What if Ukraine still had nuclear weapons?
Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a fallacious (and irresponsible) editorial, in which it claimed that “[o]ne lesson to the world of Russia’s cost-free carve-up of Ukraine is that nations that abandon their nuclear arsenals do so at their own peril.” While not exactly claiming that rampant global proliferation would make the world a more secure place, the idea that certain countries depend for their security upon either their own or someone else’s ability to annihilate the world is presented without a hint of irony.
The only way in which the conflict between Ukraine and Russia would be different had Ukraine kept possession of the nuclear weapons on its soil after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is that two nuclear-armed states would now be testing each other’s willingness to do the unthinkable in the midst of political crisis. The claim that deterrence works and that, therefore, Ukraine would be more secure with nuclear weapons is unsupportable on its face. First, there is no proof that deterrence works or ever has worked, only that it has not yet failed (read Ward Wilson’s book for the whole explanation). Anyone who believes that deterrence cannot fail—that it will work 100 percent of the time—is living in a fantasy world. One need only recall the Cuban missile crisis, where plain dumb luck had far more to do with averting catastrophe than any rational decision making (of which there was precious little).
If more States acquire nuclear weapons, we will simply come closer to the day when deterrence fails and nuclear weapons are used. Most countries came to this unavoidable conclusion decades ago, which is why we have the Non-Proliferation Treaty and are so anxious to maintain its integrity until we can rid the world of nuclear weapons entirely. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan understood this in the 1990s, and made the right decision for that time and for all time.
The recent humanitarian initiative emerging from the Oslo and Nayarit conferences is based on the evidence that nuclear weapons themselves are the problem, regardless of who possesses them, and that the only sure way to prevent their use is to delegitimize and eliminate them. The humanitarian perspective—seeing nuclear weapons for what they are and what they do—trumps all claims for their political utility, which always boils down to a gamble that threatening to use them will cause an adversary to back down. In the current crisis, that really would be a game of Russian roulette that no one should be playing.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Ukraine had kept the 1,500 strategic nuclear weapons that remained behind when the Soviet Union broke apart. Would that have made the long-standing differences in the region any less problematic? Would Russia be any less inclined to flex its muscles in a region where it has major political and economic roots and ambitions? Would Ukraine’s evolving relationship with Europe—particularly the NATO States—have been any less complicated or provocative to Russia? No, no, and no. What we would have are two nuclear-armed States, one of which—probably Ukraine—would now have to decide where the red line is that would force a decision on whether to use those weapons. As that point was reached, one of two things would happen. Either Ukraine would decide not to use nuclear weapons regardless of any Russian intervention, meaning they had been useless as instruments of security all along; or they would use them, with intolerable consequences for themselves, for millions of Russians, and for the rest of the world.
The inevitability of those consequences—not security—is what comes with the possession of nuclear weapons, and that’s why we can’t waste another day in starting a process to ban and eliminate them. That process would move a lot faster if we would disabuse ourselves of the notion that deterrence is anything more than a foolhardy gamble with the highest possible stakes.