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Revising The History Of The 1990s

The Commonwealth of Independent States in 1998. CIA.

Revisionist history of the 1990s is in full swing. Here’s the latest.

New materials have surfaced that support my preferred point of view! Let me give you a selection! The article gives the impression that reams of newly declassified documents support the idea that, in this telling, the United States bent over backward to avoid offending Russia during the 1990s. I don’t think that the assembled quotes actually tell that story, especially since references are spotty. The article gives little context for the quotes.

The documents relating to diplomacy over time in an urgent situation will contain a great many statements of a great many views. It is good for those views to be discussed in the formulation of policy, but what matters is what actually was done. What matters even more is where we are today.

Along with others, the author assumes that Ukraine’s retention of Soviet nuclear weapons would be a deterrent against Russia while Ukraine developed into today’s state. Another assumption is that the US and Europe could have offered security guarantees that would deter Russia. These assumptions have been refuted before. The context of the world situation in the 1990s is ignored. I’ll repeat some of that context here.

The Soviet Union trembled through 1989, and then actively split in 1991. The largest country on earth, with nuclear weapons. During the runup to the split, it was not clear that Moscow would not use nuclear weapons on the breakaway republics. Unlikely, but could not be discounted. An authoritarian, closed country was breaking up.

American scientists who had been to nuclear laboratories in the Soviet Union knew that nuclear security there depended largely on men with guns, rather than the record-keeping access control layers the US had developed. If those men with guns disappeared, so did the security. Sigfried Hecker, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, observed that anyone could walk in off the street in Moscow to the Kurchatov Laboratories, where nuclear material was kept.

A cynical view, not entirely wrong, of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is that its purpose is to keep the nuclear powers powerful by allowing nuclear weapons to them, and them only. The other side of that view is that the more nations have nuclear weapons, the more dangerous the world becomes.

The potential was for three new nations emerging from the Soviet Union to have nuclear weapons. Additionally, the insecurity of nuclear materials and the collapse of the new nations’ ability to pay their nuclear scientists meant that both might move to additional nations, like Iran.

Dealing with the nuclear inheritance was one of the top priorities for the United States and other countries as they worked with the new nations. The nuclear weapons in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine were aimed at the United States and not under control of those new nations’ authorities, although in Ukraine and perhaps the other two, scientists and engineers were trying to figure out how to change that.

Russia in 1995 was not today’s Russia, and Ukraine in 1995 was not today’s Ukraine.

Russia was greatly weakened and shocked in several dimensions from the breakup. Boris Yeltsin had essentially mounted a coup against the Communist regime, and the economic isolation of the Soviet Union was no longer possible. The economies of the new nations, including Russia, had to be restructured.

The fact that Yeltsin rejected the Soviet governing philosophy meant that there was a possibility to move Russia in a more democratic direction.

Ukraine retained its corrupt leadership from the Soviet times. The democratic Ukraine we see today was shaped later, particularly since 2010.

It wasn’t even clear that an entity like the Soviet Union couldn’t arise from the ashes. The Commonwealth of Independent States, an attempt at face-saving that could have grown into more, included Ukraine at first.

Belarus and Kazakhstan removed the nuclear weapons and sent them back to Russia. Ukraine held onto its nuclear weapons longer and gave them up for the Budapest Memorandum.

Much of the revisionism, including the article I linked, argues that the US should have been tougher with Russia, that Ukraine should have kept the nuclear weapons, or that the US and Europe should have provided Ukraine with foolproof security guarantees.

The decisionmakers had a balancing act: get the nukes under control and stabilize the fifteen new governments of which Russia was the biggest. All this had to be done within the constraints of domestic and international politics. The US and Europe of 1995 were not the US and Europe of today, which was good because they could move more quickly. Actions had to be taken quickly.

Europe was already on edge because of the reunification of Germany, which terrified most Europeans. The initiator of two world wars? No, non, ei, nie! But there it was, from 1990. One of the concerns was that Germany not become a nuclear power.

Ukraine’s becoming nuclear could have encouraged Germany. The United States and Russia did not want a new nuclear power. There was no way Ukraine could have changed that. If it had kept the nuclear weapons in the face of that opposition, it would have had a much harder time developing relations with Europe and the US. And Russia might just have decided to bomb the missile emplacements before Ukraine figured out how to defeat the control mechanisms.

What kind of security guarantees, beyond the assurances of the Budapest Memorandum, could the US and Europe have given Ukraine? There are two parts to this question: What could the US and Europe have offered under the constraints existing at the time, and what would, in fact, deter Russia? Extending an Article-5-like protection beyond the alliance would not have flown in NATO, and it would have been a slap in the face to Russia. Ukraine’s geographic location makes it vulnerable, and the more nationalistic Russian interpretations of history always provide a basis for conquest. Genuine efforts were made through the 1990s to bring Russia into a discussion of security cooperation with the West, but they fell through.

The context and constraints were real. They must be taken into account when evaluating the actions of the 1990s.

The 1990s felt like a time of great possibility. We decreased the numbers of nuclear weapons in the world and opened the way for fourteen new nations to become democratic. Could we have had a more democratic Russia? I tend to doubt that now, despite my 1990s optimism. But we probably could have had a less-bad Russia if we had supported them differently in the economic sphere.

Further, we have to contend with the situation we have now, where Russia has invaded Ukraine to re-establish its empire. What-ifs from the 1990s contribute little, if anything, to that effort.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.

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