Knyzhka Corner Book Review: Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament – A History

In this edition of Knyzka Corner, we will be discussing Yuri Kostenko’s book Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament – A History.

Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament – A History, published by the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, outlines the factors which led Ukraine to sign the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. This agreement denuclearized the country. It also questions whether this was the right decision for Ukraine’s future. Yuri Kostenko’s insider account will help readers understand the power dynamics involved with Ukraine’s fateful decision to give up its nuclear weapons in the mid-1990’s, leaving Ukraine vulnerable to Russian aggression.  In 2014, twenty years after the Budapest Memorandum was signed, Russia annexed Crimea and supported an insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

The first Chapter, “An Infant in a Grownups’ Game,” outlines the influences which impacted Ukraine’s initial decision-making. In July 1990, as the Ukrainian parliament was drafting the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine, Ivan Drach, the leader of Narodny Rukh, suggested that perhaps nuclear weapons should be banned on Ukrainian territory.  This was a new and controversial idea.  After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was left with the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, after the United States and Russia. Russia wanted complete nuclear disarmament of all former Soviet republics – other than Russia. Russia would then take ownership of these nuclear armaments, giving them increased power, influence, and financial benefits. It would also remove all potential nuclear threats on its doorstep.  Russians believed that Ukraine was still a part of Russia; and therefore, Ukraine should readily comply with Russia’s wishes. The United States also wanted to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and they preferred to maintain the status quo by moving the nuclear weapons to Russia.

Subsequent chapters outline the torturous process which led to Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament, and the resulting weakening of its international status. In its early days of independence, Ukraine lacked a robust political, economic, and security decision-making structure.  It was heavily reliant on Russian-influenced leaders. Russia and the United States moved ahead diplomatically, assuming Ukraine would eventually give up its nuclear arsenal. They negotiated the START I and START II treaties with very little Ukrainian input. Meanwhile, Ukrainian parliamentarians examined issues of payment for nuclear materials and retention of some weaponry. “Ukraine’s national interests and a distinct understanding that Russia was not our ally in this process were central to the development of the nuclear disarmament action plan.” (p. 42) In 1994, the United States started belatedly supporting Ukrainian independence from Russian influence. However, with the election of President Kuchma and his new parliament in 1994, those Ukrainian diplomatic players who understood the potential risks, were sidelined. In the end, Ukraine capitulated and signed the Budapest Memorandum. They believed their sovereignty would be protected in the future.

Yuri Kostenko’s account is a thorough examination of a difficult subject.  As Ukraine’s Minister of Environmental Protection and Nuclear Safety from 1992-1998, he participated in many of the discussions and negotiations relating to Ukraine’s nuclear status. Based on previously unavailable documents, Kostenko gives readers insight into the Ukrainian parliamentary debates about Russian and American proposals for nuclear disarmament.  These international partners exerted pressure on the newly independent Ukraine.  In the end, Ukraine had little choice but to give up its nuclear arsenal to Russia.  As a result, Ukraine was now virtually defenseless against Russian aggression. In 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, those countries who had “guaranteed” Ukraine’s borders did not live up to their commitments. Kostenko tells readers, “Paper agreements and friendly pats on the back do not work in the contemporary world.” (p. 274)

This book will appeal to a variety of readers interested in: Ukraine’s history, nuclear disarmament, international politics, and Russian aggression.  This dense but well written text is thoroughly researched.  Academics will appreciate the documents in the Appendices, as well as the detailed footnotes. The photographs and biographical text boxes about key players in Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament are also important to the historical record.

Yuri Kostenko is a Ukrainian politician and leader of the Ukrainian People’s Party. From 1990 to 2014, he was a member of the parliament of Ukraine. In the years 1992 to 1998, he joined the Cabinet with portfolios governing environmental protection and nuclear safety. Kostenko was a top-level representative of Ukraine in the negotiations with the Western powers and Russia on the denuclearization of Ukraine in the 1990s. Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament – A History was published by the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University (HURI).  Kostenko currently lives in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament – A History is available at Amazon and HURI Books.

—Reviewed by Myra Junyk


Yuri Kostenko

Ukrainian Research Institute Harvard University, 2020. 350 p. ISBN 9780674249301

Available at Amazon and HURI Books

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