When Ukraine agreed to give up a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons that had been left on its soil after the fall of the Soviet Union, it made history by striking a deal with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia in exchange for a guarantee of its security and boundaries.
It is hardly strange that the Ukrainian administration is perplexed as to what happened to that assurance.
In contrast, the Russian president has a very different complaint: He is peddling a conspiracy theory, perhaps as an excuse to seize control of the country in a military operation that began early Thursday, according to which Ukraine and the United States are secretly plotting to reintroduce nuclear weapons into the country.
Mr. Putin’s arguments took up nearly a third of his speech to the Russian people on Monday, during which he made a series of bizarre accusations, including that “Ukraine intends to develop its own nuclear weapons, and this is not just braggadocio,” and that “Ukraine intends to develop its own nuclear weapons.” Then he developed a second argument, claiming that the United States is transforming its missile defence systems into offensive weapons and that it has plans to station nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil.
During the early 1990s, Ukraine agreed to give up a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons left over from the Soviet Union, and the fuel from its blended-down warheads was used to fuel the country’s nuclear power reactors. Ukraine does not even have the rudimentary infrastructure necessary to create nuclear fuel at this time, despite Mr. Putin’s questionable assertion that the country could swiftly acquire the necessary expertise.
For their part, American officials have said on several occasions that they have no intentions to deploy nuclear weapons in Ukraine — and have never done so, particularly given the country’s non-membership in the NATO alliance.
But that hasn’t prevented Mr. Putin from constructing a hypothetical situation in which all of those things may occur at some point in the future, potentially putting Moscow in danger. A second press conference was held on Tuesday, during which he elaborated on the issue by endorsing a number of conspiracy theories that, when taken together, may provide the excuse for seizing control of the whole nation.
Mr. Putin has, of course, made similar arguments in the past, but they have often served as sidebars rather than as justifications for immediate action. And it was a far cry from the tone taken by Moscow 30 years ago, when Russian nuclear scientists were being voluntarily retrained to use their skills for peaceful purposes and nuclear weapons were being removed from Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan with funds provided by American taxpayers, among other initiatives.
As a matter of fact, Mr. Putin is now invoking a crucial agreement from that period, known as the Budapest Memorandum, to support his position. Embedded in the memorandum, which was signed by representatives from four countries: Ukraine, the United States, Great Britain, and Russia, was a central bargain: Ukraine would surrender its entire nuclear arsenal, and in exchange, the other three countries would all guarantee Ukraine’s security and the integrity of its borders.
However, the memorandum did not go into detail about what that security guarantee comprised, and there was no assurance that military aid would be provided in the case of an assault. Yet when he grabbed Crimea in 2014, and again on Monday, Mr. Putin flagrantly flouted the agreement, basically declaring that the two rebel republics were no longer a part of Ukraine, he was in clear violation of the agreement.
He expressed his displeasure with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, this week, saying he was outraged that he was openly discussing the possibility of revisiting the memorandum. During the Munich Security Conference last weekend, Mr. Zelensky expressed his dissatisfaction with the “guarantee,” saying that it is proving to be no guarantee at all against a country wielding Russia’s coercive capabilities.
His ire was then directed at the United States of America, based on the idea that the US must remove all of its nuclear weapons from Europe — and particularly from the former Soviet Union countries that have joined NATO — by 2020. A missile defence system installed in Poland and Romania — and intended to defend against Iran — might, according to him, be quietly changed into an offensive system that would threaten Russia.
According to Mr. Putin, “in other words, the supposedly defensive U.S. missile defence system is growing and extending its new attacking capabilities.” He made no mention of the United States’ offer to establish a new arms control deal that would restrict the number of nuclear weapons locations on both sides of the Atlantic.
His message seemed to be straightforward: the only way for Ukraine to avoid becoming a launch pad for American weapons would be for the United States to take over the country or have it administered by a friendly administration.