In December 2014 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russia’s Interfax news agency that because Crimea had been absorbed into Russia and was no longer part of Ukraine, Russia "has the right to manage its nuclear arsenal…in accordance with its interests and international legal obligations."
Even the threat of an introduction by Russia of nuclear weapons into Crimea can be interpreted as a warning to European states that Russia is willing to escalate its effort to control the ‘near-abroad.’ Introducing the weapons also would cement Crimea’s status as "Russian territory."
Lavrov’s remarks also are further confirmation that Russia has no intention of respecting the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. At that time, Russia, the United States, United Kingdom and Ukraine agreed Ukraine would become a nonnuclear weapons state under the Nonproliferation Treaty by giving up its nuclear weapons—at the time it had the world’s third largest stockpile with 1900 strategic warheads and 2500 tactical nuclear warheads—in exchange for recognition by all signatories that they would respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Ash Cater, speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week as it was considering his nomination for Secretary of Defense, stated he believed the Obama administration needed to do more to support Ukraine’s security requirements, including providing lethal assistance. He did not mention interest on the Obama administration’s part in parrying any possible Russian introduction of nuclear weapons into Ukraine with the return of US nuclear weapons to Europe.
As Carter’s nomination was moving through the Senate, on January 22, two Republican subcommittee chairmen from the House Armed Services Committee, Mike Rogers and Mike Turner, sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chick Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry offering their assessment of the current situation in Ukraine and measures the United States should take in response.
Rogers and Turner conclude that the United States needs to view Putin as an adversary, noting Russia’s continuing efforts to increase military tensions in Ukraine and Lavrov’s assertions regarding Russia’s "right" to introduce nuclear weapons into Crimea. Their unequivocal language states, "We write to express deep concerns about Russia’s repeatedly stated position that it has the right—and the intention—to deploy its nuclear weapons in the Ukrainian territory of Crimea." Rogers and Turner describe this possibility as a "dangerous escalation in Russia’s recent aggression."
For the congressmen, the time has come for the Obama administration to "move immediately to update US defense policy." Their letter poses questions for Hagel and Kerry focused on options for the United States to introduce more "dual use" weapons such as F-16 fighters and forward deployed nuclear weapons into Europe, focusing in particular on basing such weapons on the territory of newer NATO members such as Poland. On the Senate side, Senator John McCain, new chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, is expected to take on this issue in coming months as well.
In late 1987 Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in Washington which entered into force the following June. That ended a series of events that were turning Europe into a nuclear staging area, beginning with the 1977 deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles that could hit targets throughout Europe, which in turn led to plans for the deployment of American nuclear weapons in response.
As with Ukraine’s sovereignty, the INF Treaty’s accomplishments may be another victim of Russia’s aggression.