No one can be sure how the struggle within the present reform coalition in Russia will play out, or whether the neo-imperialist currents in the Yeltsin camp will eventually make common cause with the forces now aligned behind Zhirinovsky (and even with the former Communists). In such a situation, Ukraine would be, from the American strategic point of view, the first line of resistance. And thus our policy goal should be to make Ukraine indigestible, so that the western Russian border remains where it is today no matter how things turn out in Russia in the next few years. This will mean paying far greater attention to Ukraine than we have paid recently.
No doubt some of that reluctance to engage with Ukraine has had to do with the unhappy fact that the present Ukrainian authorities have, in general, made a hash out of Ukraine’s transition to democracy and the market, and have also been less than forthright in their approach to the issue of Ukraine’s inherited Soviet nuclear weapons. But our (justifiable) irritation with the Kravchuk government and the parliament of Ukraine does not change the geopolitical facts of life: namely, that an independent Ukraine has great strategic consequences. Thus the United States should provide support for both economic and political reforms while forcefully persuading those in charge that Ukraine’s long-term well-being, even in security terms, requires the decisive break with the statist-authoritarian past that Kravchuk and company have been reluctant to make since Ukraine regained its independence in 1991.
In this context, one has to wonder about the wisdom of pressuring the Ukraine on nuclear disarmament in quite the absolutist terms adopted by the Clinton administration in January: working, again, hand-in-glove with the Yeltsin government. To be sure, Ukraine’s decision to rid itself of nuclear weapons was paralleled by Russian assurances on non-aggression, co-signed by the United States. But why did the Administration seem to think that the most destabilizing factor in Russian-Ukrainian relations (and, indeed, in Ukraine’s relationship to the West) was Ukraine’s nuclear weapons? Weren’t Russian neo-imperial rumblings an issue in Ukraine’s (admittedly less-than-candid) fiddling with its previous agreements to denuclearize its military? Couldn’t a reasonable case have been made that Ukrainian denuclearization ought to proceeed in tandem with Russian demilitarization (including nuclear disarmament)? As it is, and even if the Clinton/Yeltsin/Kravchuk denuclearization agreement holds over the course of its seven-year term (which is not something on which one would want to bet the mortgage money), it may turn out that the deal fosters instability, rather than stability, in the CIS—and, perhaps, points west.
These things are, as the president likes to say, “judgment calls.” It is not self-evidently clear what strategic vision informed this particular call. But what is clear is that the call had better be backed up with real American economic and political support for Ukraine in the 1990s. Absent such support, the United States could end up having helped sacrifice Ukrainian independence (and the enormous strategic asset it represents) for the sake of the dubious proposition that all nuclear disarmament, under all circumstances, contributes to stability in world affairs.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.