The Disarmament Race

By Alina Entelis


Chapter 1. A Party in the Forest


On December 8, 1991, at 1:08 p.m. Washington time, U.S. President George H.W. Bush received a telephone call.

On the line was Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Soviet Republic. Yeltsin was in the company of the president of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, Leonid Kravchuk, and Belarusian parliament chairman Stanislau Shushkevich. The three leaders were gathered in a remote hunting lodge in Belavezha (“White Tower”) Forest in Belarus, where they have just signed a document that changed the course of world history.

The document, which would come to be known as the Belavezha Accords, states in its preamble: “The Soviet Union, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence.” The paper then announced creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its place. [1]

When the leaders of Russia and Ukraine arrived in Belarus on December 7, nothing about their conduct suggested that merely 24 hours later they would strike the death blow to the ailing Soviet Union.

Yeltsin and Kravchuk came to discuss a deal on the supply of oil and gas. When their Belarussian host, Shushkevich, proposed to retreat to the cabin in Belavezha forest, he mentioned it would be pleasant to escape the pressures of government business and the attention of journalists.[2]

Belarus is a land of forests. During World War 2, the Belavezha Forest was home to partisans who battled the German invaders, and a refuge for Jews fleeing from Nazi prosecution. After the war, it became a scenic hunting retreat for Soviet leaders.

The Ukrainian delegation arrived at the cabin before the Russians and immediately went hunting, without waiting for Yeltsin to arrive. Yeltsin’s bodyguard later complained in his memoir that the Ukrainian president “always sought to make a show of independent behavior.” [3]

As customary in high level Soviet meetings, the proceedings were accompanied by plentiful supplies of food and drink. The leaders also gathered for a traditional visit to the banya (sauna).

Years later rumors would spread that the three leaders were inebriated when they decided to formulate the Belavezha accords. Shushkevich would vehemently contest these allegations, asserting defensively, “This is completely wrong! Of course, it was a typical Soviet arrangement, and alcohol was freely available everywhere in the residence – but no one touched it. The most we would allow ourselves was a drop of brandy every time we adopted a new article.”[4]

The document contained 16 articles.

Sixteen drops of brandy and three signatures later and the fate of the USSR was sealed. Now all that remained was to announce the empire’s demise to the world.

The president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was not invited to the party in the forest. Although he was aware that the leaders of the three Slavic states were meeting, he was kept in the dark about the course of the proceedings.[5] In fact, Bush would be the first to learn of what had transpired in Belavezha.

During their phone conversation, Yeltsin made a point of emphasizing to Bush that he was hearing about the end of the USSR even before its leader had received word.

With what Bush described as a “flourish,”[6] Yeltsin exclaimed: “Dear George. This is extremely, extremely important. Because of the tradition between us, I couldn’t even wait ten minutes to call you.”[7]

Bush politely listened to the enthusiastic Yeltsin, interjecting with “I see” and “Okay” where appropriate.[8] The brief responses were intentional. He did not want to convey approval before he had the chance to evaluate the situation.[9]

Yeltsin explained that while the central control of the Communist Party would be gone, the newly independent countries of the CIS would continue to collaborate. Most important, they would maintain unified control of the military and of all the nuclear weapons that were deployed across what had been, till this moment, Soviet territory. He added the member-countries of the CIS would “aim for arms control, including complete elimination of nuclear arms and complete disarmament under strict international controls.”[10]

Yeltsin clearly knew his audience.

While nobody predicted the dissolution of the USSR in advance, American officials had known that the Soviet Union had been in precarious situation for at least two years. During that time, the U.S. administration had its eyes on the 3,429 strategic warheads scattered across the vast territory of the Soviet Union.[11] Documents recording internal U.S. government discussions during this period indicate that the administration did not attempt to further destabilize the USSR to hasten its dissolution, preferring to take a wait-and see approach. Still, it was preparing for a possible collapse. Communications with the leaders of the various Soviet republics stated explicitly that the United States wanted to avoid an “inter-republican arms race,” should the USSR dissolve.[12]

Yeltsin spoke with Bush for 28 minutes. Yeltsin did the talking. Bush interjected with few comments. He thanked Yeltsin for the special courtesy of notifying him personally and expressed hope that future developments would be peaceful. His only question to Yeltsin was: How would “the center” – meaning Gorbachev – react to the news.[13]

On the other side of the room, Shushkevich was carrying out the unpleasant task of informing “the center.”

“And have you thought about how the international community will react?” Shushkevich would later recall Gorbachev’s angry response.

