War Scare: Russia and America on the Nuclear Brink

By Peter Vincent Pry | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 17

The Russo-Ukrainian Nuclear Crisis, October 1991-May 1992

The Russian nuclear debate occurred against a backdrop of unfolding crises in Ukraine and Armenia, both of which peaked while the General Staff was muscling into place its new policy that openly endorsed a nuclear first strike, even against nonnuclear states. In Ukraine, Moscow and Kiev had come nearly to blows over control of nuclear weapons located on Ukrainian territory.

Luke Sallow shook off the chill Maryland winter and dumped his Christmas mail on the kitchen table. Sorting through the greens and reds of holiday letters and postcards, he was surprised to find a plain white envelope, addressed to him in a distinctly foreign hand. It was from General Mikhail Bashkirov.

Luke had met General Bashkirov during an arms control inspection of the Russian strategic bomber base at Uzin, in Ukraine. Bashkirov was the base commander, a native Russian. Sallow's excellent command of the Russian language had pleased Bashkirov immensely, as he loved to converse in his mother tongue, not in the local Ukrainian. They became quite friendly and spent a lot of time together. But Luke also suspected that Bashkirov knew he was not just an arms control inspector but a U.S. intelligence officer--a spy. Sallow tore open General Bashkirov's note. Inside was a handwritten Christmas greeting. Funny thing, though--Bashkirov had penned it in Ukrainian.

Two months later, in February 1992, General Mikhail Bashkirov publicly renounced his allegiance to Moscow and swore allegiance to Kiev. He declared his strategic nuclear bombers to be the property of Ukraine. General Bashkirov thereby began the most perilous episode of the Russo- Ukrainian crisis.

Almost immediately following the dissolution of the USSR into a number of independent states, fears blossomed among the newly emerged nations over how to prevent a resurgent Russia from forcibly reincorporating them into a new empire. Simultaneously, Russia feared that several of its newly independent neighbors--Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, in particular-- might claim as their own the former Soviet nuclear weapons based on their territories.

Faced with the prospect of several new nuclear-weapon states on its borders, Russia began pressing Ukraine and the others to surrender all nuclear weapons to Moscow. The confrontation that unfolded over the next several

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