For whatever reason, it seems trendy to blame Ukraine’s current predicament on its 1994 decision to denuclearize. If Ukraine had proliferated, the logic goes, then Russia would not have invaded Crimea, and people in Kiev would be a lot happier.
The trouble is, none of this makes any sense. To be kind, these arguments rely on an awkward reading of history and assume that nuclear weapons are a magical cure-all. The issues are threefold:
1) Ukraine never had command control over nuclear weapons. Yes, there were a lot of nuclear weapons sitting on Ukrainian soil–the third most in the world at that time after the United States and Russia. But having weapons on your soil is meaningless unless you can authorize their use. Trying to obtain control over those weapons would have required force and therefore war with Russia, which, as Anton Strezhnev points out, would not have made much sense for Ukraine. At no point in time could leaders in Kiev flip a magic switch and turn on a nuclear deterrent.
So if Ukraine wanted nuclear weapons, it was going to have to work hard for them. Trouble is…
2) Building its own nuclear deterrent would have been insane. Fresh off the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian economy was hurting. Spending tons of money developing its own nuclear weapons program would have put the country in a much deeper red hole. Still, because deterrence had value, Ukraine used the nuclear issue to extract financial compensation from the West. Meanwhile, Russia offered to ship Ukraine downblended uranium to keep their nuclear power plants firing. (There were also territorial agreements that Russia is currently violating, but no one at the time reasonably believed that those terms would hold up during exceptional situations.) Nuclearization would have killed those inducements and perhaps put Ukraine in such economic peril that it seems doubtful that we would have wound up in the position we are in today.
And even if the Ukrainian economy miraculously healed and we somehow managed to find ourselves in the duplicate situation…
3) It isn’t clear how nuclear weapons would have deterred Russia. Let’s not forget Russia has a nuclear stockpile as well. It is hard to see how Ukraine could have credibly threatened nuclear retaliation in response to the invasion of Crimea. Nuclear weapons are great at deterring aggression toward vital assets. I am not sure that Crimea counts, especially since it has such heavy Russian population. A nuclear deterrent might stop Putin from pushing further west toward Kiev, but he might very well be stopping where he is anyway due to conventional threats and economic warfare from the West.
TL;DR: It is really hard to claim that Ukraine’s decision to not proliferate in the 1990s was a mistake.