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The Case Against Making Ukraine a Nuclear Power Again
Experts Are Calling for Reigniting the Ukrainian Nuclear Program, Here's Why That's a Mistake.
When the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine was ratified on August 24, 1991, the former Soviet Republic was then the world’s third largest nuclear power. The new country had inherited close to 5000 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. One by one, these missiles were deactivated, dismantled, and destroyed to make Ukraine entirely free of nukes by 1996. All of this happened without one incident of these weapons being detonated, fought over, or ending up in the wrong hands.
Now, a year into the Russo-Ukraine conflict, many have argued that nuclear disarmament for Ukraine was a mistake. That if they hadn’t given up their nukes in the 90’s, they wouldn’t have found themselves in their current position of fending off Moscow. One voice, Michael Rubin, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), had argued that Ukraine again needs nuclear weapons after the war is over, effectively reversing the most successful nuclear disarmament campaign in history.
This would be a disaster. Ukraine’s history of instability, corruption, and codependence makes it an unfit candidate as a nuclear power and poses a legitimate threat to global security concerns. It is a miracle that Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament happened without incident. Neither Ukraine, nor the world, could afford to go backwards.
The period that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union was rife with chaos and corruption. The vacuum of power in former Warsaw Pact nations led to violence and infighting breaking out across the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. The policy of “shock therapy”, designed to switch the former Soviet Republics from market to command economies, devastated the new states as they suffered from widespread inflation and poverty. The United States had won the cold war, and the evil empire was in ruins.
There was however one looming threat: at the end of 1991, 3,200 strategic nuclear warheads remained in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, all with trajectories aimed at the United States. Out of these, Ukraine had the largest stockpile. In Ukraine, there were 46 silo-based RT-23 missiles stationed in Pervomaisk, each weighing 550 kilotons, each carrying ten independently targeted warheads aimed at America. Both Washington and Moscow understood the existential threat that these weapons contained, and heavily pressured the new government in Kiev to remove them.
Dick Cheney, the then Secretary of Defense, expressed the concern in a 1991 Meet the Press Interview:
“If the Soviets do an excellent job at retaining control over their stockpile of nuclear weapons - let’s assume they’ve got 25,000 - and they are 99 percent successful, that would mean you could still have as many as 250 that they were not able to control.”
Those in the State Department at the time coined these hypothetical loose nukes as “Cheney’s 250.”
Although Ukraine realized the security benefits that nuclear weapons gave them, they also saw the cost. Their economic and diplomatic interests would suffer if they held onto their nukes — and to that extent, there was no compromise. The United States held firm to an “all or nothing” approach with disarmament in exchange for economic, diplomatic, and security guarantees. Russia would promise Ukraine discounts on natural gas and promises on territorial integrity.
Between 1991 and 1996, Russian and U.S. government undertook a series of bilateral initiatives to dismantle the threat of these new nations having nukes, including measures to make sure they didn’t fall into the wrong hands. It not only was a huge diplomatic success for such cooperation to happen between the U.S. and the new Russian Federation, it was a great logistical achievement as well. One by one, thousands of nuclear warheads were deactivated of fissile material, transported to warehouses, disassembled into separate parts, and transported on railroads back to Russia. By the end of ‘96, there were no nukes in Ukraine, and it could join the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty to reap the diplomatic and economic benefits.
Deterrence Theory Doesn’t Work:
The American Enterprise Institute and writers like Michael Rubin are some of the biggest pushers of deterrence theory: the idea that you can beef up the military threat on one side to deter the other side from attacking. This is the logic for escalating the arms America sends to Ukraine, and for aid packages to Taiwan. When deterrence theory fails as it provokes the security dilemma, war hawks will make the case that they didn’t build up the threat enough, or quick enough, but rather that implementing deterrence theory on a geopolitical scale will produce the opposite of the intended result — provoke aggression, not deter it.
In a proverbial display of American hubris, proponents of Ukraine as a nuclear power such as Rubin forget why there was such a staunch campaign to denuclearize the country in the first place. The proposition comes from escalating deterrence theory to its illogical conclusion: they need the ultimate deterrence: nuclear weapons.
Arming Ukraine to the teeth has not worked. The more weapons the West gives them, the more they embolden Moscow to mobilize its forces to counteract the escalations. As of recent, Ukraine has been granted several Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) with a range of over 150 km by the United States. The further range weapons we give them, the further Russia pushed pasts the borders of the Oblasts they annexed to create demilitarized zones to protect from these longer ranger attacks. Now, as we deliberate sending them F-16s, we may soon find that they won’t be enough to deter Russian aggression either. In the case of nuclear weapons, Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded to these threats in his state of the union address on February 21st, he states:
If Ukraine acquires weapons of mass destruction, the situation in the world and in Europe will drastically change, especially for us, for Russia. We cannot but react to this real danger, all the more so since, let me repeat, Ukraine’s Western patrons may help it acquire these weapons to create yet another threat to our country.
