Policy Paper

The Politics of Nuclear Renunciation: The Cases of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine

in Program

The division of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal in late 1991 among four independent republics inspired deeply troubling visions of unchecked nuclear prolifera­ tion and, possibly, nuclear confrontation. Three years later, these nightmare scenarios appear to be behind us. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine have acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear states and are now transferring Soviet missiles and warheads to Russia for dismantlement on a strict schedule.

Importantly, these three former Soviet republics are not the only states with significant nuclear assets to renounce nuclear weapons. While international attention has tended to focus on notable exceptions to the non-proliferation norm-Israel, India, and Pakistan-a significant number of states have discontinued programs to develop nuclear weapons: Sweden, South Korea, and Taiwan in the 1970s, Argentina and Brazil in the 1980s, and South Africa in the 1990s. These notable instances of restraint prove that decisions to move toward nuclear acquisition are not unalterable, but may be subject to reversal in light of new international, regional, or domestic constraints and pressures. The march toward a more proliferated world is neither inexorable nor inevitable.

The examples of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, like those of other nuclear abstainers, offer hope for a future in which nuclear danger is progressively reduced. While the mechanisms to enforce the norm of non-proliferation-primary among them the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty-may at times prove inadequate to the task, a large number of states appear to have concluded that the risks of nuclear possession outweigh the supposed benefits, particularly when the costs include diplomatic isolation and the loss of access to the economic, technological, and other benefits that go along with full participation in global markets and the international community.

While these cases of nuclear restraint are heartening, they coexist with discourag­ ing signs. A number of countries clearly continue to see great military or political benefit in the possession of nuclear weapons, and are willing to risk international isolation and even condemnation to achieve that goal. The effectiveness of the Nuclear Non-Prolifera­ tion Treaty needs to be strengthened, as is apparent from the evasive action taken by Iraq and North Korea. A new “grand bargain” needs to be struck by the nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states, reaffirming their mutual obligation to progressively reduce nuclear danger. The international community, in short, appears to be approaching a decisive point in the evolution of the non-proliferation regime, with the future leading either to temporizing steps or to the progressive de-legitimization of weapons of mass destruction.

At issue is the future role of nuclear weapons in national policies and in interna­ tional relations. While many argue that nuclear weapons in the past helped to prevent war between the United States and the Soviet Union and thus contributed to interna­ tional stability, there is little agreement today about the future contribution of nuclear weapons to national or international security. What is the relevance and effectiveness of nuclear deterrence today between nuclear weapon states or between strong and weak states? What role, if any, do these weapons play in deterring “rogue” states or the use of chemical and biological weapons? What political and military benefits, if any, does the possession of nuclear weapons entail? What should be the long-term objective of future arms control and disarmament efforts? Most importantly, what are the benefits and risks of continuing to rely on nuclear weapons for security, and how do they compare with the benefits and risks of the progressive reduction of the shadow cast by these weapons?

The Henry L. Stimson Center’s Project on Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruc­ tion seeks to encourage a national and international debate on the long-term nuclear future. It is based on the premise that the end of the Cold War, dissolution of the Soviet Union, and grave dangers of proliferation provide both reason and opportunity to reexamine fundamental assumptions regarding the relative benefits and risks associated with weapons of mass destruction. Through research and public education efforts, the Center seeks to explore the obstacles to, and implications of, the progressive elimination of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons from all stats, and to consider measures that might bring all states closer toward that goal. The project is funded by the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

A central focus of the project’s research efforts are evolving national and interna­ tional perceptions of the benefits, costs, and risks associated with weapons of mass destruction. Understanding the motivations for proliferation in the post-Cold War environment is essential to this task. Equally important, however, is an examination of cases of nuclear forbearance, which may hold valuable lessons for future non-prolifera­tion efforts.

This study is the first in a series that examines decisionmaking in countries that have chosen to back away from the nuclear threshold. Using a common framework of analysis, these studies seek to assess the relative influence of international, regional, and domestic factors in helping to change perceptions of the utility and/or the cost of nuclear weapons, and to examine closely the implementation and verification of decisions to forego the development of nuclear capabilities. The studies are authored by experts with extensive expertise in non-proliferation issues and, importantly, in the domestic and regional politics of the countries under review.

This essay by Dr. William Potter examines the three former Soviet republics. As Potter notes, prior to the Soviet Union’s dissolution, little attention had been paid to the possibility that states might “inherit” nuclear weapons through a change in political authority over the territory on which nuclear weapons were located. As the Soviet Union lurched toward collapse, the specter of “instant proliferation” loomed larger. Though the USSR’s nuclear arsenal and infrastructure were concentrated in  the  Russian Republic, the Soviet Union’s demise in late 1991 left Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine with significant nuclear assets on their respective territories. As Potter’s study high­ lights, little thought had been given in the new national capitals to the implications of this dubious windfall.

Although all three states, to a greater or lesser extent, shared concerns about Russia’s evolution, in the end, the economic, political, and military costs of nuclear possession proved too high. First Belarus, then Kazakhstan and, finally, Ukraine, agreed to transfer their newly obtained arsenFlls to Russia for dismantlement and to accede to the NPT as non-nuclear states. In each case, the fear of international isolation and political and economic reprisals played a significant role in the decisions to de-nuclearize.

In thepost-Cold war world, Potter concludes, nuclear policy could not be considered in isolation of other important national goals, particularly those related to economic growth and technological advancement. The story of nuclear forbearance in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, the author observes, “is indicative of the significant array and potency of proliferation disincentives that operate in the post-Cold War world.” As such, his account holds valuable lessons for future non-proliferation efforts.

The Stimson Center is grateful to the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, whose funding makes this work possible. We are particularly grateful to Shepard Forman and Geoffrey Wiseman of the Ford Foundation, and Peter Goldmark and Tom Graham of the Rockefeller Foundation for their continued support. We also wish to thank the project’s director, Cathleen Fisher, and Christine Wormuth for their comments, and editorial and administrative support. As always, Jane Dorsey provided invaluable assistance in the preparation of the final product.

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