Explained: Why Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal

  • GS 3 International Relations


  • Following its declaration of independence, Ukraine surrendered the nuclear weapons that the Soviet Union had installed on its territory.
  • In exchange, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States promised its security. Russia has threatened Ukraine with a nuclear assault in the recent past.

Key Points:

  • The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, stated at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva (which he could only attend virtually due to restrictions on airspace) on March 1st that “the threat that the (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy regime (in Ukraine) poses to neighbouring countries and international security in general has increased significantly since the Kyiv authorities began playing dangerous games involving plans to obtain their own nuclear weapons.”
  • From the beginning, Russia has attempted to legitimise its invasion of Ukraine by claiming that its smaller neighbour to the west posed a nuclear danger to the country. “Ukraine possesses Soviet nuclear technology and methods of delivering these weapons,” Lavrov stated at the press conference, adding that it was important to take the “irresponsible” claims seriously.
  • He also stated that Russia is a “responsible member” of the international community and that it is “dedicated to its non-proliferation vow, as well as taking every necessary precaution to prevent the establishment of nuclear weapons and associated technologies in Ukraine.”
  • The nuclear issue is playing out quite differently in Ukraine than it is elsewhere. Ukraine has totally de-nuclearized between 1996 and 2001, in accordance with an international agreement and under the supervision of Russia and the United States. Now that Russian soldiers have infiltrated Ukraine’s borders, many Ukrainians are questioning if it was a mistake to de-nuclearize and whether having nuclear weapons would have been more effective in deterring Russia’s aggression against their nation.
  • As previously stated, this is predicated on the debatably correct underlying premise that countries that possess nuclear weapons rarely go to war with one another, deterred by the spectre of mutually assured annihilation. Ukraine’s decision to give up nuclear weapons came after three years of national deliberations and consultations with the United States and Russia, as well as substantial security assurances from the three founding members of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) — the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom — as well as France and China. This was supported by NATO’s assurances that it would not expand in order to allay Russian worries.
  • At a time when India and Pakistan were developing nuclear weapons and the A Q Khan proliferation network was putting Pakistan at the centre of the issue, Ukraine was held up as a model of non-proliferation and an example of an ideal NPT member.

At the end of the Cold War, Ukraine’s choices

  • Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Ukraine began the process of gaining independence from the Soviet Union, which was in the process of disintegrating. Its 1990 Declaration of Sovereignty, which was adopted a year before the Soviet Union’s dissolution, had an unambiguous political declaration that it wished to be a nuclear-weapons-free and non-nuclear country.
  • The Ukrainian republic, one of the former Soviet Union’s 15 republics, was barely recovering from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant tragedy at the time (1986). Moscow was in command and control of the nuclear weapons deployed on Ukrainian soil at the time. Ukrainian authorities at the time were concerned that this might result in constraints on their personal freedom.
  • However, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the sentiment in Ukraine began to shift. As a result, it believes that giving up the nuclear weapons will no longer be required for its survival. Ukraine possessed 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at the time, 130 of which were liquid-fueled SS-19s and 46 of which were solid-fueled SS-24s, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In addition, it possessed 44 strategic bombers equipped with cruise missiles. It possessed roughly 2,000 nuclear warheads in stock, as well as 2,600 tactical nuclear weapons, according to the CIA.
  • It became clear, however, that Russia, as the principal successor state of the Soviet Union, did not control these weapons, nor did Ukraine, Belarus, or Kazakhstan, where this old Soviet stockpile was stationed. Their deterrent usefulness was also called into doubt, considering the great range of the ICBMs, as well as the technical know-how and financial resources that would be required to maintain and replace the arsenal when it reached the end of its useful life.