Of course, proponents of deterrence theory for Ukraine will say that Putin is bluffing, and this is a risk they are willing to take. They ignore how deterrence has largely backfired. Any Russian response — even a nuclear one — is acceptable for the implementation of their repeatedly failed security theory.
Economics & Logistics:
First, consider the economic costs of Ukraine have gone from a prewar population of 37.4 million to 18-22 million after Russia annexed large swaths of territory and millions of refugees fled the country. It has left 2022 with a $38 billion dollar budget deficit. Reconstruction of the country after the war is estimated to cost over $500 billion dollars. The GDP of Ukraine shrank by 30% in 2022. Its sustainment has been completely a result of unprecedented levels of foreign aid.
Now look at the cost of operation nuclear weapons. For a ten-year period, the cost of total maintenance and development of Nuclear Forces is estimated to be $634 billion for the United States. Maintenance of nuclear forces for smaller countries is typically in the billions per year. We don’t know what the outcome of the Russo-Ukraine conflict will look like, what territory will still be under Russian occupation, and what level of support and aid they will receive from other countries. But one thing is abundantly clear: They do not have the existing capital or economic growth ability to create and maintain a nuclear weapons program. Thus, the impetus of cost will fall on foreign aid. Ukraine has gone from being the West’s lackey to the West’s liability.
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Arming Ukraine with nukes reintroduces the logistical problems they had with maintaining them in the first place. The same problems that led to the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986. When Ukraine was a nuclear power, Defense Minister Konstantin Mozorov stated that the country had “no technological capacity for ensuring safe operation of nuclear weapons.” There was never an established Ukrainian organization invested in maintaining its previous arsenal, which is why the government in Kiev had little aversion to giving up their inherited stockpile. Now, there is a global shortage of nuclear engineers that poses a challenge to all nuclear programs around the world. Creating maintenance program, finding the materials, the engineers, the cash, and the territorial security are all logistical quagmires for a nuclear Ukraine.
Instability & Corruption:
Ukraine had, and still has, a massive amount of instability and corruption from the moment of it’s independence up until the present day. In its 30-year inception, the country has been subject to two revolutions in 2004 and 2014 that both followed a period of chaos and foreign intervention. Ukrainian leaders historically would play the balancing act of coexisting with their often conflicting Russian and Western relationships. Because of their position as a buffer between the two power structures, they are often forcibly pulled in one direction or another due to outside pressure, or internal pressure to cave with outside demands.
A good example is the European Union Association Agreement proposed to Ukraine in the early 2010’s. A red line for the Russians, it was diplomatic decision that forced the hand of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on the axis of Russian and Western interests. If Yanukovych accepted the agreement, Russia would stop the foreign aid and natural gas discount that was being given to Ukraine. In the end, the Agreement expired in the fall of 2013 and what followed was a wave of pro-European protests that led to the ousting of Yanukovych and the beginning of the Maidan Revolution, effectively changing the hands of government overnight, with breakouts of violence across the country.
Additionally, the country is infamous for financial and government corruption, long before the war. In 2019, documents were revealed that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's government was involved in a defense procurement scam that embezzled millions from state funds. Military equipment that the U.S. and NATO have given them notoriously doesn’t make it to the front lines, and the money that they have given them so far has been difficult to track. There is no guarantee that aid for nuclear programs or the weapons themselves would not be embezzled or smuggled to special interest groups that would then sell them to the highest bidder. One of the biggest objections to making new countries nuclear powers is the misuse of power that comes with the responsibility. There is no indication in current or past leadership in Ukraine that the country would be any exception.
The nuclear disarmament of Ukraine without incident in the early 1990’s was perhaps the greatest achievement of arms reduction in history. Proponents of rearming the country seek to undo that accomplishment, as they forget why it was imperative to have a nuclear free Ukraine in the first place. As the escalation of arming and funding the regime in Kiev has so far continued to indicate, Ukraine upping the ante with nuclear weapons would not deter Russian aggression, only embolden it. This is a danger for not only Ukrainian national security, but global security at large.
Furthermore, Ukraine lacks the financial and logistical ability to create and maintain such programs, so the impetus for doing so would be at the cost of its Western backers. Even if these obstacles could be overcome, its history of corruption and instability make it an unfit candidate for a nuclear power.
To take from the wisdom of the then-newly independent Ukrainian cabinet in the early 1990’s, Boris Tarasyuk, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said:
“For Ukraine to keep nuclear weapons would have been to go against the entire world order…. Indeed, it is doubtful whether it would be a country at all.”
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