Ukraine Pervomaysk, once a symbol of peace, is now preparing for war

In 1996, US Secretary of Defense William J Perry joined his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts at ceremonies marking the completion of Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament near Pervomaysk.

FILE – Defense Secretary William Perry, left, shakes hands with Ukrainian Defense Minister Valery Shmarov, center, and Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev as they stand above the crater that housed formerly a missile silo at a military base near Pervomaysk, about 155 miles south of Kiev, January 5, 1996. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

Washington: On a warm spring day in Ukraine 26 years ago, three men smiled for the cameras as they planted symbolic sunflower seedlings in freshly plowed land where Soviet nuclear missiles once stood ready.

This placid scene was, briefly, a launching pad for the hope that the demise of the Soviet Union would bury the threat of great-power war and mark the beginning of a lasting peace in an undivided Europe. Today, Ukraine is at ground zero for fears that Russia could ignite a conflict that could engulf the region.

On this day in early June 1996, US Secretary of Defense William J. Perry joined his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts at ceremonies marking the completion of Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament. Under Western pressure, Ukraine had agreed to give up the weapons it had inherited with the breakup of the Soviet empire in exchange for a Russian and Western guarantee of security.

Perry likened the moment to parting with a dark cloud of Cold War fear.

“It is very appropriate that we plant sunflowers here in Pervomaysk to symbolize the hope we all feel to see the sun shine again,” he said, standing on a small concrete slab in the former missile range, where SS-19 nuclear missiles once stood in underground silos, ready to launch at targets in the United States. Nearby, American, Russian and Ukrainian national flags fluttered in a warm breeze.

That moment of hope when US, Russian and Ukrainian officials grabbed white-handled shovels to plant sunflowers gave way to today’s fears of a new conflict and a new Cold War. Now Russian President Vladimir Putin is accused by the West of violating that agreement by targeting Ukraine with more than 100,000 troops.

Now it is Russia that wants a security guarantee from the West as well as legal guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the NATO alliance, even as Moscow prepares for a potential invasion from a neighbor with inferior military power and none of the more than 170 nuclear-tipped missiles it once possessed.

Moscow wants a halt to NATO’s eastward expansion, which it says Washington promised in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 in the context of Germany’s reunification. The United States and its NATO allies deny that such a promise was made. The ability for countries to join NATO is enshrined in Article 10 of the organization’s founding treaty, and this “open door” policy was reaffirmed in 2008 when alliance leaders agreed that Ukraine and Georgia “would become members of NATO”, but set no deadline and offered no formal path to membership. Ukraine remains without a NATO invitation, and none is likely in the foreseeable future.

Ukraine gave up its legacy nuclear weapons – around 1,900 warheads that at the time made up the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world – after obtaining the security guarantees it wanted. It is known as the Budapest Memorandum, named after the Hungarian capital in which it was signed in 1994 by the United States, Britain and Russia. His words seem to defy the reality of the current crisis in Ukraine.

The three signatory nations pledged to “respect the independence and sovereignty as well as the existing borders of Ukraine”. They promised to ‘refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against the Ukraine, except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations”.

Thus began a long road to the current crisis in which the future of Ukraine may be uncertain. He has already lost control of the eastern region of Donbass, bordering Russia, following a Russian intervention in 2014 in support of the separatists. That same year, Russia seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

After these Russian moves, the United States and NATO distanced themselves from Russia, and Washington provided substantial – but still limited – military assistance to Kiev. Ukraine continues to seek closer ties with the West, including joining the NATO alliance, which Putin sees as a threat to Russia for expanding east towards its borders several times since 1999.

President Joe Biden has said the United States stands with Ukraine. But he also notes that since Ukraine is not in NATO, it has no guarantee of US military support. Biden also noted the historical significance of a nuclear-armed Russia that could invade a neighbor who has sworn to renounce nuclear weapons.

“It will be the most important thing that has happened in the world, in terms of war and peace, since World War II,” he said.

Among the American officials in Pervomaysk for planting sunflowers in 1996 was Ashton Carter, who years later would become Secretary of Defense. In a memoir, Carter recalled Ukraine’s decision to disarm, which he saw as marking the true end of the Cold War that divided Europe for nearly half a century. He said it showed that even insecure nations can abandon the incredible destructive power of nuclear weapons – “instead placing their trust in a world order dedicated to peace and a powerful America dedicated to international partnerships.”

At the time, Perry spoke of prospects for “a permanent season of peace”. But in hindsight, he concluded that the spirit of goodwill was all too short-lived.

“I am saddened to realize,” he wrote in 2015, “that such a scene and such cooperation is unthinkable today.”

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