Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Why Ukraine gave up inherited nuclear weapons?


The ongoing Russian war against Ukraine rekindled the debate about Ukraine’s nuclear arsenals it inherited post-Soviet Union collapse. Pundits and policy experts debated whether Ukraine’s decision to give up its nuclear weapons is bad, and holding onto them could have protected it from Russian aggression. Ukraine’s decision to give up its nuclear weapons is driven by a combination of several factors that are superficially discussed in the debates. 

Newly formed Ukraine state inherited 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 1240 strategic nuclear weapons, around 3000 tactical nuclear weapons and several dozen nuclear-capable strategic bombers loaded with missiles. The fleet of nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities that existed in the territorial boundaries of Ukraine made it the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal country. Contrary to majority perception, Ukraine never had operational control over the nuclear arsenal exited in its territory. They are controlled by Moscow and protected by the Soviet rocket forces. Also, Ukraine’s intention of obtaining operational control over nuclear weapons was threatened by Russia with military action. Gradually, over the course of several years, Ukraine transferred all nuclear weapons in the country to Russia for dismantling. All the ICBMs, launch sites, and silos were destroyed with the support of millions of dollars received through the US’s Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. The United States had a deep concern about nuclear weapons security in newly emerged Independent Soviet Countries. It persuaded newly formed countries to give up nuclear weapons in return for economic assistance to rebuild the country. Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan received security assurances (no use of military or economic coercion) from the Russian Federation, the US and the UK under the Budapest Memorandum signed in 1994 for returning their nuclear weapons.

    Going by the arguments of many, Ukraine holding onto nuclear weapons would outweigh the benefits it would receive by giving it up in 1991 for the following reasons. Ukraine's inherited nuclear infrastructure, talent pool and weapons require constant maintenance, and it costs millions of dollars which it can not afford. Russian Federation emerged as inheritor of the Soviet Union showed a willingness to use coercion to recover nuclear weapons from newly emerged states. Further, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan strongly needed western nations' economic and political support to build the country and attain international recognization. The decisions taken by the Ukraine government in 1991 were based on the political, economic, and social situations of that time. No one has foreseen the war with Russia or the geopolitical dynamics that led to the current state of affairs in 1991 to alter their decision. Instead of scrutinising the merits of the past decisions, the international community should persuade Russia and Ukraine to find a diplomatic resolution to end the war. Also, should step up efforts to strengthen the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture. 

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