Assurance – A strong and definite statement that something will happen or that something is true
Guarantee – a promise, especially one given in writing, that attests to the quality or durability of a product or service
The biggest what if of the Cold War involved the question of nuclear war. What if the United States and Soviet Union had been unable to resolve their differences by any other means than a hot or shooting war? What if the conflict degenerated into a nuclear war? The consequences would not only have been disastrous for the American and Soviets, but indeed for everyone on the planet. One shudders to think what life might be like today (or not be like) if the catastrophe of a global thermonuclear war had taken place.
The Counterfactual as Doomsday Device
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, a couple of years later the Soviet Union dissolved. Many believed that the threat of a large scale nuclear conflict had passed into history. The world’s attention turned from the East-West divide in Europe to the threat of nuclear terrorism by rogue organizations. While this is certainly a concern, the recent tension over Ukrainian territory that has pitted Russia against the European Union and United States has brought the threat of a large-scale nuclear war back from the shadows. Commentators have remarked that the situation in Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine could eventually lead to NATO and Russia stumbling into a nuclear conflict. While this seems implausible, it is certainly not impossible.
An overlooked aspect of this crisis is another what-if scenario. Specifically, what-if the Ukraine had not given up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. What-if the Russians had then still tried to take over Crimea? What-if the Ukraine had responded by threatening the use of nuclear weapons? What if the Russians had done the same? What if the Ukraine-Russia conflict went nuclear? Nuclear weapons have a way of opening a Pandora’s box of imaginative what if’s, counterfactuals as doomsday device.
A Dangerous Game of Self Interest
Fortunately, the Ukraine-Russia situation will probably never lead to a nuclear conflagration. Hopefully it will never even come close. That is because twenty years ago representatives from the United States, Great Britain, Russia and the Ukraine met in Budapest. They negotiated what became known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. The memorandum, in effect, stated that the Ukraine would give up its nuclear weapons in return for assurances of its territorial integrity. The problem is an assurance is very different from a guarantee. An assurance is a statement that can be more or less definite, a guarantee is a promise. Think of guarantees as treaties that commit the signatories to certain actions. Assurances are based more on words than actions and as we all know, actions speak louder than words.
It would not be wrong to view the Budapest Memorandum as having given the Russians an opening they could expose. Ironically, it also gave the United States and Great Britain an opening. They did not have to guarantee Ukraine’s security. This was by design. A guarantee could have brought both of them into armed conflict with Russia one day. Neither was prepared to go to war with Russia over the Ukraine and certainly not a nuclear war. That was true twenty years ago, as it is true today. Nonetheless, that did not stop the Americans and British from involving themselves in the Russian sphere of influence. It is said that after the Soviet Union dissolved and the United States and its western Allies began to incorporate several former Soviet Republics into NATO, that the elder intellectual statesmen of the Cold War, George Kennan said that this was a terrible idea. He believed with some justification that if push came to shove, the alliance had no intention to defend with force such nations as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. He also thought the alliance’s action risked provoking Russia. In the future, Russia might not be so weak. NATO could conceivably end up in a no win situation. That seems more and more possible. After all, there were many who wanted Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. This would have led to yet another scary what-if scenario. Does anyone really believe that the western world would have risked nuclear war to protect either of these nations from Russia? It is extremely doubtful.
For the time being, Ukraine remains a sovereign state. It will likely continue as such in some form or fashion, but there is a possibility that it could be dismembered or fall apart. If there had been no Budapest Memorandum the situation would have even come this far. This raises the question: What if Ukraine still had those nuclear weapons? It would almost certainly have ensured the long term survival of the nation. Nuclear states rarely disappear. They may ossify or thrive, but rarely do they disappear (the Soviet Union being the one notable exception). Nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of national security, but international insecurity.
Back From the Brink, Back to the Brink – The Ukrainian Arsenal
And what, one might ask, did the Ukraine give up for those security assurances in the Budapest Memorandum. In 1994, it held one-third of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. This included over 1,900 strategic and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons. At the time, it was the world’s third largest nuclear stockpile, more than the nuclear arms of Britain, France and China combined. The arsenal was greater than the amount of nuclear warheads deployed by both the American and Russian militaries today. It seems incredible that the Ukraine could be convinced to part with these weapons for a series of assurances. If they could do it all over again, things would almost certainly be different. Then again, Ukraine still has a large nuclear infrastructure that they might use to create their own weapons. As a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, Mustafa Dzhemilev recently said, “each country that has… capacity to acquire its own nuclear weapons will be aspired to go down that path, and Ukraine is no exception.”
Sometime in the future Europe could be threatened with a nuclear armed Ukraine. This would bring the post-Soviet, Ukraine-Russia dynamic full circle. No one could have ever imagined such a thing when both were integral parts of the Soviet Union. Back then the future seemed so certain, but as the cliché goes the only certainty is uncertainty. Perhaps uncertainty is the only thing that really can be guaranteed in this part of the world. Another series of nuclear what-ifs may well loom on the horizon. This time they may be a bit further to the east, but that makes them no less dangerous.