Shushkevich responded: “You know, Mikhail Sergeevich, it has reacted nicely. Boris Nikolaevich [Yeltsin] has called Bush, and Bush is treating the news positively, you see?”

This comment was met with silence on the other side of the line.[14]




“Everything was forever until it was no more.” So anthropologist Alexi Yurchak described the end of the Soviet Union. For its citizens it was impossible to imagine that the Soviet empire would come to an end. Then, when it finally collapsed, it seemed that its demise had been inevitable.[15]

Looking back at the turmoil that gripped the USSR from 1986, it indeed seems remarkable that it survived until December 1991. The reforms instituted by Gorbachev in 1986, perestroika (rebuilding) and glasnost (openness) had the unintended effect of aggravating public discontent and opening a space for nationalist groups within the 15 Soviet republics to begin clamoring for independence.

In a last bid to save the Soviet Union, Gorbachev launched an unsuccessful campaign starting from April 1991 for the signing of a new “Union Treaty,” a document that would end the central authority of the Communist Party and transform the Soviet Union into a confederation. A group of hardliners in the central Communist Party, unhappy with Gorbachev’s willingness to cast the party aside launched a coup on August 24, 1991. [16]

The coup failed in a matter of days, but it changed everything.

A joke from the period describes how two Russians complain as they stand in line to buy vodka. One declares that the line is too long and therefore he is leaving to go and shoot Gorbachev, who is at fault for all the shortages. After disappearing for a couple of hours, the man returns to his friend in line. The friend asks, “Well, did you shoot him?” To which the first man replies, “No, the line there was longer than this one”. [17]

Such a joke would have been unimaginable under previous Soviet leaders. What is more remarkable is that Gorbachev himself told it at a state dinner with his good friend, George H.W. Bush.

Gorbachev thought the joke was very funny. [18]

So perhaps Shushkevich misinterpreted Bush’s restrained response to Yeltin’s call.

Bush’s memoir, A World Transformed, reads as a tale of epic friendship between two visionaries. Bush begins the book with his first encounter with Gorbachev, when Bush was still vice president under President Ronald Reagan. The memoir ends with their emotional telephone conversation on the day Gorbachev formally resigned, December 25, 1991, seventeen days after the meeting in the forest.[19]

Yet Bush’s term as president lasted another year, until January 1993. And that year, omitted from his memoir, was the defining moment for the relationship between the newly independent post-Soviet states and the West. The moment Bush chose for the end of his story was the beginning of another story, one that has shaped our world.

The end of 1991 was a trying period for the US administration. The Cold war was simple – it set one superpower against another superpower. Crucially, while the Soviet Union existed, there was only one entity controlling the vast number of nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe. After the collapse, the world order was completely transformed. Fifteen new actors emerged on the world stage. Four of them – Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus – inherited nuclear weapons from the deceased behemoth known as the USSR.

The U.S. administration was able to pinpoint the location of those weapons with precision. A CIA report from September 1991estimated that the USSR had 30,000 nuclear warheads. Twenty percent of the arsenal was located in Ukraine, 15 percent in Kazakhstan, and 1 percent in Belarus. The majority of the weapons – around 64 percent remained on Russian soil.[20]

The newly independent Ukraine inherited a stockpile of approximately 1,240 nuclear warheads. Even before Ukraine had the opportunity to draft a constitution, it became home to the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, after Russia and the United States. At that moment, Ukraine had far more atomic weapons than the United Kingdom, France and China combined. Each of the warheads on its territory had a yield of 440 kilotons – 22 times more powerful than the bombs that wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. administration also knew that the missiles to deliver them were aimed at cities in the United States. The potential for a nuclear calamity was palpable.[21]

In the eyes of the U.S. administration, Ukraine’s story began only with the end of the Soviet Union.  Indeed, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Bush and co-author of A World Transformed, later admitted in an interview that the United States knew very little about what was happening in Ukraine in the years prior to the collapse. [22]

If you ask any Ukrainian citizen, he or she would most likely say their story as a distinct nationality started a long time earlier – at least as far back as the ninth century. For centuries, Ukrainians were ruled by successive foreign empires. Finally, at the end of the 20th century came a moment when the Ukrainian people could proudly proclaim: “On the map of the world a new European state has emerged. Its name – Ukraine.”[23]

And all the West wants to do is talk about the nukes?

The processes of the negotiations with the West to remove nuclear weapons from the territory of Ukraine proceeded in fits and starts for three years, between December 1991 and December 1994. The process included the signing of two treaties, several diplomatic summits, and multiple incidents of miscalculation, misunderstanding and mistrust.

