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How Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and why it can't restore it

Mariana Budjeryn is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the International Security Program and Project on Managing the Atom. at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University. She is currently working on a book on nuclear disarmament of Ukraine, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mariana previously held fellowships at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University (2018-2019) and International Security Program and Project on Managing the Atom (2016-2018). Mariana earned her Ph.D. in Political Science from Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.

1. You are currently working on a book on nuclear disarmament of Ukraine, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Could you share with us 2-3 key points you touch upon in your book and tell us when will it be released?

My book is about the history and politics of Ukraine's nuclear disarmament following the collapse of the Soviet Union. I am still finalizing the manuscript, but a couple of chapters are currently under review with an academic press. If all goes well, I am hoping the book will be out by the end of 2020. Ukraine's nuclear disarmament is a pertinent topic, especially after the Russian invasion in 2014. There are a lot of claims and speculations about why Ukraine disarmed and whether it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, many of the claims we hear today are poorly informed. My goal is to reconstruct the events, facts, and debates about Ukraine's nuclear inheritance based on archival materials from Ukraine, the United States, Russia, and other post-Soviet states and interviews of direct participants of these events. Hopefully, such an account would make for better-informed discussions and evaluations of Ukraine's nuclear disarmament.

2. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from Russia and the West. Do you think it was the right thing to do considering Russia's annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine? Did Ukraine give up its nuclear arsenal because of the "Chernobyl mood" or something else?

The reasons for Ukraine's decision to become a non-nuclear state were many-fold. Indeed, the Chernobyl syndrome played an important role in the early consideration of the nuclear issue, especially in the lead up to the July 1990 Declaration of Sovereignty, where Ukraine declared its intention to become a neutral and nuclear-free state. But it was not the only consideration. Ukraine played a significant role in Soviet military planning and production. Not accidentally Moscow deployed what amounted to world's third-largest nuclear arsenal on Ukraine's territory, including some of the newest intercontinental missiles (SS-24s) and bombers (Tu-160) that were not even deployed in Russia yet.

The Soviet military establishment, however, was very secretive and very centralized, especially when it came to nuclear forces. Before Ukraine's independence, the republican leaders did not even know what armaments were deployed and were in their republic. Ukraine's democratic opposition, including Rukh leaders, understood that and believed that without cutting military ties to Moscow, Ukraine could not be fully independent. That's why Ukraine's early nuclear policy was to reject nuclear weapons that were viewed as one of the chains that held Ukraine tied to Moscow.

Things changed after the coup of August 1991, after the Soviet Union disintegrated and as Ukraine began negotiating its relationship with Moscow, now the capital not of the USSR, but newly independent Russia. Very soon Ukrainian leaders understood that the "new" Russia, despite President Yeltsin's promises to be "equal among equals," did not forsake ambitions of dominating the post-Soviet realm and did not fully come to terms with the concept of Ukraine's independence. Disputes erupted over Crimea, over the division of the Black Sea Fleet, over the fate of Strategic Nuclear Forces on Ukraine's territory. Ukraine's perception of threat from Russia grew, and its position on nuclear arms became more nuanced.

However, neither the official Ukrainian position nor the discussions behind the closed doors reconsidered the course toward full nuclear disarmament. There were formidable impediments for Ukraine to keep nuclear weapons and become a nuclear state. One was technological and economical: even though Ukraine inherited a generous technical, scientific and industrial base, it was missing key pieces of a full nuclear fuel cycle, such as uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing facilities and warhead production. While building this capacity was possible within 5-7 years, it would take money, investment. Those of us who remember what Ukraine's economy was like in 1992-1995, will understand that expecting that the Ukrainian government had no resources to commit to a nuclear program at that time. The other impediment would have been the reaction of the international community, which would have been negative, to say the least. Beyond the economic and political costs of international backlash, it was Ukraine's own desire to join the international community on good terms, as an aspiring European democracy, that made it renounce nuclear ambitions.

Therefore, the question was not whether Ukraine would disarm given the Russian threat, but how Ukraine would disarm. There was much speculation about that at the time in the international press that accused Ukraine of 'backtracking' on its earlier commitments to denuclearize, of 'haggling,' of using nuclear weapons as 'bargaining chips.' Russia, of course, fueled much of this discourse. But all Ukraine wanted was to negotiate a fair deal, which is not crazy, this is what states do when they pursue their national interests. One issue was financial compensation for fissile material – highly enriched uranium and plutonium – that was contained in nuclear warheads. After a tough negotiation with the United States and Russia, Ukraine did succeed in getting the compensation for the fissile material in the form of fuel assemblies for Ukrainian nuclear power stations.

Another issue was security guarantees. Contra allegations made today, Ukraine's diplomats negotiated hard to obtain legally binding, robust security guarantees from the United States. But that was a challenging task. The United States refused to extend Ukraine the kind of security guarantee that it extends to its NATO allies, for instance, that would mean that an attack on Ukraine would be treated as an attack on the United States. It is certainly not surprising. Let's not forget, we are talking about 1992-1994, Ukraine is a very young state, in a very difficult economic shape, with the majority of elites still consisting of old communists. Not even the Visegrad countries, not to mention the Baltics, would get proper US security guarantees, as NATO allies, until much later.

