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Making the World a Safer Place — Nuclear Arsenals and the Fall of the USSR

Imagine what Europe would be like today if Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenka were able to threaten his neighbors with nuclear weapons. Or how much tenser the situation in Ukraine would be if Kyiv had access to the bomb — Would Putin grab just Crimea or would he be tempted to take all of Ukraine to maintain regional security and make sure its nuclear arsenal did not “fall into the wrong hands”? With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nuclear weapons which once belonged to one country were now the property of many. Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan all held some of the former Soviet Union’s arsenal. With the growing concern of “loose nukes,” terrorism, and regional instability, it was clear to many that suddenly having three more nuclear states in the world was not a tenable situation.

To rectify this, several countries labored long and hard to negotiate the Lisbon Protocol, an agreement between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to guarantee that all nuclear weapons would either go to Russia or be destroyed. Under the Protocol all four states agreed to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, with Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan signing as non-nuclear states.

To help implement the Protocol, the United States created the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, also known as the Nunn-Lugar CTR agreement for the two senators who sponsored it, Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN). Under this bipartisan legislation, the U.S. would supervise the removal of the warheads from their delivery vehicles, and then their decommissioning or transport to secure locations in Russia.

Featured here are accounts of different people who were directly involved in resolving these complex issues. Greg Thielmann worked in Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) as the chief of the Office of Strategic Forces Analysis during this time. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in November 2004.  Jon Gunderson was the Consul General in Ukraine from 1990-1993 and was also interviewed by Kennedy beginning in April 2012.

William Veale was at the Department of Defense in the Bureau of in International Security and worked in the Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction; he was interviewed by Thomas Dunnigan beginning in June 2000. Dean Rust was the director of the Bureau of Nuclear Proliferation at the State Department and was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in December 2006.

You can also read about the push to maintain the test moratorium and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).


“There were a number of scenarios featuring war between Ukraine and Russia”

THIELMANN: I was acting division chief because I didn’t have the Foreign Service rank that fitted the position at the time. That job had been one of the most important in INR because it was trying to monitor and analyze Soviet strategic forces, which obviously were the large existential threat to the United States. It was also the office that worried about providing the relevant intelligence on the subject which would be used by those negotiating the strategic offensive arms treaties, the SALT and then the START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] treaties. So that was kind of the traditional main focus of the job, worrying about Chinese forces obviously and other countries that had nuclear weapons as well. It was overwhelmingly Soviet military power.

Once the Soviet Union fell, one little dimension of the job really bloomed. The traditional efforts to look at the reliability of the command and control structures and how operationally orders to attack would’ve been conveyed to the missile forces.

All of that which was before a very small subset of the job became much more important as the Soviet Union broke up into a number of different states including Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, each one of which hosted significant numbers of Soviet strategic forces.

So that first tour in INR corresponded with this very delicate period of the U.S. working very hard in a number of ways to try to insure that these four countries with nuclear weapons transitioned to only one country with nuclear weapons.

Or to put it another way, the Soviet control over the nuclear weapons would morph into a Russian control over nuclear weapons and Minsk, Kiev, and Alma-Ata [today called Almaty] did not end up having their own nuclear forces bequeathed to them because of the breakup. It was particularly sensitive in the case of Ukraine because Ukraine more than the others had some of the largest and most sophisticated missile assembly plants, had a lot of indigenous expertise on how to make both the delivery vehicles and also the nuclear weapons.

So the Ukrainians had some real choices for keeping some of those nuclear weapons. What actually would have happened if they had continued along that path or if they had seriously pursued that path, we don’t know. Obviously the Russians were very intent on them not having those options, but it was a real concern. There were a number of scenarios that were seriously considered that would have featured war between Ukraine and Russia. Most of those scenarios I think we thought were unrealistic, but that they were even seriously discussed showed what a real crisis this was and what a delicate period of time it was.

It was a very curious form of cooperation [with Russia] because we shared an interest with the Russians in ensuring that Russia maintained control over all those nuclear forces. In some respects we rooted for the safe transit of nuclear weapons from these other countries back to Russia so they could then be put online aimed at the United States. There was certainly some irony in that, but it was considered a far worse outcome if we had new independent centers of power that might also have targeted their weapons at the United States.

So part of the irony also was that, as much as we wanted Russia to maintain control of the weapons, we genuinely wanted Ukraine to evolve in a Western direction and to reanimate some of the traditions that were really alive in Ukraine as a European country. It was much more oriented towards the U.S. than the more Asian-oriented heartland of the Soviet Union was. So we were trying to get Ukraine to see itself as a country that would be benefited much more by pursuing a German or a Japanese model of obviously being capable of having nuclear weapons but, by pursuing a non-nuclear path, could find a better way to reintegrate itself into the Western economy.

