Lessons from Ukraine’s decision to give up nuclear weapons

Mariana Budjeryn and Polina Sinovets have an interesting look on Ukraine’s decision to give up their nuclear weapons in War on the Rocks.

The Soviet nuclear arsenal was distributed among Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus and Kazakhstan quickly agreed to hand over their nuclear weapons to Russia, and after some hesitation Ukraine followed suit in 1994. This makes Ukraine an example of a successful nonproliferation effort, as in the end only one nuclear state emerged from the Soviet collapse.

Budjeryn and Sinovets identify three insights from Ukraine’s denuclearization that may be relevant in today’s nonproliferation debates.

  1. Don’t focus too much on supply-side drivers for nuclear acquisition: Ukraine inherited some nuclear weapons, but they were tied into the old Soviet command system, and it would take some work to develop an independent nuclear capability. Ukraine also inherited substantial know-how and the military-industrial capacity to complete such a project, but there just wasn’t the political will to choose to do so.
  2. Nuclear weapons are nice, but a good reputation is better: Ukraine aspired to become a part of the Western-led international order. If they had insisted on building a nuclear capacity, they would undoubtedly have been subject to sanctions and international isolation which would have been counterproductive to the country’s desire to become a liberal democracy. The lesson is that states not only relinquish nuclear weapons because they want to get or avoid something, but also because they want to become a certain kind of state. So if we want nonproliferation, we should not forget to encourage those voices in potential nuclear states who see the benefits of joining the international community.
  3. Not everyone thinks about nuclear weapons as a deterrent: Analysts in both America and Russia often become prisoners of the concepts and modes of thinking that are familiar to them. But traditional deterrence theory has difficulty explaining why anybody would renounce a nuclear option. For Ukraine’s leadership, the nuclear weapons were rather seen as an entitlement to a fair deal than as a deterrence. The military-industrial lobby focused on keeping the production lines busy, but it didn’t matter much whether the missiles were nuclear or conventional. And the military thinking in Ukraine did not support the idea of nuclear deterrence as a credible road ahead. Instead of focusing on nuclear weapons as a possible insurance against a conflict with Russia, the Ukrainian leadership saw nuclear weapons as inapplicable in those kinds of conflict that could arise.

Finally, Budjeryn and Sinovets conclude that future nonproliferation deals will be much more expensive than with Ukraine. For any prospective nuclear state, it is hard to look at Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas as anything but a violation of the security commitments that were pledged to Ukraine in exchange for denuclearization. So it must be expected that future deals will come at a higher cost and will require much more robust security commitments.




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