The unprovoked and brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine has got people talking about nuclear weapons more than ever since the end of the Cold War. This subject is once again a hot topic due to President Putin’s order that Russia’s nuclear arsenal on “special combat readiness” after his invasion of Ukraine wasn’t going to plan. Every person living on planet earth should hope and pray that Putin is just bluffing, trying to satisfy his daily need to remind everyone how big and strong he is. The short- and long-term consequences of Putin’s unhinged and dangerous actions are still unknown. But it is clear that nuclear weapons and their absence are an important aspect of this conflict.
At the end of the Cold War, Ukraine had the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons arsenal, totaling 1,900 warheads. Only the US and Russia had a greater number. Of course, today, Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal is non-existent due to an agreement signed in 1994. Russia agreed in the Budapest Memorandum to never attack the sovereignty of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan in exchange for giving up their nuclear weapons. The US and other western countries favored this deal since there was concern that the weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists if not appropriately protected. President Clinton and other leaders probably never imagined that there would one day be a war criminal sitting in the Kremlin in the 21st century.
There is a strong argument that if Ukraine had maintained its nuclear arsenal, Putin might have thought twice about the invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the assault that has occurred over the past week. The decades of the Cold War of course passed without direct conflict between the nuclear-armed US and nuclear-armed Russia. It is easy to sit back in 2022 and second guess the decision made in 1994 to give up Ukraine’s nuclear weapons. In 1994, the West was full of hope that Russia would become a flourishing democracy, even taking the step of allowing them to join the G7. When he was with Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin looked like he was with his political soul mate. Now 30 years later, it seems naïve and unimaginable to happen today. The overriding point is that this situation is completely Vladimir Putin’s doing since he could have abided by the Budapest Memorandum and been a constructive member of the global community. Unfortunately for the world, particularly Ukraine, Putin has taken a different path.