Weekly Review 1. What a week to start: Nuclear Ukraine, the latest RUSI report, and more

Weekly Review 1 Banner

This is the first in a series of weekly reviews. These reviews are reflections on what I’m thinking about and reading in relation to current events and my professional life. I also bookend these reviews with a mention of what I’m currently listening to. The format is strongly influenced by (if not entirely lifted from) Sam Greene’s excellent weekly Substack newsletter. I encourage you to subscribe to Greene’s newsletter if you haven’t already.

What a week to begin. This week has been rocked by bombshells, both literally and figuratively. First, it was the assassination of the detestable Vladlen Tatarsky (The Guardian, 3 April 2023). Then it was Donald Trump’s arraignment in court (New York Times, 5 April 2023). Meanwhile here in the UK, Home Secretary Suella Braverman is praising Rwanda’s human rights record (BBC, 3 April 2023) and the Scottish National Party appears to be rotting out from within (The Guardian, 5 April 2023). Standish et al. (5 April 2023) broke the news of leaked files detailing close interaction between Russia and China on internet control and censorship. And then there was the bizarre story about the leaked Pentagon documents on Ukraine (New York Times, 8 April 2023Bellingcat, 9 April 2023). In short, it’s been a dizzying week for news.

What I’m thinking about

Unsurprisingly, my thoughts have gone in many directions. Current events prompted me to reflect first on post-Soviet Ukraine and then on Macron’s China visit (RTÉ 2023New York Times, 8 April 2023). I am also changing gears from teaching to research. Term 2 at University College London ended on 24 March. The end of term has prompted me to think about my teaching and next year’s modules. More importantly, I now have the time to focus on research. So, my thoughts have been divided. At one moment, I am criticising my own teaching process. A moment later, I’m shaking my head while reading Twitter or listening to the radio.

For sake of coherence, I will limit this week’s review to post-Soviet Ukraine. On Tuesday, 4 April 2023, Bill Clinton expressed regret about his pressuring Ukraine to give up its Soviet-inherited nuclear weapons (RTÉ 2023). “I feel a personal stake because I got them to agree to give up their nuclear weapons,” Clinton said in a prime-time interview (RTÉ 2023).

Some background may be useful to understand Clinton’s comments. Soviet collapse produced four independent states with nuclear weapons: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. In the 1990s, both the Bush and Clinton administrations were anxious to prevent these states from exploiting their inherited arsenals (Sarotte 2021, pp. 121 and 158–160). For various reasons, the US solution was for all Soviet tactical and strategic nuclear weapons to be possessed and controlled by Russia—the legal successor of the Soviet Union (Zvarych 2023). Despite Ukrainian concerns of Russian revanchism, the Clinton administration pressured Ukraine to relinquish its vast and sophisticated stock of nuclear weapons (Sarotte 2021, pp. 158–160).

Clinton’s comments this week prompted debates on social media and references to the Budapest Memorandum (@Biz_Ukraine_Mag 2023Kyiv Post 2023). The so-called Budapest Memorandum originated from an OSCE summit in that city in 1994 where the US, the UK, and Russia gave Ukraine security assurances of its territorial integrity. In exchange, Ukraine agreed to denuclearise (Pifer 2019).

From its signing, the Budapest Memorandum was seen as a weak form of assurance. “Ukrainian diplomats told US officials that they had ‘no illusions that the Russians would live up to the agreements they signed’”(Sarotte 2021, p. 203). Demonstrating how worthless the Budapest Memorandum truly was, the West did next-to-nothing when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014 (Wilson 2014). 

On social media, some suggested that Ukraine could and should have kept their nuclear stockpile. For example, tweets like the following (@TreasChest 2023): 

“On April 1, 1995, in the presence of US Secretary of Defense William Perry, dismantling and destruction of nuclear weapons began in Ukraine.

“Weakness is a sin”

Or comments like this (@tider16 2023):

“Hindsight 2023 it’s easy to look back at it and see it as an obvious failure. But at that time in the 90s the collective West was all on this high of appeasing Russia so it would lean more to the west in the future (Which obviously didn’t play out as intended).”

