Some Ukrainian officials are warning that recent Russian transgressions might force Ukraine to revisit its nuclear weapons program. From a historical perspective, this is understandable. Ukraine signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the mid-1990s in exchange for subsidies and territorial guarantees from the United States and Russia. Russia, seeing a target of opportunity in Crimea, subsequently violated the terms.
Yet these hawkish proclamations are just that: hawkish. They overlook nuclear realities. Ukraine did not pursue nuclear technology following its independence because such a program would have been prohibitively expensive. (And, despite what seems to be conventional wisdom on the subject, Ukraine did not really inherit nuclear weapons.) While Ukraine appears to be in a stronger economic position today, the country is going through so much domestic turmoil at the moment that Kiev’s marginal dollar is probably not best spent embarking on an atomic mission.
But does that mean nuclear weapons are irrelevant to the crisis? Absolutely not. Make no mistake: Ukraine could develop a nuclear weapon given enough time, effort, and angry declarations from the United States and Russia. If Russia made further encroachments on Ukrainian turf–beyond the Crimean target of opportunity–nuclear weapons would stop looking ridiculous and start looking desirable.
However, Putin knows this. He also knows that inducing Ukraine to proliferate is ultimately not in Russia’s best security interests. And he knows that Ukraine would also like to avoid proliferating because of the enormous costs.
These preferences and constraints are common, and I study them formally in my book project on bargaining over proliferation. In such a scenario, states negotiate settlements and avoid nuclear development. Potential nuclear powers do not want to build because they are already receiving a desirable share of the settlement. Rivals do not want to drive a harder bargain because doing so would trigger proliferation; settlement, on the other hand, means they can extract the surplus created by the potential nuclear power avoiding atomic development. Both sides win.
I suspect the Ukraine/Russia crisis will end like this. Russia will not push Ukraine much further.* Ukraine will not develop nuclear weapons, but the threat to do so will give them a better share of the deal.
Interestingly, the potential for nuclear weapons is almost as useful as the nuclear weapons themselves.
*At least until another target of opportunity arises, anyway.