What prompted Ukraine to give up its nuclear arsenal?

(This story originally appeared in on Feb 26, 2022)NEW DELHI: The end of the Cold war saw Ukraine emerge as the third largest nuclear power of the time- thanks to the huge stockpile it inherited from the erstwhile Soviet Union.

About 5,000 nuclear arms, long-range missiles that carried up to 10 thermonuclear warheads in secret underground locations- Ukraine had it all. And then, under international agreements, the country agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal- the only country ever to do so.

After the Russian invasion, voices that had opposed de-nuclearisation are gaining traction.

“We gave away the capability for nothing,” Andriy Zahorodniuk, a former defense minister of Ukraine told The New York Times earlier this month.

So what were the circumstances that led to Ukraines de-nuclearisation?

According to some experts, the deterrent value of Ukraine’s nukes was questionable. Although Ukraine was in physical possession of the weapons, it had no operational control. Russia alone controlled the codes needed to operate the nuclear weapons, through electronic Permissive Action Links and the Russian command and control system.

For Ukraine, establishing opeartional control over the nucear weapons could have attracted adverse reactions from allies. That included possibilities like withdrawal of diplomatic recognition by US and Nato allies, and a probable retaliation by Russia. Besides, maintenance and safety of the arsenal would have been a huge burden on the struggling economy of new-born Ukraine.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a need was felt to secure the nuclear arsenals in the newly formed republics- Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

The US doled out the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, better known as the Nunn–Lugar Act in 1991 to mitigate the risk of nuclear weapons held in the Soviet republics falling into enemy hands.

CTR provided funding and expertise for states in the former Soviet Union (including Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan) to decommission nuclear, biological, and chemical weapon stockpiles.

These factors could have motivated Ukraine into signing the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, wherein in exchange for its nukes, Ukraine sought iron-clad security guarantees.

The Memorandum, signed by Russia, Ukraine, Britain and the US, promised that none of the nations would use force or threats against Ukraine and all would respect its sovereignty and existing borders. The agreement also vowed that, if aggression took place, the signatories would seek immediate action from the United Nations Security Council to aid Ukraine.

The memorandum also included security assurances against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

As a result, between 1994 and 1996, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine gave up their nuclear weapons. In May 1996, Ukraine saw the last of its nuclear arms transported back to Russia.

What undid the diplomatic feat was the “collective failure” of Washington and Kyiv to take into account the rise of someone like Vladimir Putin, Steven Pifer, a negotiator of the Budapest Memorandum and a former US ambassador to Ukraine now at Stanford University, said.

After Russian troops invaded Crimea in early 2014 and stepped up a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, Putin dismissed the Budapest accord as null and void.

In 1993, John J Mearsheimer, a prominent international relations theorist at the University of Chicago, argued that a nuclear arsenal was “imperative” if Ukraine was “to maintain peace.” The deterrent, he added, would ensure that the Russians, “who have a history of bad relations with Ukraine, do not move to reconquer it.”

Prophetic, perhaps- in light of the what’s unfolding now.

(With inputs from NYT)

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