The Ukraine Example: Nuclear Disarmament Doesn’t Pay

Not everyone in Europe agrees with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent description of Russia’s annexation of Crimea as “criminal.” Across the EU, Kremlin lobbyists, America-haters, and those the Germans call Putinversteher (“Putin-understanders”) disseminate justifications and apologies for Russia’s absorption of the Black Sea peninsula and its hybrid war in the Donets Basin, also known as the Donbas. Such “explanations” partly succeed because most citizens of the West are, in fact, not particularly interested in Crimea, the Donbas, or Ukraine as a whole. First and foremost, EU citizens want calm. International law is not national legislation. Ukraine’s problems ultimately belong to the Ukrainians.

Yet, if the injustices of Vladimir Putin’s slow-motion assault on Ukraine leave them somewhat cold, there is one dimension of the conflict that should bring the “crisis” home to Europeans: the concrete, written commitments made by Russia and other UN Security Council member states in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine inherited the world’s third-largest arsenal of nuclear warheads when it gained its independence in 1991. Most of the nuclear weapons left behind by the Soviet regime in Ukraine, to be sure, were not deployable, since the launch codes remained in Moscow and Ukraine had no technology to guide its inherited rockets. But in theory Kyiv could have reset the fire-control systems, and built or acquired necessary additional technology to make its nuclear arsenal at least partially operational. In 1991, the Ukrainian armed forces possessed numerous intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range bombers and their payloads, as well as additional nuclear warheads—according to estimates by the US Natural Resources Defense Council, a total of 4,025 units, or 15 percent of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal. At this point, in other words, Ukraine had far more atomic weapons than the United Kingdom, France, and China combined. Even if Ukraine had retained and made operational only a fraction of these weapons, today it would be a much-feared nuclear power.

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Yet it didn’t. Under diplomatic pressure from Moscow and Washington, Ukraine turned over all of its nuclear weapons to Russia after signing the Lisbon Protocol in 1992, which obligated ex-Soviet countries to surrender their arsenals. But it didn’t turn them over immediately. In Kyiv, there was already then suspicion that the northeastern neighbor could one day seek to exploit the defenselessness of “Little Russia,” as Russian nationalists often refer to Ukraine. After delaying the protocol’s ratification for several months, Ukraine was assured of its territorial integrity, national borders, and political sovereignty by all five permanent members of the Security Council in December 1994, at a summit in Budapest for the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). Three of the five (Russia, the US, and the UK) did so in a multilateral document signed with Ukraine; two (China and France) issued unilateral declarations of their governments. The five countries’ assurances, as well as promises of help against future foreign political and economic pressure in the Budapest Memorandum, convinced Ukraine to relinquish its remaining weapons of mass destruction.

Moscow has now not only trampled the 1994 memorandum and numerous other multilateral agreements on the inviolability of European borders, but flagrantly breached a number of bilateral agreements between Moscow and Kyiv. In the case of Crimea, it went so far as officially declaring an annexation and executing it by military force—a type of violent border-shift that has become rare since 1945.

The consequences Russia has faced for these actions have been limited. The West remains, even after introduction of its much-praised sanctions, Russia’s most important trade and investment partner. Many EU countries, above all Germany, continue to purchase enormous amounts of Siberian oil, the hefty export duties of which pour into the Russian state budget every month. (Natural gas plays a much smaller fiscal role). With the Russian economy and state budget structurally dependent on oil, the so far undiminished energy imports from Russia have made the EU an involuntary and indirect, but significant financial co-sponsor of Moscow’s foreign policy adventures in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Syria. The situation appears even more curious in light of the fact that oil is fungible. EU countries could, without substantial difficulty, replace most imports from Russia through contracts with other oil exporters. However, the EU (including the UK and France as official parties to the 1994 Budapest deal, which they seem to have forgotten about) has not taken this step because of a mundane combination of obliviousness and venality.


All of this could continue to remain irrelevant to Western citizens, if not for the NPT. Twenty years after Ukraine signed the treaty, one of its recognized nuclear weapon state ratifiers violated almost every point of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, annexing a prime piece of Ukrainian state territory by military force, and prosecuting a hybrid yet bloody war in eastern Ukraine that has so far resulted in thousands dead, tens of thousands injured and traumatized, as well as hundreds of thousands of refugees. At the same time, Russia is waging a concerted trade, cyber, and information war against Ukraine, using large-scale military exercises on the border to poison the economic and investment climate in its “brother country.”

