‘Bukvy’ spoke with History professor Serhii Plokhii, one of the leading researchers of Eastern Europe, the author of famous books and the director of the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University, about why Russia became the only country of the former USSR that did not give up nuclear weapons.
Throughout the Cold War, the USA insisted on maximum denuclearization of the the USSR. But Russia is the only country of the former USSR that retained nuclear weapons after the collapse of the USSR.
Why didn’t the international partners insist on the complete denuclearization of the USSR and removing nuclear weapons from Russia as well?
The question of withdrawing nuclear weapons from Russia during the collapse of the USSR was not even considered.
It was considered unrealistic.
The main concerns were related to the fact that a nationalist anti-Western regime could come to power, and, from this point of view, anything that could be perceived as an encroachment on Russia’s sovereign rights and could strengthen
Yeltsin’s opponents was not considered.
In addition, there was the idea that the USA and the post-Soviet space would be safer if these weapons were in one hands, that is, in Russian hands. Moscow used to be the capital of the Soviet Union. The key military with whom the US interacted and the diplomats with whom it worked in the 1960s and 1970s regarding nuclear control were located in Moscow.
That is, these were people, structures, environment with which the Americans had already worked, with whom they were familiar and whom they trusted.
In contrast, the situation with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine was completely unclear and unknown.
In this context, the solution was not the complete nuclear disarmament of Russia, but the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from other republics. The main threat was a possible civil war.
What is your assessment, if the Soviet Union, including Russia, had completely given up nuclear weapons then, what would the world be like now?
I agree with the assessments from America and Europe at that time. The world absolutely believed that Russia was being transformed, that Russia was the leader of democratic transformations in the post-Soviet space.
In the framework of the worldview of that time, it was impossible to imagine what is happening now, and I think that if any movements towards the withdrawal of nuclear weapons had begun then, they would have led to a war – the same as today, only back in those days.
Therefore, the decision in the 1990s was to bring all nuclear weapons to one place, and then, with Gorbachev and Yeltsin, implement the reduction of nuclear arsenals. It happened on terms more favorable to the Americans than the USSR, and then Russia.
According to your book The Last Empire. The Decline and Collapse of the Soviet Union, the Americans did not expect that the USSR would collapse at all, and that everything would happen so quickly and so unexpectedly.
Yes, it was an absolute shock. For Ukraine, it was extremely important to assure the US that Ukraine, like other republics, chooses a non-nuclear status.
Did we have another choice then?
From my point of view, the Ukrainian authorities did everything possible in the mid-1990s. It was proposed to take away the weapons without any compensation, but they managed to get financial compensation.
In the mid-1990s, the Ukrainian state could neither economically nor politically resist the joint pressure of the USA and Russia.
Was it the best possible option at that time?
At that time, the price was negotiated. Maybe we could have negotiated more, maybe, but basically it was the maximum. The main problem with the Budapest Memorandum is that a security vacuum was created in the center of Europe by eliminating nuclear weapons without alternative methods and guarantees.
You mean NATO?
NATO or some firm guarantees instead of the so-called assurances that the Budapest Memorandum would allow America to intervene if America wanted to, without obligating America to intervene at the same time. I am convinced that Ukraine at that time was weak to bargain for something more and do something more. But all responsibility lies with the West. And it is time to remind about this responsibility.
Why? Because the West believed that democracy in Russia would work?
The West believed that the transformation was taking place, and Russia was its main engine.
And again, at that moment the mobilization of Russian nationalism was already beginning, it was necessary to support Yeltsin, because he was the best chance for democracy not only in Russia, but also for peace in the entire post-Soviet space, and for the peaceful coexistence of America and Russia, etc.
Were there cases in history when large empires, having attacked a small country, lost?
In history, there were almost no cases when the opposite happened.