My initial reaction was irritation. The idea that Ukraine could’ve retained its Soviet nuclear stockpile was rubbish, I thought. 

But then my curiosity peaked. Was it possible Ukraine could have kept and maintained the weapons? Was I Westsplaining? Westsplaining is where Western analysts apply their own interpretation of a country’s situation without acknowledging the views, agency, or concerns of that country (Smoleński & Dutkiewicz 2022). The term was coined in the Ukrainian segment of Twitter during the Black Lives Matter protests (see Hrytsenko 2020). Noam Chomsky (04 February 202213 April 202214 April 2022) and John Mearsheimer (01 March 20222014) are infamous for Westsplaining Ukraine (Gorodnichenko et al. 2022McCallum 2022). Dismissing out-of-hand that Ukraine could have retained its Soviet nuclear weapons, perhaps I was Westsplaining.

I decided to briefly investigate Ukraine’s denuclearisation. I had recently finished two excellent books—Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union by Vladislav M. Zubok (2021) and Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Stalemate by Mary E. Sarotte (2021)—that touched on Ukraine’s nuclear weapons and the Budapest Memorandum. An argument on Twitter also yielded a fascinating short essay by Olena Zvarych (14 January 2023) titled “‘It was high treason.’ How Ukraine voluntarily agreed to denuclearisation, giving Russia weapons for today’s war.”

Of these three sources, the best extended discussion is Sarotte’s Not One Inch. It provides rich detail on policy, politics, and society within the US, Russia, and Ukraine that formed the logic behind Ukrainian denuclearisation. The key drivers were the US and Ukraine’s economy. From 1991 to 1997, Ukraine experienced a severe economic decline. “[I]ndustrial production fell by 48 percent, while the gross domestic product (GDP) lost a staggering 60 percent” (Plokhy 2014). Such economic conditions enhanced the “carrots and sticks” the Clinton administration used to advance its denuclearisation policy upon Ukraine (Sarotte 2021, pp. 158–160 and 182–183). 

To maintain a nuclear arsenal, Ukraine would need either a deal with Russia or to spend billions in developing a domestic bomb-making industry. Zubok (2021 p. 363) summarises the practicalities: 

“The nuclear warheads and bombs in Ukraine’s warehouses had been assembled in two nuclear laboratories on Russian territory; their expiration date was in ten years’ time and they required special maintenance. For all its scientific-technical potential, Ukraine needed many years and many billions to acquire the skills and capacity to maintain and use those weapons.”

The likelihood of either scenario was implausible. Considering existing tensions between Ukraine and Russia (for example, over Crimea or the Commonwealth of Independent States), a nuclear-armed Ukraine did Russia no favours (Plokhy 2014). Any maintenance deal with that country was a fantasy. And developing a domestic bomb-making industry “would make Ukraine the enemy of both Russia and the United States” (Sarotte 2021, p. 160).

Moreover, it is debatable if Ukraine was ever truly a nuclear-armed state. Zubok (2021, p. 492) cites two documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine (1993a1993b) to support his claims. The first document, commissioned by the Ukrainian Parliament, reviews Ukraine’s three options: to denuclearise, to retain all nuclear weapons, or to retain some strategic nuclear weapons. The second document is a review of the three options by Ukraine’s State Committee for Nuclear and Radioactive Security. Most importantly, this second document notes “because [operational] control of these weapons never belonged to Ukraine, it cannot be viewed as a nuclear state in a pure form… Ukraine has never had the capacity to ‘use’ nuclear weapons, despite statements about ‘Ukraine’s’ nuclear weapons” (MFA Ukraine 1993b, p. 2). Command of Soviet strategic nuclear weapons had always been centralised in Moscow. As these two documents explain, Ukraine would have needed to go to great lengths to gain control of the nukes on their soil.

