In 1994, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons—placed there by its former Soviet rulers—in exchange for guarantees from Russia, the U.S., and the UK that its borders would remain inviolable. Twenty years later, Vladimir Putin violated those borders, invading and seizing territory, while America and Britain responded with mostly symbolic gestures. Ukraine is now fighting for its life. John Hannah observes how these events will change the strategic calculations of countries around the world:
Vladimir Putin’s success in deterring direct Western military intervention by threatening to retaliate with nuclear weapons has been perhaps the war’s starkest takeaway. In response, President Joe Biden has rejected any measures, including a no-fly zone, that might risk combat between U.S. and Russian forces on grounds that it could lead to World War III.
You can be sure Iran is watching. . . . The Islamic Republic’s decades-old quest to develop nuclear weapons is inextricably tied to its goal of dominating the Gulf region—with U.S. military power long being the main impediment. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington is already reluctant to respond forcefully to escalating attacks by Iran and its proxies, even when U.S. troops are directly targeted. Ukraine is proof-positive for Iran’s rulers that crossing the nuclear threshold is their surest path to staying America’s hand permanently.
And what about Taiwan, or Iran’s neighbors (such as Saudi Arabia)? The implications of Ukraine are deeply troubling. They’ve now had a real-world demonstration of the limits of U.S. support when a non-nuclear state with which Washington is friendly, but has no security commitments like NATO’s Article 5, is being brutally laid waste by a rapacious nuclear power. Sanctions, arms supplies, diplomatic condemnations—but nothing more. When it comes to the actual fighting, you’re on your own.
Historically, Washington’s surest means of persuading vulnerable allies to refrain from pursuing their own nuclear deterrents has been to provide them with explicit guarantees that the U.S. will come to their defense if attacked by a hostile outside power. That almost certainly remains the case today.
More about: Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy, War in Ukraine