Tag Archives: nuclear weapons

Ukraine Was a Nuclear Power. Just Like Nebraska Is.

There are way, way too many articles, blogs, and commentaries about Ukraine right now, and a lot of them like to talk about how things would be different had Ukraine kept its nuclear weapons twenty-some years ago. I wrote about this last week, but here is a firmer response: Ukraine never had command control over nuclear weapons.

You wouldn’t know that by reading most of these articles, of course. There seems to be a large amount of historical illiteracy here, and editors aren’t doing sufficient fact checking. But to call Ukraine a former nuclear power would be like saying Nebraska is a nuclear power today or would be a nuclear power if it declared independence tomorrow. Yes, Nebraska would have a lot of nuclear weapons on their sovereign soil. But they wouldn’t have command control over the missiles. All told, they would really only have large chunks of metal holding radioactive materials. That is not the same thing as being a nuclear power, which would seem to imply the ability to…I don’t know…nuke someone.

So, media of the world, please stop saying how Ukraine made a mistake in giving up nuclear weapons. They were never theirs to give up–they just let Russian officials safely dismantle them and ship them back to Russia…which is pretty much what you would expect a country to do if it suddenly found large chunks of metal with radioactive material inside.

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.

Does Nuclear “Prestige” Prevent Nonproliferation Agreements?

In a word, no.

First, a brief background. The main theoretical chapter of my dissertation shows that nonproliferation agreements are fairly easy to establish. Even if a potential rising state proliferates, it will ultimately only be able to receive some amount of concessions from a rival. As such, to deter proliferation, the rival only needs to offer most of the concessions the rising state would receive if it did proliferate. Nuclear investment is no longer profitable, as most of the concessions that proliferation would yield have already been given up. The rising state is happy to maintain the status quo because it is already getting most what it wants. (Building would yield slightly more concessions, but it would not be worth paying the investment cost.) The rival is happy because it can keep a small amount of the concessions to itself, as the rising state is willing to accept slightly reduced offers due to the aforementioned cost savings.

The only obstacle is if the costs of proliferation are very small. Here, the rival cannot scale back very much on the deal, so the value of a nonproliferation agreement is smaller for that rival. In turn, the rival may prefer impatiently hording as much of the bargaining good as possible for as long as possible, forcing the rising state to proliferate. At that point, the rival makes great concessions.

Note that the key comparative static determining whether proliferation occurs is the cost of weapons. If the cost is high, proliferation agreements work. If not, proliferation occurs. Fortunately, nuclear weapons (and their necessary delivery systems) are incredibly expensive. Consequently, nonproliferation prevails most of the time.

However, nuclear “prestige” seems like a hindrance to the nonproliferation regime. Advocates of this theory claim that nuclear weapons bestow international prestige on their possessors, separating the owners from everyone else above and beyond the power nuclear weapons provide. There are many reasons to doubt whether such prestige actually exists–I can’t remember the last time one country was excited to hear that another one was proliferating–but let’s go with it for a moment. It then seems like prestige might sabotage those nonproliferation agreements, as it reduces the perceived investment cost for the rising state.

This has been in the back of my mind for a year or two now, and I have wondered what it meant for the robustness of my dissertation’s nonproliferation argument. Luckily, I had a mental breakthrough a couple of nights ago. The prestige argument is mostly harmless.

The key here is that prestige is zero sum. If nuclear weapons are prestigious, then no country is prestigious if all countries have them. As a result, it is incorrect to think of prestige as affecting a rising state’s perception of the cost of proliferation. Rather, prestige matters for determining the amount of goodies the rising state will receive in the future. Additional prestige means the rising state will receive more, whereas the relatively less prestigious countries (compared to today’s status quo) will receive less.

But this is just a complicated way of saying that nuclear weapons give their possessors additional concessions. Consequently, those who would have to give up the concessions should proliferation occur have incentive to reach nonproliferation agreements for the reasons outlined above. In turn, prestige has little affect on the viability nonproliferation agreements.

Nevertheless, this logic explains the competing beliefs about the existence of prestige. Rising states claim that prestige exists–because, if it does, rivals will have to give them more to reach nonproliferation settlements. Their rivals claim that prestige does not exist–because, if it does not, the cost of reaching a nonproliferation agreement will be lower for them.

If you’d like to see the argument in action, take a look at the chapter. The prestige argument is the first robustness check I run.