The Myth of Ukraine's Nuclear Deterrent

Even if Ukraine still had nuclear weapons, it would not have prevented Russia from taking Crimea, argues Ramesh Thakur.
By: /
April 30, 2014
Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University

Some Ukrainian, Western and even Indian commentators have been quick to pronounce that if only Kiev had kept the substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons it inherited from the collapsed Soviet Union, instead of relinquishing them in 1994, it would not have lost Crimea. The nuclear arsenal weapons would have effectively deterred any Russian invasion. This is simplistic to the point of being simple-minded, for four reasons. All that a Ukrainian bomb would have done is to add yet another layer of extreme hazard to an already very volatile crisis.

An unlikely alternative

The bombs were not in fact Ukrainian, any more than NATO nuclear weapons stored on West European soil or U.S. bombs that used to be kept in South Korea belonged to the countries on whose territory they were located. They were always Russian bombs that happened to be based in Ukraine. Moscow retained complete command and control and Kiev never had access to the authorization codes necessary to launch them.

But for arguments sake let’s accept that Ukrainian scientists and engineers would have had the knowledge and skills to overcome the technical difficulties and acquired operational control over those nukes in due course. They would still have faced substantial legal and political difficulties. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognises only five legitimate nuclear weapon states: China, France, U.K.,  U.S., and U.S.S.R. Therefore, even as a successor state to the former Soviet Union, it is hard to see how Ukraine could have been accepted as a nuclear weapon state within the treaty.

Russia would not easily and willingly have surrendered its stockpile of nuclear weapons to a suddenly independent Ukraine. And their resistance would have been backed by the West, which certainly would have been in no mood to countenance the emergence of another nuclear power with a stockpile of 1,900 strategic and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons: bigger by several factor-folds than those of Britain, China, and France combined. In effect Ukraine would have struggled to survive as an international pariah state and the whole history of the region would have been so different that the deterrent claim for the events of 2014 simply cannot be constructed as a credible counter-factual narrative.

If Ukraine had emerged as a nuclear-armed state, the likelihood is that Moscow would have kept a tighter reign to ensure it stayed pro-Russian. In which case, it is more probable that Washington and its European allies would have exercised far more caution and not interfered in Ukraine’s internal affairs to overthrow the elected pro-Russian president through street mobs to install a pro-West government instead.

Even if Ukraine had the bomb and the same sequence of events happened, Russia could still have invaded the Crimea as an existential threat in its core security zone. The pull of history and geopolitics can trump the push of nuclear caution. Would Kiev really have risked its own existence and escalated to a nuclear war in response? Not only does this not make any strategic, political, or even common sense, we also have the example of Kargil in 1999, when the known fact of nuclear weapons on both sides of the border did not deter Pakistan from clandestinely capturing Kargil, nor India from launching a massive and successful conventional assault to retake it. To go even further back in time, despite knowing that Britain had the bomb, non-nuclear Argentina was not deterred from invading the Falkland Islands in 1982.


The Ukraine crisis is likely to damage the already enfeebled efforts to promote the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Russia has clearly broken the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 pledging to respect the territorial integrity and existing borders of Ukraine in return for the latter giving up the nukes. This will not reassure the 184 countries who have signed the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states on their security concerns.

Yet paradoxically, Russia is so weak today that if the U.S. and West had led the campaign for a denuclearized world and succeeded, they would have been in a commanding position to use conventional military superiority to compel Russia to withdraw or face defeat in a costly war.

Rumours of the death of the nuclear disarmament cause from Ukraine is much exaggerated.

A version of this post was first published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.