Start of the ICBM R-36M
Launch of R-36M, a strategic ICBM
designed and produced in Ukraine
when it was still part of the USSR.
Russian troops are in effective control of the Crimean peninsula. U.S., European Union and Ukrainian officials are fuming over the takeover and trying to calculate some way short of unthinkable war to get them back to their bases. There's been talk that Ukraine should never have given up its nuclear weapons as part of a security deal when the USSR folded in 1991. If it still had some of the 5,000 strategic and tactical nukes that were on its territory when it became independent as the Soviet Union broke up, it is argued, then Vladimir Putin would never have dared make the moves he has.

But John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, the nuclear disarmament group founded in 1962 by nuclear physicist Leó Szilárd, thinks otherwise, as he told Elaine M. Grossman of the Global Security Newswire, a publication of the Nuclear Threat Initiative: "There is no predicting what Russia would have done if Ukraine had retained nuclear weapons. We do know that the risk of nuclear holocaust would have increased immeasurably."

That's the opposite of political science professor John Mearsheimer's view. In a Sunday email to Grossman, he wrote: "I do think they should have kept their nukes. If Ukraine had a real nuclear deterrent, the Russians would not be threatening to invade it. [...] "I doubt whether we would have been so anxious to foster a coup [against President Victor Yanukovych]. One treads very lightly—to put it mildly—when threatening the survival of a nuclear-armed state, or even the regime in charge of it."

Mearsheimer was also of the view that the end of the Cold War would mean that Germany would get nukes and that wouldn't be a bad thing.

Please read below the fold for more analysis on this subject.

Neither man's position is exactly a surprise.

The Council for a Livable World's goal is a planet without nuclear weapons. The world has moved more in that direction over the past three decades. In the year the council was founded by Szilárd, the United States and Soviet Union had arsenals totaling nearly 31,000 nuclear warheads. At the peak, in 1986, they had about 64,000. Today, although an exact count is not publicly available, the two nations together have between 9,500 and 16,000 operational and reserve nuclear weapons. Still way beyond enough in a full exchange to kill every human on earth with blast, burns, radiation poisoning and nuclear winter.

Ukraine has zero. But two decades ago, it had more than any other nation except Russia and the United States, at least four times as many, in fact, as all other nuclear nations combined.

As Ukraine was negotiating with Russia, the United States and European Union what would become the Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances guaranteeing its security if it gave up the nukes it had inherited from the Soviet Union, Mearsheimer, who is known in foreign policy jargon as a "realist," was arguing forcefully for it to keep those nukes. In the summer edition of Foreign Policy he wrote an essay "The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent:"

Most Western observers want Ukraine to rid itself of nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. In this view, articulated recently by President Bill Clinton, Europe would be more stable if Russia were to become "the only nuclear-armed successor state to the Soviet Union." The United States and its European allies have been pressing Ukraine to transfer all of the nuclear weapons on its territory to the Russians, who naturally think this is an excellent idea.

President Clinton is wrong. The conventional wisdom about Ukraine's nuclear weapons is wrong. In fact, as soon as it declared independence, Ukraine should have been quietly encouraged to fashion its own nuclear deterrent. [...]

A nuclear Ukraine makes sense for two reasons. First, it is imperative to maintain peace between Russia and Ukraine. That means ensuring that the Russians, who have a history of bad relations with Ukraine, do not move to reconquer it. Ukraine cannot defend itself against a nuclear-armed Russia with conventional weapons, and no state, including the United States is going to extend to it a meaningful security guarantee. Ukrainan nuclear weapons are the only reliable deterrent to Russian aggression. If the U.S. aim is to enhance stability in Europe, the case against a nuclear-armed Ukraine is unpersuasive.

Second, it is unlikely that Ukraine will transfer its remaining nuclear weapons to Russia, the state it fears most.

Mearsheimer was dead wrong about the second claim. Because that's exactly what Ukraine did. Two years after agreeing to the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, it transferred the last of its nukes to Russia.

Whether that was a good idea obviously depends on whom you ask. In an email to Grossman, he wrote:

“Ukraine with nuclear weapons is one heck of a dangerous idea. There is already in the mix eastern Ukraine vs. western Ukraine, East vs. West Cold War overtones, Russian vs. U.S. interventionism. [...] It would be like tossing a package of lighted matches into a vat of flammable fluids. The results would be unpredictable, but hazardous for everyone’s health.”
If one buys Mearsheimer's argument, then surely Ukraine shouldn't be the only state with a deterrent against potential attack by a nuclear-armed adversary. What about Georgia and Kazazhstan? What about Iran?

The latter's leaders have repeatedly said they have no intention of building a nuclear arsenal. The nuclear development program for which it is being heavily sanctioned is completely peaceful, it claims. U.S. intelligence officials have agreed that Tehran is not currently pursuing nuclear weapons as far as they can determine. But Iran has been repeatedly threatened with military assault by the United States and by Israel. If a deterrent would work for Ukraine against Russia, then why not for Iran against the United States? And if this works for Iran, then what about neighboring nations who have what they say are reasons to fear a nuclear-armed Iran? Like, say, the Saudis? Shouldn't they also have their own warheads?

And if the Ukrainians and Georgians and Kazakhs and Iranians and Saudis, then why not Japan, despite its history, given the potential of its giant nuclear-armed neighbor to the west, not to mention North Korea? After all, if Ukraine can't depend on the U.S. to come to its aid militarily, can Japan?

In fact, it should be noted, Mearsheimer thinks a good case can be made for Israel to give up its nuclear arsenal, an unacknowledged 60-200 warheads, as long as Iran provides guarantees that it won't build any of its own. But why? Deterrence works or it doesn't, right?

As noted, Mearsheimer is known as a "realist," the same designation as, for instance, Henry Kissinger. They see the world as one solely comprised of "interests" and "spheres of influence." They are credited with not observing things through rose-colored kumbaya spectacles. Idealists like Isaacs who seek nuclear disarmament are seen by "realists," at best, as naïfs and they ridicule them for supposedly failing to see the world "as it really is."

But real realists know full well that the more nations which have a nuclear deterrent the more likely is the chance that a nuclear war will not be deterred, either through diplomatic miscalculation or madness or the kind of operational mistake or communication errors that brought the United States and USSR to the brink on more than one occasion. Such an outbreak might be confined to a few warheads and a few vitrified cities. Messy but survivable for all but those in the target zones.

Or the whole planet might get fried.

So far, with the exception of the first two A-Bombs dropped nearly 70 years ago, we've managed to avoid the horrific conflagration in which the survivors would envy the dead. Adding a dozen or so more nations to the nine who already have nuclear weapons will not make the world a safer place.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Wed Mar 05, 2014 at 05:48 AM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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