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Inside the program to dismantle Ukraine’s nuclear weapons

A presentation in Pavlohrad to demolish or remove Ukraine’s nuclear weapons. (DEFENSE THREAT REDUCTION AGENCY/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

In a “secret room” in Kyiv on April 13, 1993, Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of Ukraine, sat down with his Georgian counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze over borscht and puffy “pampushka” dumplings.

Between bites, the Ukrainian reportedly confided that, even amid rampant corruption and economic turmoil, his “biggest headache” was pressure from Washington to hand over hundreds of Soviet-made nuclear weapons to Russia.

The Georgian president lowered his voice as he sympathized. Americans, he said, “do not understand the complicated, immensely difficult and brutal history of our relations with Russia and the Soviet Union, or other empires.”

Shevardnadze then pitched an idea. Instead of allowing Ukraine to be entirely defanged, the country should keep just one functioning nuclear missile on its territory, to “ward off any madman.” After all, the Georgian president added, “today we have ‘democratic’ [Boris] Yeltsin” in the Kremlin, but “who knows who may come after him.”

That plan, which Georgia’s former foreign minister Tedo Japaridze claims in his memoirs to have overheard, would not come to pass. In June 1996, Kyiv announced that the last of around 2,000 of Ukraine’s nuclear weapons had been sent to Russia.

In return for destroying or handing over its nuclear weapons and associated facilities, Kyiv received $1 billion in compensation and other assistance from Washington and Moscow. Ukraine also received a pledge signed by the United States, Britain, and Russia — known as the Budapest Memorandum — that it would never be attacked by any of these major nuclear powers.

After the breakup of the U.S.S.R., Washington had become nervous of the “loose nukes” now in the hands of various fledgling governments of post-Soviet states. Many feared that these weapons of Armageddon were vulnerable to accident, terrorism, or the whims of corrupt caretakers. In 1991, the U.S. created a program tasked with “securing and dismantling weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and their associated infrastructure in the former states of the Soviet Union.”

The liquidation of Soviet nuclear weapons by the American-funded program was a yearslong process, which went largely unseen aside from occasional press tours to missile silos being blasted apart. But in the U.S. National Archives, a remarkable series of images cast light on what that work looked like.

The photos were made, “to provide Department of Defense components, and, ultimately, the public, with visual evidence of progress” on dismantling Soviet weapons, according to the archives.

The images published here are some of thousands of photos stored in the archives showing the project’s work in Ukraine. Most are low-quality and come without detailed captions. In many cases, dates provided with the images differ widely from visible time stamps. Yet the photos remain a fascinating record of a process that, for better or worse, almost certainly changed the course of the 21st century.

Mariana Budjeryn, an expert at Harvard University who has authored a book about the denuclearization of her native Ukraine, told RFE/RL that photos such as the above Tu-95 image highlight a key aspect of the process that is often overlooked. “What is missed in the discussions of Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament is that it was not only nuclear,” she says.

Twenty seven Tu-95 bombers (above) were destroyed in the program, along with 11 supersonic Tu-160 bomber jets. Another 11 strategic bombers and more than 500 cruise missiles were transferred to Russia. Some of those missiles were later used to strike Ukraine.

Budjeryn says one U.S. official who witnessed the demolition of Ukraine’s strategic warplanes described watching “grown men, military pilots, crying on the tarmac as they watched Tu-160 bombers, brand new, never flown on a mission or even [used for] training, chopped up.”

U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, who was one of the key drivers of the project to remove nuclear weaponry from former Soviet states, later recalled that in some cases housing was part of a “quid pro quo for moving the missiles.”

Lugar told a journalist about a Belarus base where “people who lived around those missiles had very good housing. And in order to retain the housing, they were prepared to retain the missiles.” The senator described it as “sort of a strange tail-and-dog story, but it was very serious.” As a part of the negotiations, he said, “in order to get the missiles moved we had to also literally move the housing, or construct housing elsewhere, somewhere other than this base that we wanted to see closed for the sake of our security.”

The U.S.-led effort to liquidate nuclear weapons in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine was widely viewed as a step toward a safer world. In 1996, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma called on other countries, “to follow our path and to do everything to wipe nuclear weapons from the face of the earth as soon as possible.”

In the case of Ukraine however, Maria Budjeryn says today for many, the rear-view perspective, especially of the loss of Ukraine’s strategic bomber aircraft and cruise missiles, “seems a triumph of hope over prudence.”