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In 1994, former American President Bill Clinton convinced former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk to give Ukraine’s nuclear weapons and strategic bombers to Russia in exchange for “security assurances” underwritten by America and Britain. This policy was pursued under the pretext of making the world safer. It accomplished the opposite.


America’s mistake was twofold. First, Washington assumed that Russia would evolve from a 19th century empire into a law-abiding member of the international community. This was obviously false. Second, despite Kazakhstan and Belarus relinquishing their nuclear arsenals to Moscow alongside Ukraine, other states didn’t forgo proliferation.


Pakistan became a nuclear power in 1998. North Korea followed suit in 2006. Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi maintained his nuclear weapons program until 2003. Israel destroyed the reactor that Pyongyang built for the Syrian tyrant Bashar Al-Assad in 2007. Iran is also on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons today.


Washington’s misguided policy toward Kyiv was a moral and strategic mistake of historic proportions. Today, America and Europe subsidize Ukraine’s survival against Russian aggression. Meanwhile, Kyiv pays the cost in lives lost, territory stolen, children kidnapped, and cities destroyed.


The Ukrainian government regrets giving up its giant nuclear arsenal to Russia. Namely, because a nuclear-armed Kyiv would’ve deterred the Kremlin from illegally annexing Ukrainian Crimea, setting the Donbas war in motion, and launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.      

Hindsight is nonetheless 20/20. The mistakes of the past are unfortunately irreversible. History will judge America for her errors. All Washington can do is learn from the past and set its sights on the future. As it stands, replenishing Ukraine's ammunition is by far the best thing the U.S. can do for both Kyiv and global nuclear non-proliferation.


America’s allies have many reasons not to trust Washington. The U.S. being unable to provide military assistance to Ukraine when the President, the Senate, and a majority of the American people are in favor of doing so is only one of those reasons.


This can get worse. If Trump is re-elected in November and withdraws from NATO as he intends to, America’s partners will never trust Washington again. Forget purchasing American military equipment, the only thing that'll give smaller states with aggressive neighbors any peace of mind is acquiring nuclear weapons of their own.


Countries like Poland, Germany, Romania, Finland, and the Baltic States are unlikely to feel safe under a French or British-led nuclear umbrella. Paris and London are not great powers let alone a superpower like America. Their nuclear deterrents also lack the range and flexibility provided by Washington’s triad (inter-continental ballistic missiles, submarines, and heavy bombers). Some, perhaps even all, of the aforementioned states might even seek nuclear weapons of their own without the U.S. in NATO.


Even worse, the Alliance that nearly succeeded in institutionalizing peace on the world’s most war-prone continent is at risk of falling apart without Washington. Are Berlin, Paris, and a post-Brexit London even capable of sticking together if America removes herself from the equation? Germany, the so-called leader of Europe, would rather leak classified intelligence and throw allies like France and Britain under the bus instead of providing Ukraine with Taurus missiles. That, alone, says enough.

Yet the cascade of consequences doesn’t end there. Ankara, already on edge over Tehran’s nuclear program, also wants to acquire nukes on its own terms. Not only would Greece follow Turkey down the path of nuclear proliferation, but so would Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Perhaps even Algeria, and therefore Morocco.


Failing to stop the Houthis from sabotaging freedom of navigation in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is another reason why America’s allies are reluctant to trust her. If Washington is unable to deter and defend international commerce against a second-rate Tehran-backed terrorist group in Yemen, how will it respond if Iran blockades the Strait of Hormuz or if China does the same to the Taiwan Strait?


Europe and the Middle East aside, it is unlikely that any of this inspires confidence for U.S. allies in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia. If anything, hanging the Ukrainians out to dry and enabling Russia to continue prosecuting its illegal and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine only emboldens China to adopt a more aggressive posture in the Indo-Pacific.


By now, every party who has paid any attention knows what happens when you don’t possess nuclear weapons. Dictators suffer the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. If they’re lucky, they end up like Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, sovereign states undergo the same doom that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine since 2014.


As the number of states with nuclear weapons increases from 9 to 15 or 22 (and perhaps even more if we consider America’s allies in Asia) so too does the likelihood of a nuclear strike or a terrorist group obtaining the technology. If Washington thinks that keeping Americans safe is expensive and complicated today, just wait until any version of the nightmare scenario mentioned above unfolds.


Arm Ukraine now or risk global nuclear proliferation later.  

Originally published by Newsweek on March 26, 2024.


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