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Schiff highlights history of Ukraine giving up its nukes — and the U.S. promise in return

Schiff’s tale cast additional ironic shade on the current tragedy of Ukraine, especially the significant portion of it that is under Russian occupation.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff delivering the opening argument during the second day of the U.S. Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
REUTERS/U.S. Senate TV

Rep. Adam Schiff had a big day yesterday. Yes, I know. No duh.

Schiff’s two-hour-long opening statement is getting rave reviews from the reality-based community, as well it should. But since everyone is going to be writing about Schiff’s impressive overview of the case for impeaching Donald Trump, which ran roughly two-and-a-half hours yesterday afternoon, I’ll focus on something else.

I agree, Schiff was very strong. On a sad contrary note, it’s hard to believe, given the state of play, that any senators changed their minds about which way to vote, not only on the ultimate question of whether to convict and remove Donald Trump from his current ill-deserved sinecure. Still, Schiff’s opener was a tour de force of facts, logic and lawyerly eloquence.

But, since everyone will be writing about it, I’d like to spend my daily quotient of pixels on Schiff’s second and final major oration of the day, at the very end. One particular point struck me as both powerful and tragic and steeped in history — a point that packed, for me, the impact of a nuclear weapon because it was about nuclear weapons. It’s specifically about how Ukraine came not to have any nuclear weapons and the earth-shaking implications of that. Maybe it’s a weird detail, but Schiff’s point got my blood pumping and, unlike many of the rest his facts, the thought was new to me.

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It also cast additional ironic shade on the current tragedy of Ukraine, especially the significant portion of it that is under Russian occupation. OK, here goes, all based on a portion of Schiff’s remarks that most people probably didn’t spend much time thinking about, because it’s a bit historical and a bit indirect in relation to the impeachment question. Here goes:

In the latter decades before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Soviets had so many of their nuclear weapons in Ukraine that, when the breakup occurred and Ukraine became an independent state, Ukraine had the third largest number of nuclear weapons of any nation on earth.

As Schiff told the tale (and it rings a bell), the first leaders of the newly independent nation of Ukraine didn’t volunteer to give those weapons up as a check against potential Russian aggression. But the United States was worried about nuclear proliferation, as Schiff told the story, and Washington told Ukraine’s new leaders that if they would agree to give up their (formerly Soviet) nukes, we would ensure the territorial integrity of the new independent state against Russian aggression. And Ukraine did agree to allow the removal from its territory of those nukes.

“”I hope we care about that,” Schiff said. “I hope we care about that.”

Sure enough, just as the leaders of the newly independent nation feared, their mighty neighbor and former overlord, the Russian Republic invaded, and now occupies very substantial chunks of Ukraine, known as Crimea and the Donbass.

Those are active war zones. And the United States has helped Ukraine in that war, and is still helping it.

(I don’t know the details of this, but it’s a favorite talking point of Trump defenders that Trump is helping Ukraine more than President Barack Obama did. I’m sure the Trumpist line that Obama “gave Ukraine blankets” is an exaggeration, but it is true that the Trump administration is giving Ukraine some categories of weapons that Ukraine didn’t get from Obama. Schiff didn’t deal with that part of the argument.)

But Schiff did say, and I found it poignant and a bit shameful, that the United States gave Ukraine its word that if it would agree to give up its nukes, we would defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

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Now Ukraine would like the United States to keep its word, if only by having Ukraine’s new reformist President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to the White House for a meeting and a photo op and to send a signal to Russia that Ukraine is our ally, and have Ukraine’s back.

But no, Trump, according to the theory of the impeachment case, saw Ukraine’s need for solidarity as a weakness to be exploited to pressure Zelenskiy into helping Trump win re-election in November by digging up dirt on Joe Biden.

As Schiff said, sometime shortly before the end of a very long day of impeachment hearings, America made a commitment to Ukraine that if it gave up its nukes for the good of the world, we would have their backs.

“That’s the word of America we gave,” Schiff said. “And we’re breaking that word. Why? For help with a political campaign?”

“Ambassador Taylor was right,” Schiff said, referring to Bill Taylor, former U.S. acting ambassador to Ukraine and a star witness in one of the hearings leading up to the impeachment. Taylor said  that using military aid to Ukraine as leverage get dirt on Joe Biden was crazy. “That is crazy.”

“It’s worse than ‘crazy,’” Schiff escalated, “It’s repulsive. It’s repugnant.”