Technically, Ukraine once held the world’s third most powerful nuclear arsenal on its territory. If security is not ensured, Ukraine’s president has threatened to back out of the 1994 agreement to give nuclear arsenal.
Ukraine’s president asserts that Ukraine has the right to become a nuclear power and will reverse its 1994 pledge to eliminate nuclear weapons if security is not guaranteed.
On February 19, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, President Volodymyr Zelensky recalled the event that Ukraine on December 5, 1994 the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Britain and the United States signed a memorandum to provide Ukraine with security assurances in connection with its accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.
He said Kiev could reverse this commitment and start acquiring nuclear weapons if threatened. Faced with the situation in eastern Ukraine escalating tensions with hundreds of artillery shells in violation of the Minsk agreements as well as the risk of war with Russia, Zelensky stressed: “Today we have no weapons and no security.
We have lost a larger territory in terms of area than Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium. And most importantly, we have lost millions of citizens.”
Ukraine’s nuclear history
For a short time, Ukraine was a nuclear power. The dangerous arsenal was part of the legacy Ukraine inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Belarus and Kazakhstan also possessed strategic weapons before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Technically, Ukraine was the third largest nuclear power at the time. This is the historical fact that leader Zelensky mentioned in his speech.
The country has more than a hundred UR-100N intercontinental ballistic missiles on its territory, nearly 50 RT-23 Molodets nuclear trains, and a fleet of strategic bombers armed with nuclear weapons.
In total, Ukraine has deployed or stockpiled about 1,700 nuclear warheads, although in reality, Moscow retains total control.
All the Western powers wanted to get rid of Kiev’s stockpile of dangerous weapons and make Russia the sole successor to the Soviet Union with a nuclear deterrent.
Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan have agreed to dismantle their nuclear arsenals and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which allows only five countries in the world to possess nuclear weapons: China, France, Russia, UK and USA. The so-called Budapest memorandum of understanding on security guarantees was signed by countries that agreed to disarmament along with the US, UK and Russia.
The document signed by Kiev explained how the US, UK and Russia made a number of commitments related to Ukraine, including the issue of independence and sovereignty and the country’s existing borders.
The major powers also pledged not to use the threat of force or economic coercion against Ukraine. In addition, they will use their position at the United Nations Security Council to protect themselves if Ukraine becomes the victim of an act of aggression or is subject to the threat of invasion with nuclear weapons.
Kiev argues that Russia violated the Budapest agreement by “occupying” Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Of course, Moscow denies this. And the people of Crimea insist they exercised their right to self-determination under the United Nations Charter, when they voted to separate from Ukraine and rejoin Russia. Regarding the conflict in the Donbass, Russia said it is a civil war.
Has the West failed to defend Ukraine?
Some politicians exaggerated the US and British commitments in the Budapest Memorandum. Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine, said in 2014 that: “By declaring war on Ukraine, Russia is also declaring war on the guarantors of our security, the United States and Britain.”
Legal scholars point out that the memorandum does not oblige the US and UK to defend Ukraine against a foreign aggressor. In other words, it’s a security guarantee, unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) mutual defense commitment or the US obligation to defend Japan.
Will Ukraine be nuclear now?
Legally, there is nothing stopping Ukraine from withdrawing from the NPT treaty and developing its own nuclear weapons. North Korea has successfully walked on this path, despite all efforts of the international community to prevent it.
There are also examples of India and Pakistan, two neighbors that have developed nuclear weapons to deter each other. And Israel is also believed to possess an arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Kiev’s technical capacity to produce nuclear equipment is another matter. Ukraine has a well-developed civilian nuclear industry, with several legacy Soviet-era reactors as well as nuclear research facilities. It also inherits a developed aeronautics and space industry, capable of producing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
However, Ukraine has never had facilities for enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, which are needed to produce weapons-grade material for the reactor core. Kiev also does not have a real nuclear weapons factory on its territory.
The country has been mining uranium since the 1950s, but production has declined significantly over the years. Mining currently requires huge capital investment.
Some Ukrainian officials such as retired General Petro Garashchuk claim that Ukraine already has enough technical expertise to hold a full range of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
As observed by Ilya Kramnik, a researcher at the Center for North American Studies at the Institute for World Economics and International Relations, the above statement may be true. “Technically, Ukraine has an industry that, with just a little change, can create nuclear weapons systems,” Kramnik told RT television. But more importantly, Kyiv will not be able to do this secretly without being discovered by the West and Russia.
And if Kyiv made public its intention to redevelop its nuclear capabilities, it would not be able to garner Western support for the plan.
“Personally, I believe that there is no single nuclear power that can help Ukraine go down this path. Simply because no one wants to deal with the inevitable rise of problems that will arise the day it becomes known for sure that Ukraine is developing nuclear weapons,” Kramnik argued.
Instead of accepting and helping, the US and its allies are likely to counter the intention with economic sanctions. Ukraine’s current economic condition as well as the government’s dependence on foreign aid makes Kyiv’s chances of doing the same as Pyongyang unlikely.
If the above proposal is impractical, why did the President of Ukraine mention it?
The claim that Ukraine may pursue nuclear weapons is not unheard of. This idea has been popular in Ukraine for many years now. Recently, the Ambassador of Kiev to Germany, Mr. Andriy Melnyk, also reiterated.
It was President Volodymyr Zelensky who offered a possible explanation for this in Munich: “Give us unconditional money. Why is it that every time they allocate a certain amount of money to us, they say you have to make some reforms?”
“Look, we’re still at war. Is there any other country in the world with such a strong army in Eastern Europe and implementing reforms? This is not easy,” Zelensky added.
So, under the current circumstances, Ukraine’s declaration to reverse denuclearization – like many other comments it has voiced before – could be part of a campaign to assist in finding information, rather than an actual route.