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Would Russia have invaded Ukraine if Soviet nuclear weapons had remained on Ukrainian soil?

The war on Ukraine explained: Hear from our experts
Clara Guest

Research Assistant, Centre for Science and Security Studies, Department of War Studies, King's College London

29 March 2022

In response to Russia’s military invasion on 24 February, several Ukrainian MPs expressed regret that their country had given up Soviet nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurances from the Russian Federation, the United States and Britain in 1994.

Ukrainian MP Alexey Goncharenko commented:

“Ukraine is the only nation in the human history which gave up the nuclear arsenal, the third biggest in the world in 1994, with guarantees of the US, UK and Russian Federation. Where are these guarantees? Now we are bombed and killed”

The invasion of Ukraine has seen renewed discussion of whether the Soviet nuclear arsenal hosted on Ukrainian soil at the dissolution of the Soviet Union could have acted as a credible deterrent against future foreign aggression.

However, while the third-largest nuclear weapons stockpile was based on Ukrainian soil at the time of independence, it was not a capability Ukraine had ownership of or could have usefully maintained and utilised in the longer term. Therefore, it would not have made a credible nuclear deterrent.

Ukraine, Nuclear Weapons and the Collapse of the Soviet Union

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, nuclear weapons were stationed across newly independent post-Soviet states. Soviet missiles with nuclear warheads were stationed in modern-day Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Kazakh territories.

At the time of independence, Ukraine found herself with one-third of the Soviet nuclear stockpile, including an estimated 1,900 strategic warheads, 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and 44 strategic bombers. This was the third-largest nuclear stockpile in the world.

Unlike Belarus and Kazakhstan, who, after their independence, quickly returned their nuclear warheads to Russia in April 1992, many within Ukraine and abroad called for keeping them as insurance against future foreign aggression.

The Defence Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) noted that there was confusion over who “owned” the nuclear weapons. Most in the newly formed Ukrainian government considered Ukraine to be the rightful “owner”, whilst the Russian Federation proclaimed itself to be the Soviet Union’s nuclear successor.

Following extensive negotiations, Ukraine agreed to return the weapons to Russia in exchange for security assurances from Russia, the United States and Britain under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. The warheads were shipped back to Russia and the missiles were destroyed, with US financial assistance.

Under the Memorandum, signed on 5 December 1994, Ukraine exchanged nuclear weapons for pledges by the three powers “to respect the independence, sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and to refrain from the “threat or use of force” against the country. That year, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan joined the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as Non-Nuclear Weapons states.

Today, Russia has broken nearly all commitments made under the Memorandum. In 2014, it seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula and has supported separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine. On 21 February, Russia recognised the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent before launching its large-scale military invasion.

Particularly at a time when Ukraine faces such an existential threat by Russian military, a sentiment among many Ukrainians is that the decision to give up nuclear weapons was a mistake. The Budapest Memorandum was not legally binding and it fell short by containing security “assurances,” and not “guarantees.” Guarantees would have perhaps ensured a commitment of military force if the country was invaded.

Ukraine was in a strong negotiating position when it inherited the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. It may have been possible to secure more concrete and legally binding security guarantees. However, Ukraine was trying to balance a tricky path and she could equally have been pleading with others to help cover the costs to take the weapons away a few years later.

As such, a more appropriate question is: Even if it was politically and strategically desirable to keep the nuclear stockpile, would it have been technically possible?

ukranian nuclear

[Image of Russian Defence Minister Pavel Grachev, Ukrainian Defence Minister Valery Schmarov and US Defence Secretayr William Perry planting sunflowers at the former sire of a missile silo at Pervomaysk military base, Ukraine. Image Source: Department of Defense via AP]

Lack of Operational Control and Technical Expertise

Despite finding herself with thousands of nuclear weapons in 1991, Ukraine couldn’t launch the missiles or use the warheads for three reasons, which were exacerbated by the spiralling economic situation.

First, operational control to launch weapons remained in Russia. Moscow controlled the codes required to operate the weapons through electronic Permissive Action Links and the Russian command and control system. Recent research suggests that Ukraine may have found a way to establish independent control of the weapons, but many agree that this is unlikely.

An alternative would have been removing the warheads and taking them apart to repurpose the fissile material for new weapons. Yet this was probably too costly.

Second, even if Ukraine had managed to re-control the weapons, she did not possess the technical expertise or specialised facilities to maintain the warheads. Despite having some facilities to produce and maintain missiles, Ukraine lacked the material and technological base for the assembly and disassembly of warheads, let alone their reconfiguration.

Despite inheriting several military forces, the Rocket forces that formed the nuclear units based on Ukrainian territory came from Russia. The newly established Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) did not have experience of maintaining missiles or warheads.

Third, it is well-documented by Vitaly Katayev, former senior Soviet defence official, that the inherited nuclear components of the missiles were in a precarious condition. Most needed replacing and were close to the critical line in their length of service. The general permitted lifespan of the Soviet warheads was twelve years. The warheads in Ukraine were eight years old.

Ukraine was already left with the enormous financial burden of reducing and restructuring the Soviet military personnel, equipment, and infrastructure on their territory. The government did not have the funds to maintain an independent nuclear programme or sustain the remaining rocket forces needed for the maintenance and production of nuclear warheads.

Despite hosting one of the largest nuclear weapons arsenals in the world at the time of independence, Ukraine would never have been able to maintain its nuclear weapons and facilities or manufacture and produce new components. Lack of operation control of the weapons would have made a nuclear arsenal redundant.

What we can be sure of, however, is that the pledges by Russia, the US, the UK under the Budapest Memorandum have again been broken. The real loss therefore does not lie in having given up the nuclear weapons in 1994 but in the missed opportunity to receive concrete security guarantees, including a commitment to protect Ukrainian skies in times of war. This also might have helped set the path for Ukraine to choose its own direction as a country, be it closer to NATO, Europe or the Russian Federation.

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