The assurance of 1994 in Budapest

  • The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurance, which was signed on December 5, 1994, confirmed Ukraine’s participation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its position as a non-nuclear state in exchange for security guarantees. The presidents of Ukraine (Leonid Kuchma), the United States (Bill Clinton), Russia (Boris Yeltsin), and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (Theresa May) all signed the document (John Major). Later, China and France, both of which joined the NPT in 1992, joined the list of signatories.
  • In 1992, the Lisbon Protocol made Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan participants to the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1991 and aimed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in each country’s arsenal.
  • “Respect the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine, as well as the existing borders of Ukraine,” according to the Budapest document, which also stated that the powers had a “obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” Also included in the agreement was a promise that they would not use their weapons against Ukraine “unless necessary for self-defense or in conformity with the United Nations Charter”.
  • The countries also stated that if Ukraine were threatened or attacked with nuclear weapons, they would “demand prompt UNSC action to give support to Ukraine,” and that they would discuss if such a case happened. It has been pointed out, however, that this was an assurance rather than a security guarantee in this case.
  • Ukraine achieved a political win by implicitly acknowledging that it was the owner of the nuclear weapons located on its territory. After signing the Budapest Memorandum in 1992, Ukraine gave over all of the nuclear weapons it possessed to Russia in 1996, less than two years after the agreement. A number of severe deals were struck by Ukraine as well – Russia repaid its neighbour with a payout of one billion dollars, while the United States paid a substantial sum to purchase Ukraine’s stockpile of enriched uranium.
  • Despite the fact that Ukraine continued to be concerned that Russia was not completely reconciled to the new international line, the agreement remained in place for more than two decades, even as Russia raised reservations about NATO’s growth. At the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Vladimir Putin, who took over as president from Boris Yeltsin at the end of 1999, expressed his concerns for the first time, accusing NATO of pushing the envelope to include former Soviet satellites and lighting into the United States, accusing it of considering itself above international law, and accusing it of igniting a new arms race through its unilateral actions.
  • In addition, keeping the weapons would imply that Ukraine would be a nuclear state that is not a signatory to the NPT. The P5 nations must be non-nuclear states, and any additional signatories must either be non-nuclear states or have given up nuclear weapons. Russia and Ukraine, both of which aspired to be a part of Europe, did not want to begin their new path with sanctions and isolation from the rest of the world.

From annexation of Crimea to invasion of Ukraine:

  • The annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 was a blatant violation of the Budapest Agreement, and it served as the first major test of Russia’s ability to provide security guarantee to Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not engage in the negotiations despite being a signatory to the agreement and vetoed a resolution against the annexation at the United Nations Security Council. Russia was subjected to certain penalties by the United States, but Europe continued to conduct business with him.
  • In the United States Congress, a debate in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2016 emphasised the escalatory character of the United States’ and Russia’s responses to one another at that time. Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Europe and Eurasian Affairs, spoke into great length on the efforts the United States has taken in response to Russian aggression:
  • “The United States has pledged more than $600 million in security aid to Ukraine in order to assist it in better monitoring and securing its borders, deploying its forces more securely and efficiently, and defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Our training programmes have resulted in the training of approximately 1,700 Ukrainian conventional military and National Guard troops, as well as 120 Special Operations Forces (SOF). We have delivered counter-artillery and counter-mortar radars, over 3000 secure radios, 130 Humvees, over 100 armoured civilian SUVs, and hundreds of medical kits to Ukrainian forces in order to assist them in effectively resisting advances and saving lives on the battlefield.
  • For the last two years, the United States and its NATO partners have maintained a steady rotating military presence on land, at sea, and in the air all along NATO’s eastern flank, including in the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.” Looking ahead to the NATO Summit in Warsaw in July, allies will institutionalise a more continuous strategy to deterrence, notably by increasing forward presence in the East to minimise reaction times in the event of an aggressive act. In order to demonstrate his commitment, President Obama has requested $3.4 billion in funding for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI). It is with your help that we can send an extra rotating armoured brigade combat team to Central and Eastern Europe, and that we can pre-position combat equipment as well as recruit and train more soldiers in Europe.”
  • Specifically, each piece of this reaction, according to President Putin, was designed to surround Russia and hence pose a danger to its sovereignty and security. The words made by President Zelenskyy about equipping his nation with nuclear weapons “crossed a red line,” according to Senator Andrei A Klimov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the ruling United Russia party, in an interview with The Indian Express published last week.
  • Putin has now placed Russia’s nuclear forces on “special alert,” justifying the action as a response to “aggressive words” made by the United States and other Western countries.
  • Even Russia, which took part in drills on Tuesday with Russia’s nuclear submarines, would be hoping that Putin would refrain from going so far as to use nuclear weapons himself.


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