The crisis in Ukraine is complex, dangerous and likely to be prolonged. But thanks to the foresight of officials in Russia and the United States, it does not involve nuclear weapons. Imagine how the current conflict would look if Russia and Ukraine — both nuclear-armed - were hurling threats at each other, with the U.S. caught in the middle.
Fortunately, all of Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal is long gone. Nineteen-hundred nuclear warheads, 220 missiles and bombers, and 1,080 long-range nuclear cruise missiles were removed to Russia beginning in 1994 under U.S. and Russian supervision.
That the weapons were there at all reflects the fact that the Soviet leadership never imagined the breakup of their empire. Thousands of nuclear weapons, fully prepared for launch against the U.S. and our allies, were stranded in three newly independent states - Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, countries that had no experience as stewards of the world’s most powerful weapons. That they were removed was something of a miracle of good policy and some luck.
These weapons were recognized by President Clinton and a still-lucid Russian President Yeltsin as a potential nightmare. The three new states had no expertise to safely maintain these weapons systems and their warheads. Nor, as we and Moscow saw it, was it in anyone’s interests to allow the weapons to remain. We had no idea what would happen there in the future and indeed, in later years, an anti-American dictator (Lukashenko) took power in Belarus, and instability became the norm in Ukraine.
We should all thank retired Sens. Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar for co-sponsoring the “Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act” that funded the removal of all these weapons and paid to build secure storage facilities in Russia for them. Sen. Carl Levin has called this bill “one of the smartest investments America has ever made in our security.”