Patricia Lewis
Research Director, International Security
A worker cuts the nose off Ukraine's last Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons in Poltava 27 January 2006. Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images.A worker cuts the nose off Ukraine's last Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons in Poltava 27 January 2006. Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images.

Since the events of February and March this year, in particular the annexation of Crimea, there have been pundits suggesting that perhaps Ukraine should have held onto Soviet nuclear weapons back in the early 1990s and thus deterred Russia’s intervention. In addition to the inaccuracy of such assertions – Ukraine did not have the command and control of the nuclear weapons on its territory – they are highly irresponsible in that they are likely to stimulate nuclear proliferation policies in other countries and stem from fantasy not reality.

Back in the early 1990s, at the point when the USSR fell apart, three newly independent states found themselves with a tricky nuclear weapons problem: Moscow had stationed these weapons on the territories of other members of the Soviet Union namely Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine as part of its nuclear doctrine. The world feared that the USSR, a single nuclear weapons state would spawn four. Not quite the outcome hoped by the people of Europe and the US. Nor was it a comfortable position for Russia, unsure where the loyalties of the former USSR countries would lie. It was already clear that Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland and Hungary were distancing themselves from Russia as fast as they could, with the view to join NATO and the EU. Russia was not keen to be surrounded by three nuclear-armed states in addition to the US, UK, France and China.

For its part, the US and its allies were keen to move ahead on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation efforts. The bilateral nuclear reduction negotiations had been going well, the problem of short-range tactical nuclear weapons in Europe was being addressed, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty negotiations had transformed the management of those forces, the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva was negotiating the Chemical Weapons Convention and there was great hope that a new relationship could be forged between West and East putting nuclear weapons firmly in the past.

Although Ukraine was never a fully-fledged nuclear weapon state, large numbers of strategic (approximately 1,900) and tactical (approximately 2,500) nuclear weapons were in place on its territory. Ukraine’s national capabilities at that time included a full civil fuel cycle expertise, and a missile and space-rocket design and manufacturing capability (the Southern Machine-building Factory ‘Yuzhmash’ was in the closed city of Dnipropetrovsk). The nuclear warheads however were not manufactured or tested in Ukraine and so, at that time, the country did not have the full complement of expertise it would have needed to become a true nuclear weapons possessor able to threaten to launch and detonate a nuclear warhead.

Ukraine could have developed such a capability and learned how to maintain nuclear warheads, found a way to change and adapt the launch codes, alter targeting programmes and guidance systems, and establish command and control procedures over the next 5-10 years. However, in 1990, Ukraine’s parliament adopted the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine in which Ukraine committed not to use, produce or stockpile nuclear weapons. So once Ukraine became an independent state in 1991, negotiations to relinquish the remaining stockpile to Russia began (along with similar efforts in Belarus and Kazakhstan).

In 1991, as part of the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States, Ukraine pledged to join the NPT under the Alma-Ata Declaration on unified control of nuclear weapons and agreed to the withdrawal and dismantling of tactical nuclear weapons. Then Ukraine signed the Lisbon Protocol of the START I treaty in May 1992 and the Minsk Agreement on Strategic Forces at the end of the same year, committing to the full dismantlement of the nuclear forces by the end of 1994.

What followed next was hardly plain sailing however. Some in Ukraine’s political system wanted to hang on to the nuclear weapons, believing that they could be useful in providing a long-term counter to any future Russian aggression. Others wanted to hold on to them to secure a better bargain with Russia and the US, particularly in exchange for security, energy, financial and trade deals. The debates and negotiations stretched out for years with President Leonid Kravchuk promising one thing and the Rada demanding another. Numerous delays followed and the debates also signified a tussle for the centre of democratic power in Ukraine between the executive and legislative branches of governance. 

Finally in 1994, a trilateral agreement between Ukraine, Russia and the US was agreed that enabled Ukraine’s accession as a non-nuclear weapons state to the NPT on 5 December 1994. The same day, the Budapest Memorandum was adopted by the United States, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom – the three depositaries of the NPT – that agreed to, among other things, respect the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine, to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, to refrain from economic coercion of Ukraine and to seek immediate UN Security Council action to provide assistance if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression.

The Budapest Memorandum has clearly been breached in the letter and spirit by one of its own members. Far from respecting the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine and refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine, Russia has demonstrated that such assurances count for little in the real world. These assurances were part of the package that enabled Ukraine to join the NPT and Russia’s actions will send shivers down the spines of all 180+ non-nuclear weapons states that rely on such assurances. Russia’s actions could lead to a severe loss of trust in security assurances. At least the UK and US have fulfilled their commitments under the Budapest Memorandum and have taken the matter to the UN Security Council and continue to try to resolve the situation with Russia as promised. They at least have demonstrated their trustworthiness in terms of the assurances they have given.

Even more worrying, along with the usual armchair pundits in the media, a number of senior people are suggesting that a Ukrainian nuclear weapons force might have deterred Russia. What is said in Paris or Moscow is analyzed all around the world.  Such statements do little other than serve to bolster the generals in Pyongyang and the hardliners in Iran and as such could be seen as incitements to proliferation. It behooves analysts to be careful and more circumspect in public statements rather than jump to ready-made pro-nuclear weapons conclusions that are designed to play into various domestic debates.

The cold truth is that where nuclear weapons have featured in decisions to initiate aggressive action, they have often played a minor role. Only between the US and USSR in the context of a wider balance of power could it be said that nuclear weapons have truly been significant. In cases of unequal contexts, when it is judged that the conflict is unlikely to escalate to nuclear use, aggressors have at least on several occasions discounted the likely use of nuclear weapons: for example by Argentina in 1982, and by Egypt and Syria in 1973. There is clear evidence also that a generally understood nuclear threat by the US in 1991 was discounted by Iraq at least in the decision to destroy Kuwait’s oil fields and installations.

Would-be aggressors make judgment calls as to whether nuclear use is likely. Had Ukraine kept the Soviet nuclear weapons in the 1990s and developed a maintenance and command and control capability, Russia likely would have judged that Ukraine would not be foolish enough to use or even threaten to use such weapons over the issue of Crimea. Any such threat would have resulted in a far harsher and more credible retaliatory threat from Russia, which possesses enough conventional weaponry to destroy Ukraine and easily manage any Ukrainian counter threat. Ukraine knows this. Nuclear weapons would have made little difference to the outcome of the annexation of Crimea.

However, had Ukraine held on to nuclear weapons, there would now be increased fears of instability in eastern and central Ukraine. As global leaders discussed at the Nuclear Security Summit this week in the Netherlands, there are deep fears that political instabilities in nuclear weapons possessors could lead to criminal and terrorist forces seizing nuclear materials and weapons. It is proliferation that we need to be concerned about here, not old Cold War thinking that sits us firmly back in the past. Ukraine did the smart thing in joining the NPT in 1994 and should – once again – be congratulated and admired.

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