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Take Sagan’s advice

An intense debate has raged among strategic experts in the US that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to invade and annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula has significantly hurt efforts to curb the dangers stemming from proliferation of nuclear weapons across the globe.  Many experts are of the view that Ukraine was wrong to divest itself of nuclear capability when it returned more than 2,000 nuclear weapons to the Russian Federation after the end of the cold war.

Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, Ukraine surrendered all nuclear weapons as quid pro quo for assurances from the US, Russia and the UK to respect the former’s territorial sovereignty at all costs. Now, given that Russia has flatly ignored those assurances, what will be the fate of efforts by the international community to effectively engage Iran and North Korea in negotiations to dissuade them from acquiring or maintaining a strong nuclear capability?

The bitter truth is that the Obama administration’s reluctance to put up a strong resistance to Vladimir Putin’s policy has led many countries to reinforce their belief that only nuclear weapons can provide an ‘absolute’ guarantee and states that choose to give up their nuclear arsenal do so at their own peril.

It is argued that Ukrainian officials certainly had fears of Russian aggression in their hearts because of which they wanted to keep nuclear weapons in their possession at least for a few years. However, the Clinton administration prodded Ukraine into abandoning all nuclear warheads by the end of 1996 because of concerns that the weapons could fall into unauthorised hands.

Now even staunch US allies like Japan and South Korea may begin to doubt whether they should continue to rely on US security assurances or whether acquiring of nuclear weapons is the only reliable option. In the post-cold war era, the credibility of security guarantees as a nuclear non-proliferation tool has been seriously damaged many times but the Ukrainian crisis has once again established the futility of the US nuclear umbrella for its allies in the European continent.

More than a decade ago in 2003, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi gave up his country’s nuclear enrichment programme after he made the decision to normalise relations with the west. However, in 2011, western countries supported a military campaign to overthrow his regime. At that time, many observers pointed out that if Libya had retained its nuclear enrichment programme, perhaps Qaddafi’s fate would have been totally different.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was very vocal in opposition to providing external support to Libyan revolutionaries when he said, “This gentleman [Qaddafi] wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the west and said, ‘Take them!’ Look where we are, and in what position they are now.”

In addition, Iran is concerned primarily about the threat posed by the US’ ally in the Middle East, Israel, so western security assurances can hardly allay its fears. This scenario reinforces the view propounded by advocates of nuclear weapons that if small and weak states do not have nuclear capability, they will be rendered totally defenceless.

The question, ‘would Russia have decided to encourage Crimea to secede had Kiev not given up nuclear weapons?’ is much more complex than is being understood by most observers. Even if Kiev had chosen to retain a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons, it could not invest in resources for maintaining and modernising those weapons.

Second, because of close geographical proximity and strong local support in Crimea in favour of annexation, the Ukrainian threat to use nuclear weapons could not be a viable option to stop Moscow. There is no credible evidence that nuclear weapons have ever deterred threats to the solidarity of a country. Third, Kiev could not afford to pay the high price of being a ‘pariah state’ and totally isolated from the international community for possessing Russian nuclear weapons.

The steps taken by North Korea and Iran to advance their nuclear weapons programmes have resulted in a huge economic price for their masses and diplomatic isolation on the international front. Furthermore, any country considering withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would invite the wrath of the international community, which is unaffordable in this age of globally interconnected economic systems.

US President Barack Obama has made global nuclear disarmament one of his foremost goals. Over the past five years, through the Nuclear Security Summit process and many other initiatives, the US has created an environment where nuclear weapons in the hands of more states only makes this world a far more dangerous place to live in. President Obama does not want to endanger Moscow’s cooperation on other non-proliferation goals like strengthening the security of nuclear materials and many other mutual initiatives for reducing the number of nuclear weapons.

The Ukrainian crisis might serve the purpose of aspirant nuclear states but one thing is certain: North Korea would not abandon its nuclear programme even if the US and Western Europe had come out more openly in support of Ukraine and prevented Russia from annexing Crimea. Ukraine’s decision to abandon nuclear arsenals in 1996 can hardly be the reason for Russian aggression today.

Rather the political crisis in Ukraine has more to do with the dynamics of domestic politics and Europe’s serious mishandling of the issue of Ukraine’s entry into the European Union. Belarus, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian Republics (CARs) have never tried to acquire nuclear capability but Russia has not invaded them. Rather than focusing on acquiring nuclear weapons as a defence tool, all countries should join hands to make this world safer by getting rid of nukes.

Carl Sagan, the famous US author and astronomer, once surmised that the reason for our inability to discover life on other planets could be that when inhabitants of other planets invented nuclear weapons, they were not smart enough to stop those weapons from completely destroying their lives. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we avoid the fate Carl Sagan once speculated about other planets.

Email: rizwanasghar5@unm.edu

Rizwan Asghar, "Take Sagan’s advice," The News. 2014-11-18.
Keywords: Political science , International issues , International relations , International community , Nuclear weapons , Security issues , Nuclear warfare , Nuclear policy , Political leaders , President Vladimir Putin , Muammar Qaddafi , Ayatollah Khamenei , President Obama , United States , South Korea , Russia , Japan , Israel , Iran , NPT , CARs