It is in this gap between expectation and perceptions that our story takes place.




In 1991, Ukraine constituted Europe’s largest state, stretching from the Russian Caucasus in the east to the Polish, Hungarian and Romanian borders in the west. It was home to 52 million people – 12 million of whom were ethnic Russians. Although Ukraine’s population roughly matches that of France, not many in the West knew anything about Ukraine before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The first western journalists who arrived in Kiev in 1990 faced challenges in getting their stories out. One of the early Western reporters, Marta Dyczok of The Guardian, recalled having to struggle with her editor to publish stories about Ukraine: “What was happening on the ground in Ukraine was of interest only in the context of the Soviet Union.  Not as a Ukraine story, but as a Soviet story.”[24]

Another reporter, Susan Viets, said she was lucky to arrive in Kiev in March 1990, just when the “Ukraine story” was becoming interesting. In 1986, Ukraine was the site of a nuclear catastrophe in the city of Chernobyl. Scores of grass-root groups formed as a result of the public outrage surrounding allegations of mismanagement by the Soviet authorities of the incident. In 1989 these groups united in an umbrella organization called Rukh (“Movement” in Ukrainian), Ukraine’s popular front. In March 1990, many Rukh activists were elected to the Ukrainian parliament (the Rada). Rukh members such as Ivan Dratch and Viacheslav Chornovil were political dissidents who had been imprisoned for their support for Ukrainian nationalism. Now they were sitting in the same Parliament with Communists who were partially responsible for putting them in jail.[25] Already in July 1990, loyal to their roots in the post-Chernobyl campaign, Rukh politicians called for adoption of a resolution promising that Ukraine would become a non-nuclear state in the near future. [26]

By that October, anti-Communist sentiments were running high in Ukraine, sparked by the early talks about Gorbachev’s suggested Union Treaty. In its early versions, the Union Treaty was designed to preserve more of the authority of the central Communist Party vis-à-vis the republics. In Kiev, an extraordinary event dramatically changed the course of Ukrainian politics: Students opposing the Union Treaty staged a hunger strike calling for the convening of a referendum on Ukrainian sovereignty and demanding the resignation of the acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Vitaly Masol.[27]

The one-of-a-kind spectacle drew many onlookers. Solomea Pvlychko, a literary figure in Ukraine and the daughter of the prominent Rukh activist Dymitro Pvlychko, recorded in her dairy her experience attending the strike and talking to the student strikers. A 22-year-old student told her in a calm voice that his parents died of hard work – his mother worked herself to death on a collective farm and his father was injured in a factory. He therefore felt that he had been left “quite alone” and thus could give his life for the freedom of Ukraine, without causing anyone any grief. [28]

“Every day, people from around the city would come and just watch what was going on,” Viets recalled her time at the scene of the protests, “and it had these Ukrainian grandmothers coming, and they were very concerned, because it was beginning to get chilly. These grannies would bring bundles of coats and hand them over to the students, and if they weren’t satisfied with the way students would put the coats on themselves, saying: “No, no, you have to wrap up well, put your hat on,” and they go around and wrap scarves around the students”.[29]

The sacrifices by these students were a rallying cry for Ukrainian citizens and politicians alike. As the protests wore on, the students’ physical strength was wavering, but their resolve remained strong. Signs around the square continued to carry their angry message, “Out with the traitors to the Ukrainian people – Kravchuk and company”.[30]

The same “traitor” Kravchuk would be elected the first president of independent Ukraine only a year later.

At the time of the hunger strike, Kravchuk was a member of the Communist Party and the speaker of the Rada. Kravchuk had previously served as the Ukrainian Communist Party’s ideology secretary for ten years until 1989. After the October student strike, there was no doubt that the tide was changing in Ukraine toward nationalism. It was evident for the first time that Ukrainians are willing to die for independence.

Kravchuk finally conceded to the students, agreeing to postpone joining the Union Treaty until there was a referendum on independence in Ukraine. The October Square where the students protested would be re-named Maidan Nezlosniya (Independence Square) in independent Ukraine.

