Crimea and Ukrainian Nuclear Nonsense

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.

6 responses to “Crimea and Ukrainian Nuclear Nonsense

  1. Hey William, this is the first time I am hearing that Ukraine did not or could not control these nukes. Do you have a reference for that? Also, I don’t think Yeltsin’s Russia in 1994 would fight to denuclearize Ukraine. Yeltsin was much more dependent on the West than Putin, and also less fixated on returning Russia to its former glory. Finally, it is true that second-strike capability is not completely credible, but it is still very scary for any possible aggressor. So I would not dismiss its deterrent power so easily, especially when territory as big as Crimea is in question.

    • Hey Kerim,

      On control Moscow’s control over the nuclear weapons, check “The Case against a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent.”

      I think you are right about Russia’s reluctance to fight a war with the newly independent Ukrainian state even if it had decided to pursue a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, war seems like a much more reasonable possibility had Ukraine tried obtaining the Soviet missiles. Doing so would have required shooting Moscow-loyal soldiers. Even in the midst of post-Soviet turmoil, Yeltsin would have had a difficult time letting that go.

      It’s hard to engage in a solid debate on the third point given the number of counterfactuals involved and the lack of obvious comparison (at least as far as I can think of). Can you think of one?

      • Thanks for the link.

        I think the counterfactual is exactly what you propose: Ukraine retains the Soviet nuclear weapons (or builds its own arsenal) and Putin considers invading Crimea. Would Ukraine’s 2nd Strike Cap deter Putin? It is hard to measure “Crimea’s value to Ukraine” (or “Putin’s estimate of Crimea’s value to Ukraine”), so let’s look at other crises involving nuclear powers. I would be more persuaded of Ukraine’s lack of deterrence if there is a historical case where a nuclear power lost a sizable chunk of its territory to invasion or if anyone even tried such a thing. By “sizable” I mean something the size of Crimea (10000 sq miles).

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