Ukrainian negotiators tried to obtain US security guarantees in a legally binding treaty, but that, too, proved untenable because it would involve going to Congress for ratification and both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations wanted to avoid that at all costs for their internal political reasons. And so what was obtained in the end was not security guarantees, as the Ukrainian and Russian translation holds, but security assurances, a somewhat weaker commitment, and not in a legally-binding treaty but in a memorandum of understanding. This is what we now know as the Budapest Memorandum, signed by Russia, the United States, United Kingdom, and Ukraine on December 5, 1994.

In hindsight, Ukrainian leaders proved right to have been concerned about Russian aggression. In retrospect, too, security assurances in the Budapest Memorandum did not prove robust enough to prevent Russian aggression. At the same time, I disagree with those who say that the Memorandum is a worthless piece of paper. The Budapest Memorandum is a unique document as no other country joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) with such an attending document. It is an inalienable part of the international nonproliferation regime now.

The Memorandum is also a record of the recognition by the United States and the United Kingdom that Ukraine's security concerns would be in the realm of their security concern, too. Even legally-binding international treaties are violated, and obligations under them are subject to interpretation. It is up to the Ukrainian government to continue bringing up the subject of the Memorandum, in bilateral negotiations, as well as in international fora, to impress upon the signatories its importance, and to negotiate for greater assistance from the United States and the United Kingdom to counter Russian aggression.

3. For some time, there have been calls among some Ukrainian politicians to restore our nuclear arsenal considering the failure of security assurances provided by the Budapest memorandum. Do you think there is some rationale behind such arguments? Is there is a possibility for restoration of the nuclear arsenal in Ukraine, taking into account that it inherited strong scientific, technological, and industrial capacity?

Ukrainian politicians are right to be upset about the violation of security commitments under the Budapest Memorandum. Indeed, Ukrainian parliamentarians, when voting to accede to the NPT as the non-nuclear-weapons state on November 1994, included a clause that reserved Ukraine's right to withdraw from the NPT should its supreme national interests be jeopardized. The breach of territorial integrity certainly qualifies as jeopardizing supreme national interest.

However, 'restoring' Ukraine's nuclear arsenal is not the solution. Ukraine would have to face the same obstacles to going nuclear as it did in the early 1990s. To begin with, while Ukraine probably still possesses enough technical and scientific expertise to launch a nuclear weapons program, it lacks a nuclear test site which would make developing nuclear weapons more difficult. In addition, a nuclear weapons program would take considerable investment, diverting funds from conventional armaments badly needed on the front lines of the Donbas.

It would also encounter a staunch international opposition, most notably from the United States. Nuclear nonproliferation has been a priority of the US foreign policy for decades. The United States endeavored to prevent not only potential adversaries such as Iraq, Libya, Iran, and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, but also its allies and strategic partners – West Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. It would not make an exception for Ukraine.

So those who advocate a Ukrainian nuclear weapons program should consider whether Ukraine could bear its direct and indirect costs. Ukraine would most certainly lose any Western aid and military assistance and would fall under sanctions like Iran and North Korea do today. All the while, while Ukraine is developing a nuclear program, it would have to guard against sabotage, special operations, and even open military action against its nuclear installations from Russia. In short, any discussion of starting a nuclear weapons program in Ukraine is an exceedingly bad idea.

4. How would the relations between Ukraine and the West and Russia unfold if Ukraine decided to keep the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Where would Ukraine be today?

Had Ukraine decided to keep nuclear weapons in the early 1990s, it would first have to wrest operational control over these weapons from Moscow. Technologically, Ukrainian engineers from Dnipro and Kharkiv would have been able to do so reasonably quickly. Since the missiles in Ukraine were targeting the United States, Ukraine would need to retarget them on Russia, something that technologically would be more challenging. It would have needed to invest in space-based components to design its guidance and targeting system. Once it accomplished that, it would realize that the ranges of its missiles, 8,000-10,000 km are not useful for deterring Russia, since many of the key assets on its European territory would require shorter ranges. So Ukraine would have to design a new missile with a shorter range and come in violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that prohibited missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 km. It is safe to assume that while Ukraine was doing all that, Russia would not have been sitting quietly and observing, but would mobilize 'active measures' at the very least, if not a military intervention to prevent Ukraine from going nuclear.

The West would have designated Ukraine as a pariah state and put it under a stringent sanctions regime. No IMF and World Bank funds would have been available to stabilize Ukraine's economy and introduce the hryvnya in 1996. There would have been hardly any foreign investment in the country. Ukraine would have been in very poor shape indeed.

5. Is it true that Ukraine spent much more money on disarmament of nuclear arsenal than $750M that the United States allocated to our country within the so-called program of free financial assistance for the elimination of nuclear weapons?

The United States extended technical assistance for transportation of nuclear warheads, dismantling missile and silos, cutting up aircraft, and even building housing for some of the retired missileers. The total value of that assistance is around $750 million, the lion's share of which went to US contractors that came to carry out demolition works. I don't have the precise numbers for what the Ukrainian government spent on disarmament. What is essential to keep in mind is that there were many indirect costs of denuclearization. Many people were left without work, including at the Yuzhnoie design bureau and Yuzhmash missile plant in Dnipro, which at the time of Soviet collapse was the world's largest missile factory, employing close to 60,000 people. There were also some 20,000 troops of the 43rd Strategic Missile Army, who worked very hard under very difficult conditions, often on 12-hour shifts to fulfill the dismantlement schedules in a safe and timely manner, handling nuclear warheads and toxic fuel, often to the detriment of their health. All the while, they were working themselves out of a job, and the Army was eventually disbanded in 2002. Today, the country forgot them, but they are the real heroes of this story.