Kravchuk shrewdly understood that the circumstances in his country required that he perform a complex balancing act between the Communist ideology he had spent ten years promoting and the new nationalist agenda that the people of Ukrainian were demanding.[31]

Former U.S. President Richard Nixon was once quoted as saying that Kravchuk is “presently known in the West as a political genius.”  This quote was featured on the top of the campaign leaflet during Kravchuk’s successful campaign for president. An article in the British Independent would later portray the Ukrainian leader’s choice of association with the disgraced Nixon as a laughable blunder, but more importantly – as a testament that to the newly independent former Soviet republic’s desperately craving for the West’s attention. [32]

The presidential election took place on December 1, 1991. Kravchuk was elected with 70 percent of the vote. His strongest rival was Vyacheslav Chornovil, a Rukh member and a staunch supporter of independence. However, there were few public qualms among Ukrainians, including members of the opposition, about Kravchuk’s past in the Communist Party. “We have to believe people can radically change,” commented Ivan Drach, a politician from Rukh, after the elections.[33]

A week later Kravchuk met with Yeltsin and Shushkevich to sign the death certificate of the Soviet Union.

President Kravchuk’s first address to independent Ukraine took place on New Year’s Day in 1992. In it he proclaimed: “The nation has raised itself up from its knees; it has experienced a spiritual rebirth. It has become master on its own land. From this day on, the responsibility for our fate and our future lies solely with us.”

Addressing the touchy subject of the nuclear weapons, he said: “Ukraine, having set as its goal to become a non-aligned, nuclear-free country, will conduct a foreign policy based on peaceful, friendly and equal relations with other countries.”[34]

Merely a week after this festive announcement, members of the Ukrainian parliament began exhibiting a different point of view. A member of the parliament’s committee for foreign affairs, Serhiy Holovaty, bluntly said that the parliament simply didn’t care where the nuclear weapons were aimed. According to him, what mattered most was that Ukraine got something in return for disposing of them.[35]

The leader of the Ukrainian officers’ association, Major General Vladimir Muliava made a more emotional appeal: “We don’t seek to join any bloc or to have any nuclear weapons; we’ll never attack anyone. But the time has come for the world to look at Ukraine’s position. For too long, the world has neither seen nor heard of Ukraine.”[36]




The man in the US administration tasked with ensuring the denuclearization of the former Soviet states was Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Baker was from a prominent family from Houston, Texas. A Princeton man and a lawyer by training, Baker had a distinguished and long career in politics and public service, including as White House chief of staff and secretary of the Treasury under President Ronald Reagan, and now as secretary of state under Bush.

In February 1992, Baker embarked on a tour of the newly independent post-Soviet states. Giddy with the feeling of victory over communism, Baker believed that America’s prestige was “at its zenith.”[37]  Looking back at this moment in history, he would write: “With the USSR collapse in December, each republic was trying to establish positive relations with the West, especially the United States, and our ability to affect their behavior would never be greater.”[38]

Baker was certain that the process of the nuclear disarmament of Ukraine would begin shortly. He was headed for a bumpy ride.

Come March 1992, just a month later, he would already begin displaying signs of annoyance at the inability of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus to fulfill the U.S administration’s expectations and follow through with the plans for the destruction of nuclear weapons on their territories. Russia was the only state with the technical abilities to destroy nuclear weapons, and therefore arrangements needed to be made for the transfer of the weapons from the other three states to Russia.

Baker observed that Ukraine was becoming increasingly suspicious and weary of Russia. “The Russians see themselves as the center,” and “the Russians still have the mentality of empire,” were the kind of statements he claims to have heard from the Ukrainian leadership.[39]

The collapse of the USSR not only left 12 million ethnic Russians in Ukrainian territory, it gave rise to strategic and emotional disputes between Russia and Ukraine. One of the first points of contention was the Black Sea fleet stationed at the Ukrainian port of Simferopol. After several disagreements Russia and Ukraine decided to convene to a meeting on January 11 to discuss bilateral issues.

Following the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, the head of the Foreign Affairs and External Economic Ties Committee of the Russian parliament, Vladimir Lukin, sent a letter to a fellow Russian politician bemoaning Ukraine’s attempts to distance itself from Russia. In the letter, subsequently leaked to the press, Lukin stated: “By declaring Ukraine formally a neutral state, the Ukrainians intend to move towards the West without us, repeating the path taken by Eastern Europe. In the process, Kiev intends to keep everything on the territory of Ukraine in its hands except for nuclear weapons.” [40]

During this period of rising tensions between the newly independent Russia and Ukraine, a press conference took place with Yeltsin and Kravchuk after a meeting of the leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States. A journalist asked: “Boris Nikolayevich, there are rumors that Russia could attack Ukraine and even use nuclear weapons.”

In response, Yeltsin got up and theatrically twirled his index finger beside his temple: “Are you crazy – a war? Russia against Ukraine? Do you consider it possible? We are brothers. We are from the same cradle.”

