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Could Ukraine Have Retained Soviet Nuclear Weapons?


This issue keeps coming up, now in the New York Times.

“If only Ukraine hadn’t give up its nuclear arsenal, Russia wouldn’t be able to bully it.” No.

There’s no way Ukraine could have kept the Soviet nuclear weapons stationed there when the Soviet Union ended. Some of us say it over and over and over again. I wrote a Twitter thread on it a few weeks ago, but I need a convenient piece to refer to, so here we go.

The Soviet Union stationed missiles with nuclear warheads in the Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republics. In 1991, those republics became independent countries. Kazakhstan quickly decided to go non-nuclear and shipped the warheads back to Russia, which inherited the Soviet Union’s nuclear status in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Belarus followed.

Ukraine used those missiles as a bargaining chip. They got, in 1994, a financial settlement and the Budapest Memorandum which offered non-aggression assurances that Russia has now broken. They shipped the 1700 or so warheads from the missiles back to Russia and destroyed the missiles.

A Ukrainian Army officer looking over a destroyed missile silo near Pervomaisk, Ukraine, in 2001.Credit…Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Ukraine never had the ability to launch those missiles or to use those warheads. The security measures against unauthorized use were under Moscow’s control. The Ukrainians might have found ways around those security measures, or they might not have. Removing the warheads and physically taking them apart to repurpose them would be dangerous, and Ukraine did not have the facilities for doing that. Nor did Ukraine have the facilities to maintain those warheads. For only one example, the tritium in those warheads has a 12-year half-life and needs to be replaced regularly.

Schematic of a “Gravel Gertie,” a room in which nuclear weapons are assembled or disassembled at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas. This is for nuclear weapons of known design. USDOE diagram.

As the negotiations to remove the warheads were continuing, John Mearsheimer wrote “The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent.”  He argued that conflict between Russia and Ukraine was inevitable, and therefore Ukraine needed a nuclear deterrent. He was critical of the United States’ role in negotiating the move of the warheads back to Russia.

Counterfactuals are useful for looking at the details of how a past becomes a present. I wrote a counterfactual of what might have happened if NATO hadn’t expanded, another what if in the current discussion of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. For every major move, I link something similar that happened in the past. It might be informative for those imagining a currently nuclear Ukraine to work through the steps.

Maria Rost Rublee wrote a counterfactual on Ukraine keeping its nukes. It’s very similar to the substance of my Twitter thread. It would be useful to see a counterfactual in which Ukraine kept those nuclear missiles.

Ukraine did not have the technical infrastructure to maintain a nuclear arsenal. It would have had to spend billions to build that infrastructure.

Mearsheimer argues that it was in American interests to allow Ukraine to become a nuclear power. Russia would have found it intolerable for Ukraine to retain those warheads, and more intolerable if it looked like the United States supported that move. Russia knew exactly where those missiles were, so bombing raids were possible and would likely have taken place as early as possible.  

How would European countries have reacted? A nuclear Ukraine’s relations with Europe would have evolved very differently.

A counterfactual along Mearsheimer’s lines including what we know now would be a useful addition to the discussion, but, I think, difficult to write.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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