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Ukraine and nuclear weapons

September 11, 2014

Ukraine is going to make nuclear weapons. You’ll see. There is strong support in the parliament. All the intercontinental missiles in the Soviet Union were made in Ukraine, and there are at least 25 of them left. And we have uranium. And we have the know-how. Just wait, you’ll see”

So said a prior officer in the Ukrainian army whom I met a week ago. This prediction, that Ukraine is going to make nukes, can also be found in some western news media.

Fortunately, this is not going to happen.

There is no weapons-grade uranium in the country. To produce a sufficient amount of high-grade uranium, thousands of centrifuges for enrichment are needed. Only Pakistan could sell them, as it did in Iran, but both the USA and Russia will stop this trade. Ukraine could conceivably make these centrifuges itself, but it cannot be done in secret and production would take many years. Russia and the USA would never allow this.

A Soviet nuclear missile in its silo in Ukraine, which returned all nuclear weapons based on its territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A Soviet nuclear missile in its silo in Ukraine, which returned all nuclear weapons based on its territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1990, Ukraine had 1,900 intercontinental missiles and 2,500 ”substrategic” nuclear weapons. For a few years, Ukraine held the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. In the Budapest treaty of 1994, Ukraine pledged to send all its nukes to Russia, and in return was given a guarantee that its territory would not be infringed. The weapons were either transported out or were destroyed in a rare instance of cooperation between Russia and the USA. Washington also paid more than half a billion dollars to Ukraine in compensation. The last nuclear weapons left in 1996. Some weapons-grade uranium, about 90 kg, was left behind but was transported to Russia by 2012.

What if Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons?

If nuclear weapons had remained in Ukraine, this would not have stopped Russia from taking over Crimea. Russia has some very important naval bases there. The majority of the population in the province desired reunification with Russia. Ukraine would not have used nukes against Russia in order to defend its possession of Crimea. In the situation today, when separatists and Russian soldiers fight against the government forces in eastern Ukraine, nuclear weapons would have been useless. Where could they be used? And what would the Russian response be?

Conclusion: Nuclear weapons are militarily useless.

But: IF Ukraine had possessed nuclear weapons, would NATO then have invited the country as a member—or into some kind of association—as is discussed today? Probably not. The provocation against Russia would have been too strong.

But: IF there had been nuclear weapons in Ukraine, how would we feel today, remembering that a civilian passenger plane has been shot down by some idiot operating from Ukrainian territory, with access to advanced missiles? Would this idiot also have had access to missiles carrying nuclear charges?

Conclusion: Nuclear weapons are too dangerous to be allowed to exist. Anywhere.

  1. September 13, 2014 11:28 pm

    The assumption that a nuclear armed Ukraine would have been invaded and territory taken is speculative. What is not speculative is that the deal to give up nuclear weapons has shown to be a worthless piece of paper. To all future leaders who will have the opportunity to acquire and hold such weapons, the lesson is clear, the paper agreement is worthless, the weapons may have some value. Nuclear non-proliferation is a dead duck. The US and Britain have shown the worth of such agreements. By the middle of this century, there will be dozens of countries with the financial and technical capability to be nuclear armed in short time periods. What has happened to Ukraine will be the primary reason to arm, the result will be “small” nuclear confrontations. This scenario is well understood by the nuclear non-proliferation experts. Equally understood is the meaningless paper commitment of the US and Britain. Who will provide the guarantees to not arm; perhaps Russia and China?

  2. September 11, 2014 8:22 pm

    Quite interesting. I’ve been saying for a long time that in addition to being morally reprehensible, nuclear weapons are just plain obsolete. The reality of war has changed significantly. Yes, there are still armies organized by governments. But increasingly, conflicts are carried out by groups that carry no recognized government flag. I have to believe that the nuclear weapons states, even in their worst moments, would find it inconceivable to use nuclear weapons against these groups. So it makes no tactical sense to keep them. (And that’s in addition to the multitude of health problems they create.)

  3. September 11, 2014 4:21 pm

    Thoughtful as always Gunnar, but also quite scaring.

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