Nuclear Weapons and Ukraine: The Deterrent that Never Was

January 9, 2022

I had drafted this post a while back because I have often heard the argument that “had Ukraine not given up its nuclear weapons, this war would never have happened.” It always takes a while to explain why this is not so — and yes, once again, Mearsheimer was wrong about this as well — and why the Budapest Memorandum, much maligned as it has been, probably delivered precisely what one could have expected of it. I forgot about the draft until just now when I responded to yet another assertion of the argument (this one complete with a screenshot of Mearsheimer’s article arguing that Ukraine should not give up its nuclear weapons), so I guess it’s time to post it.

As the Soviet Union hurtled toward dissolution, the Soviet military became increasingly worried about its ability to control the nuclear weapons outside Russia. In Ukraine, they had enough to make Ukraine the third largest nuclear power:

  • 176 ICBMs with 1,240 warheads
  • 44 long-range strategic bombers with 588 ALCMs
  • 2,600 tactical nukes
  • Pivdenmash (now, Yuzhmash) — the world’s largest ICBM factory, in Dnipropetrovsk

The Soviets began removing the tactical nuclear weapons as they were the most mobile, and had the largest potential of falling into the wrong hands, and being misused. (This also made them potentially the only component of the nuclear program of any use to Ukraine as a deterrent.) By May 1992, they had removed to Russia all 2,600 of them. The Soviets also generally kept the warheads separate from the delivery vehicles, and controlled the personnel and the launch codes. Even though it was estimated that Ukraine could probably break the codes given a year to a year and a half (several attempts were detected), the fact remains that the Ukrainian government never had operational control of any of the nuclear weapons. They did make the Soviet-era personnel take the Ukrainian military oath in mid 1992, but that was mostly to ensure that Russia could not launch any of the nuclear weapons deployed in Ukraine against the wishes of its government.

Even if Ukraine had broken the codes, however, the military value of the ICBMs would have been essentially nil if the target were Russia: these ballistic missiles fire at thousands of miles, and could not be targeted at anything but the most remote parts of Russia from Ukraine (assuming the Ukrainians had the targeting tech, which the Soviets had also ensured they would not get).

The aircraft would be usable, at least at first glance. At second glance, however, not so much, at least not back then. The problem is that the strategic bombers would be a tempting target for a Russian preemptive strike while providing zero chances of destroying Russia’s ability to retaliate (which, after all, was designed under the assumption of a massive missile attack from the United States rather than a small one from Ukraine). This is the classic situation in which one of the sides has first-strike capability, and as such would have very strong incentives to move first in a crisis to preemptively destroy the opponent’s nuclear threat. These sorts of interactions are incredibly dangerous, and the bombers — far from acting as a deterrent — would likely have made for very unstable crises between Ukraine and Russia, almost certainly earlier than 2014.

In other words, Ukraine never actually had a nuclear deterrent. What it had was a political status as a nuclear state that it could potentially trade for something valuable, like guarantees of its territorial integrity and security. However, since the non-symbolic value of its nuclear asset was close to zero, the guarantees Ukraine eventually managed to get in exchange for relinquishing it were roughly commensurate with that value.

But why was Ukraine so concerned about its territorial integrity? From the beginning, Ukraine has concerned about Russian territorial revisionism, and saw nuclear weapons as a potential bargaining chip against its resurgence. Initially, Ukraine demanded that it, along with Russia, be treated as the legitimate successor of the Soviet Union, but the US firmly opposed the idea (no “Yugoslavia with nukes”, as SecState Baker said at the time). The new CIS attempted a joint command of the strategic forces, but this proved unworkable very quickly, and so in early 1992, President Kravchuck announced that Ukraine would assume “administrative control” over the nuclear weapons in his country (the oath thing). Soon after, Ukraine (as well as Kazakhstan, Belarus, Russia, and the US) signed an agreement committing the three newly minted nuclear powers to START I, and in Article 5 (Lisbon Protocol), they also undertook to become part of NPT as non-nuclear states. The Ukrainians demanded security guarantees from Washington, but Bush would only offer to seek action in the UNSC (where Russia would wield the veto), encouraged Ukraine to place its trust in various European security arrangements (like CSCE), and promised help in developing Ukraine’s army as its guarantor of security (against Russia that would be four times its size). In December 1992, the US presented the Ukrainians with a draft joint resolution that would essentially remain unchanged when the Budapest Memorandum was signed. The US threatened that unless Ukraine ratified the Lisbon Protocol and joined the NPT as a non-nuclear state, there would be no economic cooperation or diplomatic support forthcoming.

Russia, for its part, made its revisionist intentions clear soon enough. On May 21 1992, the Russian Duma passed a resolution that affirmed Crimea as part of Russia by declaring its 1954 cession to Ukraine illegal. On July 21, Moldova was forced to sign a ceasefire that established Russia-supported Transnistria as a de facto independent state (ironically, Ukrainian nationalist volunteers participated in this war on the Russian side under the weird logic of assisting fellow Slavs against Moldovan-Romanian aggression). One must understand that the numerous conflicts along Russia’s new borders were encouraged and actively stirred by members of the Russian elite who did not like the collapse of the Soviet Union, and who believed that interference in these newly minted fragile republics would destabilize them and make them more reliant on Moscow for their security — and if that did not quite work out, then territorial annexations could follow. The Ukrainians, as one of the primary drivers of the dissolution of the USSR, knew and understood all of this.

Not surprisingly, the Ukrainian Rada repeatedly postponed discussion of the START I and demanded an international treaty that would guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The Clinton administration would not budge, and on November 18 1993, the exasperated Rada — having come under considerable international pressure for not being willing to relinquish the nuclear weapons — voted on the Lisbon Protocol but rejected its Article 5 and reserved the right to retain some nukes. Upset over this, Washington focused its ministrations on Kravchuk and got him to agree to a Trilateral Statement with the US and Russia (January 14 1994) where Russia undertook a slightly more substantial pledge to guarantee Ukraine’s security, and the US agreed to compensate Ukraine for the HEU in weapons already transferred to Russia (Megatons for Megawatts). Armed with this, Kravchuk went to the Rada to tell them that its security concerns had been met. Having reached the end of the line — as it was clear that the US and Russia would offer nothing more, the Rada ratified the NPT on November 16 with the sole reservation that Ukraine would regard threats to its territorial integrity and economic coercion by a nuclear state as grounds for withdrawing from the NPT under Article X.

On December 5, the CSCE summit in Budapest — signed by Kuchma, Yeltsin, Clinton, and Major — merely made official all these agreements in their known form as part of the diplomatic memoranda. As Kravchuk said after the signing, “If tomorrow Russia goes into Crimea, no one will even raise an eyebrow.” And so it was. When the weak consultation mechanism was invoked in 2014, Lavrov refused to attend the meeting in Paris, and Russia then vetoed the UNSC Resolution condemning the Crimean “referendum” of March 16. The illusion had ended.

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