Concern Over Rogue Scientists

Q: How did you find dealing with particularly the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA on this particular issue? I mean were there any problems or divergences?

THIELMANN: There were certainly some divergences and, while my memory is not terribly sharp on this, I think in general I would like to say we were a little bit more sophisticated in the scenarios that we used. Some of those probably from the Defense Department side of things put more credence in the outbreak of war between Ukraine and Russia, and when we thought through those scenarios, it just seemed extremely unlikely. I mean for one thing there were so many Russians living in Ukraine.

The eastern part of Ukraine was basically ethnic Russian. It just got kind of incredible to think about any scenario in which you would have one of these countries lobbying nuclear weapons at another. So I think, to put it neutrally, it was because we were closer to a more sophisticated analysis of the internal dynamics of Soviet society and the new emerging societies that we weighed the likelihood of those scenarios a little bit differently.

One of the other things that I remember about this era is that we received some very valuable human intelligence from some of our foreign allies. Without going into too much detail, I was impressed at the quality of information of one of our special partners in intelligence. They had presumably at much lower cost were providing better human intelligence, more critical useful human intelligence than our own U.S. agencies.

Q: Were you concerned about rogue scientists in the Ukraine or elsewhere exporting their knowledge of nuclear things to people such as Iran, Iraq and all that?

THIELMANN: That was definitely a constant concern. Even in INR where we had such limited resources, we tried to start keeping track of certain individuals about which there was intelligence. We tried to stay plugged into the other agencies who had the resources to look closely at this because this was seen by almost everyone in the intelligence community as a source of concern that in the end would be much greater than the prospect of Ukraine developing independent nuclear forces.

The collapse of the Soviet economy and all those incentives and privileges and everything else that made life for weapons scientists about as good as it could be in a Soviet context led to people not getting paid month after month. The temptations became very great even though in that respect I think those who were not as familiar with the Soviet society maybe saw the temptations as being great by putting ourselves in their shoes. I think there was for those who were not as close to the way the Soviet Union actually operated, it was just easy to imagine hundreds of thousands of scientists just contracting out to Libya or other countries.

Convincing Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to Give Up Nuclear Weapons

RUST: I would say the dominant issues during Bush I were the breakup of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War. Both had major consequences for the nonproliferation business….We were confronted with the 15 republics of the former Soviet Union, many of whom had nuclear weapons deployed in their territories including tactical nuclear weapons. So as the assemblage of the republics began to breakup, we were faced with a potential proliferation calamity in which all or some of the new republics would try to take possession of the nuclear weapons for bargaining or security reasons.

Well, of course most of the new republics had little interest or capacity to deal with nuclear weapons. And the weapons had always been under the control of the central government out of Moscow, and so it was not that difficult for the Soviet armed forces, who generally stayed loyal to Moscow during the breakup, to retain control of the weapons and ultimately return them to Russia. Nobody could every say for sure that a weapon was not stolen during this period, but there has never been solid evidence to that effect. Apparently, we dodged a bullet, but only history will tell.

Of course, the most difficult cases were those states where long range Soviet missile forces were deployed, i.e. land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles with warheads on the top of the missile. That was primarily Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and of course, Russia. It took some very skillful diplomacy by the Bush I Administration to persuade them, in the first instance, to become party to the broader U.S. – Soviet arms control treaty that had been signed in July 1991 – a few months before the Soviet breakup.

So the original bilateral START Treaty ultimately became a Treaty with five parties- U.S., Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. START did not enter into force until 1994, the second year of the Clinton Administration. It took that much time to persuade Ukraine, in particularly, to give up these nuclear missiles and to join the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] as a non-nuclear weapon state. It happened only after the Ukrainians were offered certain security and economic guarantees. The EU-U.S. and Japan all made clear there would be no integration into Western institutions unless they gave up the nukes.

In retrospect, it all sort of fell into place but only after a great deal of international pressure to conform the Soviet breakup to the principles of the NPT, i.e. no new nuclear weapon states beyond those identified in the NPT should emerge. Russia inherited the former Soviet Union’s designation as a nuclear weapon state under the NPT and all other former Soviet republics became non-nuclear states and joined the NPT as such. Without the NPT, there would have been no established norm or principle behind which to rally the international community to prevent further proliferation.

Pressuring Ukraine to Agree

GUNDERSEN: The Nunn-Lugar Amendment was passed, which would give a lot of money for taking care of the scientists who worked on nuclear weapons.… I was very much involved, sometimes as a policy maker, sometimes as a messenger delivering messages directly to [Ukrainian President Leonid] Kravchuk such as: “We will be able to do all these things if you abide by international covenants and agree to get rid of the nukes on your territory.”