Twenty-five years later, Kravchuk recalled his response: “I think just like you, I think it’s impossible.”[41]

By that time, he had been proven wrong.



[1] “Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, Bush-Yeltsin, December 8, 1991”, found in The National Security Archive,

[2] Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, Reprint edition (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

[3] Alexander Korzhakov, Boris Yeltsin: ot rassveta to zakata (Boris Yeltsin: From ascent to decline), (Moscow, 1997), p. 127

[4] Dina Newman, “How Three Men Signed the USSR’s Death Warrant,” BBC News, December 24, 2016, sec. Magazine,

[5] “Telephone Conversation of President Bush with President Mikhail Gorbachev of the FSU, December 13, 1991”, Textual Archives at the George Bush Presidential Library,–Gorbachev.pdf

[6] Scowcroft and Bush, A World Transformed,p.554.

[7] “Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, Bush-Yeltsin, December 8, 1991”, found in The National Security Archive,

[8] Ibid.

[9] Scowcroft and Bush, A World Transformed,p.555.

[10] “Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, Bush-Yeltsin, December 8, 1991”, found in The National Security Archive,

[11] “Impact of Republic Sovereignty on Soviet Strategic Forces”, declassified National Intelligence Council report, found in The National Security Archive,

[12] “Meeting agenda of Secretary of State James Baker with president Bush, October 25, 1991”, James A. Baker III Papers; 1957-2011, Public Policy Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[13] “Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, Bush-Yeltsin, December 8, 1991”, found in The National Security Archive,

[14] Arkady Dubnov, “Three Men in a Forest: Shushkevich Remembers the Meeting That Ended the Soviet Union,” The Russia File (blog), December 9, 2016,

[15] Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, c2005.

[16] Vladislav M. Zubok, Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (Chapel Hill, UNITED STATES: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007),p.331

[17] Brent Scowcroft and George H.W. Bush, A World Transformed, 1 edition (New York: Vintage, 1999), p.509.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Snowcroft and Bush, A World Transformed

[20] “Impact of Republic Sovereignty on Soviet Strategic Forces”, declassified National Intelligence Council report, found in The National Security Archive,

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Brent Scowcroft | The Collapse of The Soviet Union. The Oral History of Independent Ukraine – 1988-1991©,” accessed May 4, 2018,

[23] “The Ukrainian Weekly”, No. 49, Sunday, December 8, 1991.

[24] “Marta Dyczok | The Collapse of The Soviet Union. The Oral History of Independent Ukraine – 1988-1991©,” accessed May 4, 2018,

[25] “Susan Viets | The Collapse of The Soviet Union. The Oral History of Independent Ukraine – 1988-1991©,” accessed May 4, 2018,

[26] Mykola Riabchuk, “Ukraine’s Nuclear Nostalgia,” World Policy Journal 26, no. 4 (2009): 95–105.

[27] Reuters, “EVOLUTION IN EUROPE; Ukraine Bows to Student Protests On Charter Backing Sovereignty,” The New York Times, October 18, 1990, sec. World,

[28] Solomea Pavlychko, Letters from Kiev (Edmonton: Canadian Inst of Ukranian Study Pr, 1992),p.85.

[29] “Susan Viets | The Collapse of The Soviet Union. The Oral History of Independent Ukraine – 1988-1991©.”

[30] Solomea Pavlychko, Letters from Kiev (Edmonton: Canadian Inst of Ukranian Study Pr, 1992),p.83.

[31] Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (Basic Books, 2014).

[32] Peter Pringle, “A nation discovers itself; Ukraine is set for independence, and the West must make its support clear”, in “the independent” , December 2, 1991.

[33] Francis X. Clines, “Ex-Communist Wins in Ukraine; Yeltsin Recognizes Independence,” The New York Times, December 3, 1991, sec. World,

[34] “The Ukrainian Weekly”, No.3, Sunday, January 19, 1992.

[35] Quoted in Mark D. Skootsky, “An Annotated Chronology of Post‐Soviet Nuclear Disarmament 1991–1994,” The Nonproliferation Review 2, no. 3 (September 1, 1995): 64–105,

[36] Ibid, p.68.

[37] James Addison Baker, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War, and Peace, 1989-1992 (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995).

[38] Ibid, p. 617.

[39] Ibid, p. 660.

[40] “ANALYSIS: Ukrainian-Russian confrontation over Crimea” , “The Ukrainian Weekly 1992, No.11,” 1992, 20.

[41] Interview with Kravchuk, “Russia & Me: In the Kremlin’s Shadow | Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,” accessed May 4, 2018,

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