“It is a great tragedy,” said Rose Gottemoeller, who negotiated the New START arms control treaty with Russia and is now at Stanford University. “Putin is so steeped in his own grievances that he does not remember how we worked together so closely — Americans, Ukrainians and Russians — to ensure the breakup of the Soviet nuclear arsenal did not lead to the creation of three new nuclear weapons states.”
In fact, Mr. Putin is now using the key agreement from that era, called the Budapest Memorandum, to bolster his case. The memorandum — signed by Ukraine, the United States, Britain and Russia — enshrined the central bargain: Ukraine would surrender the entire nuclear arsenal left inside its territory, and in return the other three nations would all guarantee Ukraine’s security and the integrity of its borders. (While Ukraine had physical control of the weapons, the launch authority for them had remained in the hands of the Russians.)
Yet the memorandum never detailed what that security guarantee entailed, and there was no promise of military assistance in the event of an attack. But Mr. Putin blatantly violated that accord when he annexed Crimea in 2014 and did so again on Monday when he recognized the two separatist republics, essentially claiming that they were no longer part of Ukraine.
He said this week that he was incensed that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was publicly talking about reconsidering the memorandum. Mr. Zelensky’s complaint, voiced at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, is that the “guarantee” is proving no guarantee at all against a nation with Russia’s powers of coercion.
Mr. Putin argued that if Ukraine was questioning the memorandum, it must want its own nuclear arsenal.
“We believe the Ukrainian words are directed at us,” Mr. Putin said at a news conference on Tuesday with the president of Azerbaijan. “And we heard them. They have wide nuclear competency from Soviet times, developed nuclear industry, they have schools, everything they need to move quickly.”
Perhaps recognizing that he might be over-describing the threat, Mr. Putin said: “They don’t have one thing — a uranium enrichment program. But that’s a technical question. For Ukraine it’s not an unsolvable problem; it’s easy to solve it.”