Q: You basically wanted them to go to Russia, where we would deal with them?

GUNDERSEN: Or be destroyed. Remember at the time we were negotiating bilateral treaties with Moscow which would allow us to control nukes more closely in Russia. However, there were forces in Ukraine, on both the right and left, who were saying, “Let’s keep the nukes, that’s how we will get respect as a new state, by having these nukes.” Of course, the Russians were also pushing to get the nukes out of Ukraine.

There were also a lot of countervailing forces. There was a strong anti-nuke movement because of the reaction to the Chernobyl reactor explosion. At the same time, as I mentioned, some politicians believed that the nukes could give Ukraine legitimacy and perhaps great power status or, at least, that they could be used as a bargaining chip with the Russians.

So we worked out what was eventually called the Lisbon Protocol in early ’92. The Ukrainians agreed to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. In exchange they would get certain aid and would have a pathway to membership in international institutions. Those negotiations were very delicate and touch and go. I remember midnight calls to Kravchuk’s villa delivering a curt message from the Secretary of State: “You’ve got to agree to thing by this date or else.” And he signed. Of course, Moscow was also pressuring him as well.

Disarmament and Relocation of Nuclear Weapons

VEALE: I wrote the agreement for the destruction of test tunnels in Kazakhstan that the Soviets had used for years to do all their testing. We had a ceremony with the Minister for Science of Kazakhstan signing this agreement and we began a program of sealing up all of these test tunnels and destroying bombers left from the Soviet period there, nuclear bombers there, and dismantling ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] that were left in Kazakhstan.

This program was dealing with the same type of thing in Russia – submarine dismantlement, just absolutely incredible scope, nuclear warhead dismantlement. The Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus had nuclear weapons which were redeployed back to Russia where they were dismantled and the Ukrainian components were moved into storage facilities.

Ultimately, our program was getting into building storage facilities for these things, helping the Russians develop better security measures for their operational weapons sites, and beginning the process of dismantlement of their huge stock of chemical weapons.

I went to what had been a secret facility in Uzbekistan for the research and development, and small-scale production of chemical weapons. I had to go through this suited up with a gasmask. It was kind of exciting to do this. Of course it was 120 degrees outside with this equipment on.

I made several trips to Kazakhstan, Russia, and the Ukraine all as a result of this assignment. We negotiated agreements with the foreign ministries and defense ministries of these countries to broaden the cooperation in this area and give new access to American contractors and Defense Department personnel who would be assisting in all of this process.

We provided the funding for the dismantlement of these things because their systems just didn’t have the money to do that. Even though we suspected that they could have come up with the money, we wanted to be sure that the stuff was dismantled and taken care of in order to reduce proliferation risk.

Q: Are we sure that they carried through? Did we have checks to make certain that these things were dismantled as they said they were?

VEALE: Yes. In fact, anything that is controlled by the arms control agreements is inspected afterwards. For example, if we were dismantling a nuclear bomber, the wings would be cut off and would have to lie out for 90 days to be viewed by overhead systems, which was part of the confirmation that it was inoperative and there were similarly types of controls on all the arms control systems and other things. We were so completely woven into the fabric of their process for doing this. There were agreements at all levels with their ministries.

I was involved in two particular things I would like to mention. One is creating a regime for the auditing and examination of this process. It wasn’t an arms control verification kind of thing. We were trying to distinguish between the verification process of the arms control agreement with the normal auditing function of insuring that they money we spend and give to a contractor to do something is being done. There would be Russian, Kazakhstani or Ukrainian contractors who would be given the money to do certain things. Habituating them to this process was part of the educational aspect of this thing.

I was the Defense Department representative on a team that went out and negotiated these agreements with Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan to ensure that we could send these unannounced, basically short notice announcements so they couldn’t change things around. For instance, if we gave them a computer, we didn’t want them using it for something else; we wanted it to be used for what we had sent it for.

There were some irregularities. I had to do a report to Congress which first went to the GAO [General Accounting Office] and then on to Congress, on this program. I was particularly vigilant to make sure that the process was working properly. I would go to the briefing and debriefing meetings of these audit examination teams that would go out.

The second major thing that I found particularly fascinating was our effort to try to enhance the security of their nuclear weapons storage sites. This was their operational stuff, not the stuff that they were dismantling. They were engaged in the process of reducing the overall number of nuclear warheads to begin with, and then reducing the number of places where they were storing the warheads.

Senators Nunn and Lugar