Ukraine’s denuclearisation didn’t just feature warheads. Zvarych’s (14 January 2023) short essay first outlines what drove Ukraine’s denuclearisation, but then focuses on another part of the process: the transfer of Ukraine’s nuclear-capable bombers and rockets to Russia. Zvarych observes the cruel irony that Tu-95 and Tu-160 heavy bombers, which once belonged to Ukraine, are currently being used by Russia to destroy infrastructure and kill Ukrainian citizens (Associated Press, 10 February 2023).

It is nonsense to argue—or at least highly unlikely—that Ukraine could have maintained and used its Soviet nuclear stockpile. Western and Russian pressure to denuclearise was too great and Ukraine’s economy was too unstable to maintain them. But as a colleague observed, this doesn’t make Russia’s violation of the Budapest Memorandum any less repugnant. Maybe Clinton meant to say that he wished this memorandum had been upgraded to an enforceable treaty, or that the memorandum’s security guarantees had been given real teeth.

What I’m reading

My reading this past week has been equally eclectic. It has ranged from Russia’s war in Ukraine, to the collective memory of Europe, to the nature of open societies, and to programming languages.

I am glad to have dropped by the RUSI (Royal United Services Institute) website. I do so, time-to-time, ever since their excellent report on Preliminary Lessons in Conventional Warfighting from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine by Zabrodskyi et al. (2022). I was rewarded by a new, special report on Preliminary Lessons from Russia’s Unconventional Operations During the Russo-Ukrainian War, February 2022–February 2023 by Watling et al. published at the end of March (2023).

Like Zabrodskyi et al. (2022), Watling et al. (2023) clarify a hitherto interrelated mass of narratives. As the title indicates, the report focuses on Russia’s unconventional forces: Spetsnas units, the Russian and Chechen Rosgvardia, mercenary groups (like Wagner), special forces, intelligence units, and Ukrainian collaborators. Part one of the report discusses their preparations for and their roles in the initial 24 February 2022 invasion. Part two explains how these unconventional forces tend to operate in Russian-occupied territories. The report is notable for its details and narrative analysis. For example, the authors outline how Andriy Derkach (a People’s Deputy in the Ukrainian Parliament), Viktor Medvechuk (leader of Ukraine’s OPZZH Party), and Brigadier General Andrii Naumov (head of the Main Directorate of Ukraine’s Internal Security), and others formed a network of Russian agents in Ukraine. This network prepared the ground for and participated in the invasion. The authors note this report covers “only a fraction of… Russia’s efforts” (ibid, p. 12). Russian activities in occupied territories, such as filtration, network analysis, and torture, are consistently shown to be part of “a systematic plan and not improvised sadism” (ibid. p. 22). It is a fascinating report and I encourage anyone following developments in Ukraine to read it.

My teaching responsibilities have also guided my reading. I recently finished Karl Popper’s (1966/2011) fifth edition of The Open Society and Its Enemies. This week, I am just more than halfway through Stefan Zweig’s (2013, translated by Anthea Bell) sublime and tragic The World of Yesterday. I cannot recommend these two books enough. I am irritated I put them off for so long.

The last group of books I’ve been reading this week are technical. Returning to my research, I am brushing up on my programming skills, such as Python (particularly Pandas), R, and XML. I watched a series of LinkedIn Learning (formally known as Lynda) courses and revisited a series of useful textbooks. 

I was surprised to learn that Ryan Mitchell, author of the useful and entertaining Web Scraping with Python (2015), is female. I had, likely due to my own and to systemic sexism, simply assumed “Ryan Mitchell” was a man. My internal monologue when reading her textbook had been of a friendly-but-firm, male, silicon-valley-type programmer. Let this serve as another reminder to check my assumptions and biases. 

What I’m listening to

Zen Arcade

The cover to Hüsker Dü’s (1984) album Zen Arcade.

One of my co-workers introduced me to Hüsker Dü’s (1984) Zen Arcade. The bass tone, guitar fuzz, and walkie-talkie snare clearly date it to the 1980s. But it still sounds so fresh. The album could drop today and be a massive hit in the hardcore-punk scene. As Plagenhoef and Schreiber (2008, p. 59) remark in The Pitchfork 500Zen Arcade proved “punk was capable of every mood and colour.” It’s a feast for the ears; dig in.