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The U.S. Must Isolate Russia for the Sake of Nuclear Nonproliferation

Jewel Samad/Getty

In his phone call with President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, President Barack Obama warned his Russian counterpart of “greater political and economic isolation” following the gross violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political sovereignty. For Obama, this crisis is not simply about the future of Ukraine, or that of greater peace and security in Europe. Putin’s use of force in Crimea undermines a key post-Cold War agreement on the denuclearization of Ukraine and threatens the United States’ longstanding global nonproliferation agenda.

When the Soviet Union was breaking apart, a debate ensued within the George H.W. Bush administration regarding the fate of strategic nuclear weapons stationed in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker persuaded the president that the United States should aggressively seek the removal and transfer of those weapons to Russia for the overall stability of the region. 

As part of Ukraine’s agreement to do so, the Clinton administration worked alongside the United Kingdom and Russia to forge the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, committing under the principles of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act to uphold Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political sovereignty and agreeing not to engage in economic coercion. Ukraine’s last nuclear weapons left its soil in 1996, thereby removing any possible deterrent against external aggression.

The Russian military’s deployment into Crimea should revive doubt in any budding or current nuclear weapons state about the value of external guarantees and thus strengthen the argument for nuclear weapons possession. The Obama administration must respond forcefully by seeking to isolate Russia within the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; expanding sanctions against Russia’s elite under the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act and freezing assets; ending the fiction of the G8; and reaffirming NATO’s role to protect member states from threats to security.  

Some in the United States worry that a tough response will provoke Russia into not supporting the U.S. effort on Syria and Iran. But Russian policy on Syria and Iran has never been about helping the United States. Rather, Russia has merely pursued its own interests throughout. It has done everything it can to ensure President Bashar al-Assad’s survival. Moreover, while Russian sanctions on Iran were significant, a future agreement on the cessation of Iran’s nuclear weapons program now rests overwhelmingly on the course of U.S.-Iran bilateral discussions. 

Isolating Russia over its actions in Ukraine is essential not only for European peace and security and the upholding of international law, but for the future of nuclear nonproliferation.