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The European-Ukrainian Nuclear Mistake

Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has botched several major security crises, from refugees to referenda. Europe’s worst mistake was the nuclear disarmament of Ukraine 23 years ago. It continues to have lasting, negative consequences for European security.

Image Courtesy of Creative Commons, © 2011

In 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine found itself in possession of the third-largest nuclear stockpile in the world. Though Ukraine did not have the weapons’ operational capability, the windfall was a mixed blessing. By 1994, Ukraine had decided to destroy the nuclear stockpile and join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). This move was widely supported by Western powers.

The United States, United Kingdom, and Russian Federation signed the Budapest Memorandum in response to Ukraine’s decision. The Memorandum stated that the three nations would “respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine” and would “refrain from the threat or use of force.” Additionally, France and China signed separate but similar documents in support of Ukraine.

It became apparent that Budapest Memorandum signers and other interested nations would not defend Ukraine’s physical sovereignty when Russian forces invaded Crimea in 2014. This led to many questions: Should Ukraine have surrendered its nuclear arsenal? Should Ukraine reacquire nuclear weapons in the face of a belligerent Russian bear? What role do the signers of the Budapest Memorandum have in the Crimean Crisis and broader war in the Donbas region? The best the United States could muster was a strongly-worded statement.

Although debate rages around nuclear weapons, they have proven to be an extremely successful deterrent. Nuclear weapons have prevented major wars across many tense, bilateral relationships; the U.S.-USSR, USSR-China, and India-Pakistan relationships are all examples. The reason is simple: if a nation invades another who can assuredly deploy nuclear weapons, there is a great risk of a catastrophic response.

Russia, like any major power, is interested in expanding its reach and influence. Russian expansion has two main roads into Eastern Europe. The first leads through the Baltic States and Poland. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, these countries feared upstart Russian aggression leading these states to quickly join NATO. The second route travels through Ukraine and the Balkans to reach Central Europe. Ukraine also attempted to join NATO but to no avail. With the Baltic States’ accessions to NATO and the ease of Western military deployment to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Ukraine gained the interest of Russian expansionism. Additionally, the United States is much more likely to uphold NATO’s article five than the Budapest Memorandum in the face of additional Russian aggression. Many policymakers assume Russia is interested in regaining “lost” territory from the collapse of the Soviet Union—especially territory as rich in natural resources and fertile ground as Ukraine.

With this understanding of Russia’s geographic options into Europe, it becomes apparent that European security partially lies with Ukraine. Europe has avoided Russian aggression since 1991, but that successful streak is coming undone with the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing struggle in the Donbas region. European powers and the United States have shown they are not interested in deploying military forces to Ukraine. This will bring Russia closer to the Western powers’ doorstep in time, thereby creating Europe’s greatest current security concern.

There is historical evidence that nuclear weapons guarantee sovereignty. Though the United States, China, Russia, India, and Pakistan are all nuclear states, none have employed weapons of mass destruction nor have they lost territory when coming into conflict with each other. Had Ukraine maintained its nuclear arsenal, even at a fraction of the size, Kiev would possess strong deterrent capabilities.

Ukraine took a gamble in 1994. They assumed the Budapest Memorandum and joining the NPT would guarantee security. Unfortunately, security treaties and agreements are fickle. Should the United States and United Kingdom militaries deploy and take part in a small, regional conflict in eastern and southern Ukraine? There are few reasons to do so. Moreover, Europe does not possess the unified desire and capability to defend Ukrainian territorial integrity without the U.S. war machine. With the Russian annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas now past its three-year anniversary, it is clear the West has no intentions of resolving the issue or assisting Kiev in the short run. This bodes ill for European and Ukrainian security in the coming years. Ukrainian nuclear weapons would change that.


David Stoffey

David is a foreign policy research analyst and M.A. candidate currently living in Washington, DC. He focuses on East Asian and European international relations with a particular interest in military history. David holds a B.A. in economics and political science from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
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