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Relinquishing the Third Largest Nuclear Arsenal in the World: What Ukraine Teaches about Nuclear Proliferation

After the dismantlement of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly-formed state of Ukraine was “born nuclear” by inheriting about 4,000 of Moscow’s nuclear weapons, granting it the third largest arsenal in the world. Yet, in 1994, Ukraine committed to full disarmament.

This was originally published on UCLA’s foreign affairs magazine, The Generation.

The nuclear proliferation puzzle has long been thought of in relation to national security: states will build the bomb when they are placed in a significant military threat to which all other alternatives fail to suffice. Yet, Ukraine provides a counterfactual to security considerations by disinheriting one of the most powerful arsenals in the world amid military threats.

After the dismantlement of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly-formed state of Ukraine was “born nuclear” by inheriting about 4,000 of Moscow’s nuclear weapons, granting it the third largest arsenal in the world. This included some of the most technically-advanced weapons of the time: long-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and strategic bombers. Yet, in 1994, Ukraine committed to full disarmament. 

The history of disarmament in Ukraine can be reinterpreted to explain why states, or more currently terrorist organizations, seek to develop nuclear weapons. This explanation is tied to long-term international security objectives and current foreign policy efforts to dismantle nuclear weapons entirely. This article will better explain the path to nuclear achievement and challenge conventional ideas of why states build the bomb by illuminating multiple causalities in that process.

Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security, Scott Sagan, believes states build the bomb for three reasons. He refers to the first as the “security model,” which alerts us to states seeking nuclear capabilities when they face a significant military threat. This is the case with North Korea, whose nuclear accumulation is most considerably a reaction to America’s long desire to overthrow the Kim regime. There is little quarrel against the security model as the best explanation to many past and present nuclear buildups: the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Israel, and Pakistan almost immediately acquired nuclear weapons after facing security threats. Yet, the delay between security stimuli and nuclear buildup in some cases points to a flaw in reasoning that states build their arsenal simply for national security. India, for example, developed their arsenal nearly a decade after China had, and as Ukraine will exemplify, security threats alone are not always enough to motivate the creation of a nuclear arsenal.

The second “domestic model” is a street-light perspective on nuclear weapons. This invisions nukes as a political tool for credibility; for example, despite conventional perceptions that India built their arsenal in response to China becoming nuclear in 1964, Prime Minister Indira Ganhi instead reacted to domestic pressure to commence a nuclear program. An act of nuclear proliferation can divert turbulence within a state to gain public support. In this sense, bureaucratic actors created conditions that promoted the acquisition of nuclear weapons through bottom-up activity that propagated extreme views on foreign threats while lobbying for political favorability. The case of PM Ganhi shows her motivation for creating India’s nuclear arsenal stemmed from its conference of legitimacy and national prestige.

The last point is the “norms model.” Simply put, if nuclear weapons adhere to a state’s identity, that state will likely want to build an arsenal, given it has the capacity to do so. For example, France emerged from World War Two significantly weakened, and thus vigorously explored ways to reestablish their strength. The best path was through nuclear weapons, and once created, France paraded their arsenal vibrantly on the global stage. Today, quite literally, entire parades dedicated to displaying nuclear weapons in Pakistan, North Korea, and India exemplifies the close relationship that nuclear weapons have with nationalism and identity. On the opposite spectrum, if nuclear weapons defy a state’s image, nuclear arsenals will be avoided, as is the case with Canada.

Let’s suppose these reasons as to why states build nuclear weapons can be reinterpreted into why they don’t build, or in Ukraine’s case why they relinquish, their arsenals. Ukraine is quite puzzling from both a realist and a domestic politics perspective: Russia’s hegemonic behavior, burgeoning tensions over Crimea, and growing public support between 1992 and 1993 for keeping nuclear weapons, even in spite of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, make an anti-nuclear position unlikely. Though, that’s exactly what happened.

In large, the NPT is credited for this result in four critical ways. As I delineate, I will compare these scenarios to those of the present, or cases that are predicted to ensue. Early in 1990, Ukraine tried to accede the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state to separate itself from the Soviet Union and buttress their claim to national sovereignty. This was an expedient blueprint to independence that the majority conservative communists voted in a 355-4 adoption of the NPT. In the future, Hong Kong may adopt a similar tactic of establishing sovereignty vis-à-vis treaties if they continue to seek detachment from China.

