Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | March 5, 2014

Ukraine and the Nuclear Deterrent

RSD-10 2009 G1

As noted before, Ukraine relinquished its nuclear arsenal to Russia under the Lisbon Protocol back in 1990s, when the Soviet Union dissolved. In the wake of this past week’s aggression by a nuclear Russia against a non-nuclear Ukraine, Tyler Cowen points to this 1993 Foreign Affairs paper by John Mearsheimer (pdf, 17 pages), which argued that Ukraine should have kept its nuclear deterrent:

The conventional wisdom about Ukraine’s nuclear weapons is wrong. In fact, as soon as it declared independence, Ukraine should have been quietly encouraged to fashion its own nuclear deterrent. Even now, pressing Ukraine to become nonnuclear is a mistake.

A nuclear Ukraine makes sense… . First, it is imperative to maintain peace between Russia and Ukraine. That means ensuring that the Russians, who have a history of bad relations with Ukraine, do not move to reconquer it. Ukraine cannot defend itself against a nuclear-armed Russia with conventional weapons, and no state, including the United States, is going to extend to it a meaningful security guarantee. Ukrainian nuclear weapons are the only reliable deterrent to Russian aggression. If the U.S. aim is to enhance stability in Europe, the case against a nuclear-armed Ukraine is unpersuasive.

Also: “Great powers that share a long and unprotected common border, like that between Russia and Ukraine, often lapse into competition driven by security fears. Russia and Ukraine might overcome this competition and learn to live together in harmony, but it would be unusual if they do.”

Ukraine agreed in 1994 to give up its 4,000 nuclear weapons in return for security guarantees from the US and Russia. Those security guarantees are not looking very iron-clad this week. Cowen comments in another post (“The expected rate of return from denuclearization has fallen”):

It seems the value of a formal NATO guarantee is falling as well. Rapidly. Various Eastern European countries are asking for stronger or clarified U.S. guarantees. What are they thinking in Latvia? Taiwan? Japan? How about the Israelis negotiating with John Kerry?

On the other hand, Steve Saideman says that a security guarantee for Ukraine was never really credible:

NATO never made a commitment to defend Ukraine, which is a good thing since it would have been incredible… in the sense that it would not be believed. I have long argued against NATO membership for either Georgia or Ukraine precisely because there would little that the US/NATO could do in a crisis such as this (plus the Georgians might just use the security implied by the alliance to provoke Russia).

And PM at Duck of Minerva makes the case that nuclear weapons “wouldn’t have fixed what was wrong with Ukraine”:

Instead of asking whether nuclear weapons matter in general, as Cowen does, we should ask whether they matter for Ukraine in its current situation. The answer is almost certainly not.

What, after all, is the counterfactual? If Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons, it is probably unlikely that Russia would have moved so precipitately in the Crimea. But it’s not clear at all that nuclear weapons would have made any of Ukraine’s recent governments more stable. After all, the Mearsheimer hypothesis is that nuclear weapons will deter Russian intervention and “a Russian reconquest of Ukraine” (a probability much dimmer today, when we know better what prolonged occupations by great powers look like, than it was when he wrote 20 years ago). Ukraine’s decade of political instability, however, has had domestic roots, and it is difficult to see how nuclear possession would have changed Russia’s behavior in trying to bring Ukraine back under its political umbrella or paved over the ethnic and linguistic fault lines in the country.

We know very little about how a nuclear-armed country faces domestic unrest. Indeed, of the major nuclear powers, only the USSR, post-USSR Russia, and the PRC have faced massive domestic demonstrations on the scale of the Independence Square protests. In neither case, as far as I know, does anyone think that the possession of nuclear weapons mattered for the outcome of those demonstrations (even though it surely kept the rest of the world on tenterhooks). This matters because the motivation for Russia’s intervention is (probably) not the sort of almost atavistic territorial expansionism Mearsheimer ascribes to Russia in his article (written, again, less than two years after the fall of the Soviet Union) but instead a relatively comprehensible and limited attempt at partition or Finlandization…

In fairness to Cowen and Mearsheimer, I don’t think either of them are arguing that nuclear weapons are a cure-all — just that they might have kept Russian troops out of the Crimea. (And that too could be a mistaken assessment — difficult to know or prove.)

Image Credit: Intermediate-range ballistic missile RSD-10 Pioneer, Ukrainian Air Force Museum, Vinnitsa, Ukraine. Deployed by the Soviet Union from 1976 to 1988, this model of ballistic missile was withdrawn from service under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Photo by George Chernilevsky, August 2009. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Update (Wed., March 5, 2014, 2:30 PM): Anton Strezhnev has a post arguing that a counterfactual history in whick Ukraine retained its nuclear deterrent is not realistic: “The problem with the ‘if only Ukraine had nukes’ line of argument it assumes that Russia would have tolerated a nuclear weapons state on its border in the first place.” An excerpt:

While Mearsheimer’s original article briefly considered the possibility of a pre-emptive Russian attack, it dismisses it much too quickly and easily. Although it argues that a pre-emptive war between Ukraine and Russia in 1993 would be risky, it fails to run the clock back even further and consider why Russia chose to not pre-empt Ukraine at an even earlier time (when the Ukrainian command and control was less established) unless it was convinced of Ukrainian denuclearization. Perhaps Ukrainian nuclear weapons were simply not a sufficient cause for preemption in this counterfactual 1990s. But if this is the case, then it is unlikely that they would be a credible constraint on Russia now, particularly for the type of war we are seeing right now in Crimea (as opposed to a full occupation). The Kargil crisis between India and Pakistan illustrates that a conventional, limited conflict between two nuclear powers over a disputed territory is a distinct possibility – an example of the classic “stability-instability paradox.” Either way, the case for a Ukrainian deterrent falls flat.

Denuclearization was a near-necessity for state survival. It is unlikely that Ukraine could have retained its nuclear weapons arsenal in a world where it refused to bargain with Russia over their removal. This explains why Ukraine settled for a relatively toothless negative security assurance in exchange for the cost of transferring its nuclear arsenal – it would not have been able to keep them either way.

Please do read the whole thing. (H/T: Tyler Cowen.)



  1. […] the West has declared Putin has broken this agreement. In light of recent events, commentators have criticized Ukraine for dismantling its nuclear weapons, including Amazing Stories own Chris Nuttall, and have argued […]

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