So far the international community has punished Russia with only moderate export and individual sanctions, while the other BRICS countries have since actually courted rather than condemned the Kremlin. Ukraine is receiving significant Western political and economic assistance, but up to this point little direct and official military support. Many observers see a permanently frozen conflict in the Donbas as the most likely ultimate outcome, although the Ukrainian state would thus lose additional territory the five powers assured in 1994 would remain inviolable. National insolvency looms for rump-Ukraine. In the worst case, the Ukrainian state could altogether collapse.

The NPT seems to be in as much jeopardy as Ukrainian territory as a result of Russian aggression. In the case at hand, three atomic Security Council members grant a disarming country explicit and written security assurances in exchange for dismantling its nuclear weapons. One of these great powers, however, 20 years later unilaterally declares them invalid while the others react with pathetic declarations and minor sanctions. Looking at the fate of Ukraine, what country without nuclear weapons or no close alliance with a nuclear power can now be assured of the inviolability of its borders? If a member of the Security Council is allowed to expand into the territory of a neighboring country, then the international nonproliferation regime becomes hollow, little more than a vehicle for the official atomic powers to advance their own agendas.

Moreover, a key reason for the West’s lack of military support for Ukraine lies in Russia’s overkill capacity and the fear of a third world war acutely felt by many Europeans. This means that implementation of the nonproliferation regime has, in the Ukrainian case, caused the opposite of its intended aim. Nonproliferation stipulations specified in the NPT and the special privileges Russia enjoys as an official nuclear weapon state ratifier combine to become instruments of a coldly calculated utilization of weapons of mass destruction to achieve an illegal military occupation and secure a scandalous territorial expansion.

As a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its “hybrid war” in the Donbas, the present-day nonproliferation regime, with its exceptional treatment of the permanent Security Council members, could in the future, paradoxically, encourage rather than stem the construction or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

These grave consequences seem to have been lost in the shuffle of opportunistic cynicism that has marked much of the great powers’ responses to Russian aggression. For example, in July 2015, a group of 10 French parliamentarians, most belonging to the Republicans party of former and possible future president Nicolas Sarkozy, visited occupied Crimea. By doing so, they were violating, at least, the spirit of the Western sanctions regime against Russia’s annexation of the peninsula, causing jubilation in Moscow. The official visit by these French right-wing politicians to Simferopol spit in the face of the “Statement by France on the Accession of Ukraine to the NPT” issued on December 5, 1994, by France’s center-right Balladur government (including then Minister of Budget Sarkozy). In this official document, handed to Kyiv in connection with Ukraine’s renunciation of its atomic weapons,

France reasserts its commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine in its current borders, in agreement with the principles of the final Helsinki Act and the Paris Charter for a New Europe. France reminds its attachment to the principles of the CSCE according to which borders cannot only be modified through peaceful means and mutual agreement, and the participating States refrain from using threats or force either against the territorial integrity or the political independence of a State, or through any other means incompatible with the goals of the United Nations.

Worse, China is amplifying the corrosion of the international security system in what amounts to a Euro-Asian side game it has played since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis. Beijing has avoided taking a clear position on Russia’s conduct, and abstained from the spring 2014 UN General Assembly vote condemning the annexation of Crimea. Behind the scenes, the Chinese are trying to extract the greatest possible political and economic benefit from the discord between Moscow and the West. Beijing purposefully ignores the fact that Ukraine possessed nuclear potential that exceeded China’s arsenal many times over when it was handed a Chinese governmental declaration in support of Ukrainian territorial integrity and political sovereignty, similar to the French one, in December 1994. China, as a powerful Security Council member, has thus strengthened the perception that the NPT will be ignored by the official atomic powers when it comes to asserting their national interests at the expense of non-nuclear states. 

If Ukraine, briefly the world’s third-largest atomic power, can be handled in this manner after naively giving up its large post-Soviet nuclear arsenal, what kind of support, in a crisis situation, can non-nuclear states expect, states that cannot even point to security assurances like those given to Kyiv by Russia, the US, Great Britain, France, and China in December 1994? When supposed guarantors of the international nonproliferation regime so dramatically turn their backs on the inviolability of borders, the message to all current and future national leaders is clear: Your own atomic deterrent is the only effective instrument for ensuring your country’s full sovereignty.

Andreas Umland is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, in Kyiv, and general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society,” published by ibidem Press in Stuttgart. This article was translated from German by Andrew Kinder.



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