Fifteen years ago, on June 1, 1996, two trains carrying the last strategic nuclear warheads from Ukraine arrived in Russia, where the warheads were delivered to a dismantlement facility. That marked the end of a two-year stream of special trains removing the 1900 strategic warheads that were located in Ukraine when the USSR collapsed in 1991.

Ukraine’s decision to give up nuclear arms came as the result of a trilateral negotiation with the United States and Russia. Kyiv agreed in 1994 to give up nuclear weapons and accede to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state in return for security assurances, compensation for the value of the highly-enriched uranium in the warheads, and assistance in dismantling the strategic missiles, bombers and nuclear infrastructure on its territory. (For a more complete account of the trilateral negotiation, see The Trilateral Process: The United States, Ukraine, Russia and Nuclear Weapons.)

No less important for the Ukrainian government was the opening of doors to the West that followed. The United States and Ukraine in September 1996 established a strategic partnership and established a senior-level bilateral commission chaired by Vice President Gore and President Kuchma. In 1997, NATO and Ukraine agreed to a distinctive partnership and created the NATO-Ukraine Council as a permanent consultative venue.

Ukraine’s decision reminds us that—despite the North Korean and Iranian nuclear challenges—there have been victories in the fight to curb the growth of the nuclear weapons club. In addition to Ukraine:

  • Belarus and Kazakhstan had strategic nuclear systems on their territory following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, and each agreed to give them up and accede to the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states.
  • In 1989-90, South Africa dismantled six nuclear weapons as well as a partially assembled seventh and acceded to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state in 1991.
  • Earlier, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan each pursued but later abandoned nuclear weapons programs and acceded to the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states. (For a more detailed account of those countries’ decisions, see The U.S. Policy of Extended Deterrence in East Asia: History, Current Views and Implications.)

Today, nine countries have nuclear weapons. But that is better than a world with 16 nuclear weapons states.

Persuading countries to give up nuclear weapons, or not to seek to acquire them in the first place, is a difficult exercise. The long—and thus far unsuccessful—efforts with North Korea and Iran offer evidence of that. But they are worthwhile: a North Korea without nuclear weapons would mean a much safer security situation in Northeast Asia, just as an Iranian decision to forgo its nuclear weapons program would promote stability in the Persian Gulf and reduce pressures for other states in the region to consider whether they should develop nuclear capabilities of their own.

The United States should continue working with countries such as Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, Britain, France and Germany on the North Korea and Iran cases, even if the odds of success appear long. At the same time, Washington should remain watchful for other countries that might develop nuclear weapons ambitions. Such ambitions are best nipped in the bud, before a series of smaller steps gain momentum and lead to a real nuclear potential. Doing so will require mobilizing carrots and sticks—with maximum international support and participation—to dissuade Country X from a nuclear course. The trilateral process with Ukraine shows that success is possible.