On a warm spring day in Ukraine 26 years ago, three men smiled for the cameras as they planted symbolic sunflower seedlings in the newly plowed land where Soviet nuclear missiles once stood.
That placid scene was, briefly, a launching pad for the hope that the demise of the Soviet Union would bury the threat of great-power war and usher in lasting peace in an undivided Europe. Today Ukraine is ground zero for concern that Russia will ignite a conflict that could engulf the region.
On that day in early June 1996, US Secretary of Defense William J. Perry joined his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts in ceremonies marking the completion of Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament. Under Western pressure, Ukraine has agreed to give up the weapons it inherited from the disintegration of the Soviet empire in exchange for a Russian and Western security guarantee.
Perry likened the moment to parting with a dark cloud of fear from the Cold War.
“It is completely appropriate that we plant sunflowers here in Pervomaysk to symbolize the hope we all feel as we see the sun shine again,” he said, standing on a small concrete platform at the former missile range, where SS-2 nuclear missiles were once launched. 19. they remained in underground silos, prepared to launch towards targets in the United States. Nearby, the national flags of the United States, Russia and Ukraine fluttered in a warm breeze.
That hopeful moment when American, Russian and Ukrainian officials grabbed white-handled shovels to plant sunflowers has given way to current fears of a new conflict and a new cold war. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin is accused by the West of violating that agreement by attacking Ukraine with more than 100,000 soldiers.
Now it is Russia that wants a security guarantee from the West, as well as legal guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the NATO alliance, even as Moscow braces for a possible invasion by a neighbor with inferior military power. and none of the more than 170 nuclear-tipped missiles it once had.
Moscow wants to stop NATO’s eastward expansion, which it claims Washington promised shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 in the context of German reunification. The United States and its NATO allies deny that any such promise was made. The opportunity for countries to join NATO is enshrined in article 10 of the organization’s founding treaty, and this “open door” policy was reaffirmed in 2008 when alliance leaders agreed that Ukraine and Georgia “will be members of NATO,” but did not set a timetable and offered no formal path to membership. Ukraine remains without a NATO invitation, and there likely won’t be one for the foreseeable future.
Ukraine gave up its legacy nuclear weapons, some 1,900 warheads that at the time made up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, after getting the security guarantee it wanted. It is known as the Budapest Memorandum, named after the Hungarian capital in which it was signed in 1994 by the United States, Great Britain and Russia. His words seem to defy the reality of Ukraine’s current crisis.
The three signatory nations pledged to “respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine.” They promised “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons be used against Ukraine, except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the United Nations charter. ”.
Thus began a long road to the current crisis in which the future of Ukraine may be in doubt. It has already lost control of the eastern Donbas region that borders Russia, following a Russian intervention in 2014 in support of separatists. That same year, Russia seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
After those Russian moves, the United States and NATO have distanced themselves from Russia, and Washington has provided substantial but still limited military assistance to Kiev. Ukraine continues to seek closer ties with the West, including membership in the NATO alliance, which Putin sees as a threat to Russia for having expanded eastward towards its borders several times since 1999.
President Joe Biden says the United States supports Ukraine. But he also points out that since Ukraine is not in NATO, it has no guarantee of US military backing. Biden has also pointed to the historic importance of a nuclear-armed Russia potentially invading a neighbor that has renounced nuclear weapons.
“This will be the most important thing that has happened in the world, in terms of war and peace, since World War II,” he said.
Among the American officials in Pervomaysk for the sunflower planting in 1996 was Ashton Carter, who years later would become Secretary of Defense. In a memoir, Carter recalled Ukraine’s decision to disarm, which he saw as the true end of the Cold War that divided Europe for nearly half a century. He said it showed that even insecure nations can give up the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons, “putting their trust in a world order dedicated to peace and a powerful America dedicated to international partnerships.”
At the time, Perry spoke of the prospects for “a permanent season of peace.” But looking back, he concluded that the spirit of goodwill was too short-lived.
“It saddens me to realize,” he wrote in 2015, “that such a scene and such cooperation are unthinkable today.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — AP national security writer Robert Burns covered the 1996 ceremony in Pervomaysk, where Perry and his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts planted sunflower seeds, as well as Perry’s other visits related to Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.