U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar turn two keys to initiate the destruction of a former Soviet nuclear missile silo at the top-secret Khmelnitsky military base in Ukraine on October 23, 1996. The keys once enabled a launch of SS-19 missiles towards the United States. Photo courtesy of RFERL.

Moreover, international prestige granted through the NPT also seeded Kiev’s anti-nuclear position. Pro-NPT officials insisted that this endeavor would enhance Ukraine’s soft power by separating it from what we call “rogue states,” such as modern North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. NPT norms birthed the idea that new nuclear weapons states were unstable threats, which by the 1990s effectively meant that they received international condemnation. Thus, Ukraine’s adherence to the NPT defanged their potentiality as a rising state, and instead invited partnership and security assurances between themselves and the members of the NPT. Moreover, joining the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state granted Ukraine the assurance of protection by nuclear weapon states in the treaty – a similar phenomena to the security assurances present in NATO.

Pipelining from this were economic pressures, which Ukraine certainly faced from America, and more generally NATO. The West maintained that failing to follow the NTP’s norms and regulations would result in economic restrictions, made easier by the NTP’s mobility and coordination of collective sanctions. Today, we can relate this to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a 25-year nuclear agreement which limited the scope of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Last, the NPT created a sense of international responsibility. Ukraine was satisfying the global commitment to peace, which was being renewed at the conclusion of the tumultuous 20th century. Critically, America offered financial support for relinquishing Kiev’s arsenal, which made the negative proliferation decision a far easier endeavor and helped secure Ukraine’s position as a cooperative state. We may relate this today to China. Though the political future of a post-COVID China is uncertain, I think Beijing may be one to keep an eye out in this regard. The Trump administration is fighting to see China join the New START treaty as China continues to expand technologically and militaristically. Though, China’s long disapproval of joining has made this unlikely. In a world in which China may bear the international brunt of COVID’s spread, adopting this treaty may be a counterbalance as it would assume China as committing to shouldering a responsibility of international peace. 

What’s of value with these four reasons is imaging Ukraine’s renunciation without the NPT. Though some case may be made for that, it’s nonetheless hard to imagine it being any easier. Nuclear treaties may be thought of as an investment into furthering the nuclear taboo and mediating the security dilemma. As was the case in the 1960s, testing nuclear weapons and acquiring an arsenal granted positive international recognition. Yet, today’s taboo causes immediate condemnation of any state attempting to do so. This signifies the progress of the nuclear taboo, and scholars today tend to view the NPT as a way to further it into one that eventually chastises the mere possession of nuclear weapons.

States build the bomb for many reasons, and at the same time, as Ukraine exemplified, states may also relinquish their arsenal for multiple purposes. No single policy can expedite creating a nuclear free world, nor advance international security measures. It suffices to say that multicausality best explains the nuclear existence present today and the troubles that policymakers face when formulating antiproliferation measures. What Ukraine’s deviation from conventional perceptions on the security dilemma shows is that future scholarship needs to be driven by comparative studies to determine the conditions that states fall under when acting against the nuclear taboo, and more presently should expand to single actors and organizations.

As Sagan puts it: “focusing on how different governments assess the nuclear potential and intention of neighbors, on why pro-bomb and anti-bomb domestic coalitions form and gain influence, and on when and how NPT norms about legitimate behavior constrain statesmen will be extremely important.” For certain, the world may see a Ukrainian repeat in the future, but at the same time, the current nuclear tongue cannot dismiss the possibility of a rogue actor or state dismantling the nuclear taboo. It is thus imperative that scholars continue to expand their theories and look more deeply into the desire to acquire nuclear weapons and what shape that may take on in the coming decades. Moreover, we may look at the NPT’s furthering of norms as the argument for continual enhancement of the treaty and continuing to create new, comprehensive laws and regulations agreed upon by both nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states.

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By Taylor Fairless

Taylor graduated summa cum laude from UCLA in 2021 with a degree in History and a minor in Global Studies. Her principal focuses are on international security in Asia and Europe. She is pursuing a career in arms control and international security.

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