement toward nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation around the world. That is a dangerous new development that has important implications not just for future U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation, but also for the entire ideology of nuclear deterrence.
All of this concern, of course, comes amidst the backdrop of the third Nuclear Security Summit, which was recently held in The Hague from March 24-25. After two previous meetings in Washington in 2010 and Seoul in 2012, the necessity of further nuclear security meetings of this format was already being questioned. Indeed, the Hague summit in 2014 was planned to be the last.
Generally speaking, such summits invite countries to participate that have had, at one time or another, nuclear weapons (with the notable exception of North Korea) or stockpiles of fissile nuclear materials (i.e. highly enriched uranium and plutonium). They also include nations with geographical access to land and sea transport routes used for the transport of nuclear materials. At these summits, nations discuss such problems as security of storage, disposal and transport of nuclear materials, the nuclear industry’s development, and the prevention of nuclear terrorism.
And so it turns out that the main world news from the recent Hague summit was not connected at all to the achievements and initiatives in the field of nuclear safety over the past two years. Instead, the meetings were devoted to the situation around Ukraine. As participants noted, the current Ukrainian crisis can actually have a broadly negative effect on the future agenda for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
Ukraine has always been cited as an example in the debate on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. With U.S. and Russian support, Ukraine disposed of hundreds of nuclear warheads and its entire stock of fissile materials inherited from the Soviet Union. In cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ukraine increased the safety of its nuclear power plants. Finally, independent Ukraine joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear state. Now, all of these achievements, in the case of a worst-case scenario, can be placed into question.
Firstly, some representatives of the current Ukrainian government are speaking about the possibility of returning Ukraine’s nuclear status and reversing the country’s exit from the NPT.
It is clear that such statements are more a reflection of the Ukrainian authorities’ powerlessness to change anything in terms of Russia’s actions in Crimea. It is also clear that any type of North Korea or Iran scenario playing out in the heart of Europe is unlikely, especially since the head of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, Andrey Deshchytsa, hastened to disavow statements made by hotheads in Kiev. He also confirmed that Ukraine would faithfully comply with all provisions of the NPT.
Secondly, the central government in Kiev today, obviously, cannot guarantee law and order throughout the country. And that can, taking into account the presence on the territory of Ukraine of nuclear power plants, pose a threat to the safety of nuclear facilities. Generally speaking, political and legal instability in a territory attracts international criminals and, more dangerously, terrorist organizations. These organizations are known for their desire to obtain and then use weapons of mass destruction for the implementation of large-scale acts of terrorism.
Thirdly, in a broader sense, the crisis over Ukraine has highlighted the fact that the Cold War did not end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This fact was underlined by many experts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Probably the Cold War, like a modern version of The Hundred Years’ War, can be divided into periods of volatile competition, one of which we are entering now, as well as periods of “peaceful coexistence.”
Once again, we are seeing Western rhetoric being spread about the danger to Europe from “uncivilized and unpredictable Russia.” This serves as a convenient excuse to increase military budgets and extend “aid to allies” to strengthen their “defense.” In such circumstances, of course, the rhetoric of nuclear disarmament, arms control and confidence-building measures and transparency in this field will not be so important. Moreover, it is likely that the theory of nuclear deterrence will receive a new ideological boost.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the crisis in Crimea would have an impact on the nuclear doctrines of NATO countries. And this could mean that the NATO countries will disavow their oral guarantees, given to Russia, about not moving nonstrategic U.S. nuclear weapons, based in Europe today, onto the territories of new member states in the east – for example, in Poland, Romania and Hungary.
This also means that it will be impossible to speak about any missile defense cooperation today. In the worst-case scenario, it will mean the resumption of the nuclear arms race. Apparently, at least until 2018, when the period of disarmament under the New START Treaty of 2010 ends, it is possible to forget about any major initiatives, from major nuclear powers, in the field of nuclear disarmament.
Finally, the crisis around Ukraine, rightly or wrongly, will be emphasized by countries such as Iran and North Korea, claiming that guarantees about security and territorial integrity, which nuclear states are promising to them in exchange for their non-nuclear status, are insignificant when it comes to interests of realpolitik of the great powers. Even if Iran is eventually convinced to completely abandon nuclear weapons and join the treaty, the signatures of the nuclear powers under this contract will be questioned.
Developments around Ukraine will demonstrate how real were the desires of states to ensure nuclear safety at the global level, as well as about the achievement of the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. Are the states ready to cooperate in order to achieve such high-minded, yet also such abstract goals, even to the detriment of their real national interests? It appears that the renaissance of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, mentioned by U.S. President Barack Obama in his Prague speech has come to an end.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.