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Nuclear Security Implications for the Ukraine Crisis

The primary focus on the current, tense military situation in Crimea has been on the deployment of conventional Russian forces to the region and the mobilisation of the Ukrainian uniformed services in reaction to this. At this point, this is the most visible and tangible facet of the current security crisis. A dangerous and little-discussed aspect of the current standoff, however, is the spectre of nuclear weapons in the current imbroglio.

March 11, 2014 - Tony Rinna - Articles and Commentary

11.03.2014 kozmic2

Photo: Wojciech Koźmic

Writing in the Lithuanian-based journal Geopolitica, Maksim Khylko speculates that Russia’s actions toward Ukraine may serve to isolate Russia diplomatically and turn its image on the world stage into that of a rogue state, on par with North Korea. Furthermore, he believes that the current crisis may cause European states to take more responsibility for their own defence and rely less on the United States. Indeed, with the way things are progressing, it seems that the security standoff may inevitably draw other states into the crisis. If Russia indeed becomes a “rogue state” it will be one which is already well-endowed with nuclear arms capabilities. Indeed, it’s not the first time that nuclear security has been a factor in post-Soviet Ukrainian security.

After Ukraine gained independence from the USSR in 1991, Ukraine was one of three newly-independent republics aside from Russia that inherited former Soviet strategic nuclear weapons on their territory (the other two countries were Belarus and Kazakhstan). The crisis of nuclear proliferation in the post-Soviet space by default prompted Russia and the West to coordinate their efforts to remove these weapons from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. In the case of Ukraine, which returned its nuclear arms to Russia, the Ukrainian government signed what is known as the Budapest Memorandum. This agreement stipulated that in return for surrendering its nuclear weapons, Ukraine would receive a guarantee on its national security from the United Kingdom and the United States. The specific provisions of ensuring Ukraine’s national security, however, are poorly-defined, and it’s difficult to quantify just how far or how strongly the UK and the US are obliged to intervene.

Since the collapse of the USSR, Russia’s nuclear strategy has evolved from one of strategic deterrence focused on NATO and the United States to using nuclear weapons in smaller, more regionalised geopolitical conflict. In terms of Russia’s nuclear projection toward Europe, Russia has not been shy about showing its capabilities. According to Edward Lucas, Russia has conducted exercises for a potential nuclear attack on Poland and, more directly, has actually flown nuclear fighter jets well into British airspace over the English mainland itself.

Russia has especially begun enhancing its maritime nuclear capabilities by outfitting more nuclear submarines in the Arctic Sea and other regions. As to whether or not Russia’s Black Sea Fleet already has nuclear capabilities there is a great deal of uncertainty and speculation. There are reports that one Russian cruiser based at Sevastopol, the Moskva, left the Russian naval base to participate in naval exercises at Novorossiysk and was gone from the base long after the exercises ended. When the Moskva returned to port, Ukrainian officials were unable to inspect the ship because, despite the fact that it had left Ukrainian waters and was then returning to Ukraine’s sovereign maritime area, it was a Russian ship returning to a Russian military installation. It is possible that it was outfitted with nuclear weapons during its time away, but this there is no proof.

Ukraine does not fall under NATO’s nuclear umbrella or its system of extended deterrence. Neither is Russia obligated to protect Ukraine since Ukraine is not part of any alliance with Russia such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Nevertheless, the presence of three nuclear armed states – Russia, the UK, and the US – within the strategic framework of Ukrainian defence and security escalates the situation even higher. Meanwhile, the involved outside actors have not engaged in a military standoff, with US President Barack Obama and the EU preferring to respond with sanctions and other economic pressures. The nuclear factor must be brought into the equation. Indeed, if the Yanukovych government can fall followed by the Russian invasion Crimea in such a short period of time as it did, it goes to show that this is a situation moving at a breakneck speed.

The United States has already begun, in fact, to bring to bear the nuclear factor in the Crimean crisis. The US navy is currently sending an aircraft carrier, the George H.W. Bush, into the Black Sea, along with several other supporting vessels, including three submarines with tactical nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, under the provisions on NATO’s nuclear sharing program there are currently between 60 and 70 tactical US nuclear warheads based at the US air force base at Incirlik in Turkey across the Black Sea from Ukraine. In addition to the presence of these American nuclear weapons in Turkey, the UK’s nuclear forces are all naval-based, and it isn’t out of the question, however remote the possibility of the likelihood, that the UK could send its nuclear forces to the Black Sea as well.

All this, of course, would depend ultimately on whether or not Turkey would allow NATO vessels to pass through the Bosporus straits. During the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, when Russia sent its naval forces from its Sevastopol base toward Georgia, the United States attempted to enter the Black Sea as well. Turkey, however, in a bold but well-calculated diplomatic move refused US warships access to the Black Sea through its waters. Obviously this was done in part because Turkey did not want this body of water, with which it shares a large border, to be turned into a massive battleground. It was also done, however, in part for the simple fact that Turkey could diplomatically thwart the United States, assert its own geostrategic leverage and get away with it. Indeed, for Turkey the results had little consequence. Of course, Turkey was also able to deny the United States the right to use its air space in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Thus, Turkey has proven itself to be an important factor in American and western engagement in Turkey’s immediate vicinity.

Furthermore, Russia is not entirely isolated diplomatically in this situation and has the backing of a major world power. China, another nuclear power, has stated that it will lend its full support to Russia in the UN Security Council over the Ukraine crisis. The only implication that China’s status as a nuclear power has in this situation is that, as a nuclear state, it is a permanent member of the Security Council and as such as veto power. The practical importance of this is a moot point, seeing as Russia itself has veto power on the Security Council anyway, yet the power of that diplomatic support for Russia is something to be considered seriously.

The possibility of nuclear attacks, let alone a nuclear standoff between NATO and Russia, may seem overblown, fanciful or even melodramatic. We must, however, remember how this situation has been developing and that the current standoff involves nuclear actors, both of which have the capabilities to project their forces into the Black Sea region. As the situation intensifies, the world needs to pay attention to the nuclear issue in the crisis, and governments need to do everything in their power to ensure that the events in Ukraine and specifically in Crimea do not degenerate into a nuclear standoff or, more importantly, a nuclear exchange of any kind.

Tony Rinna is a contributing geopolitical analyst at the US-based Center for World Conflict and Peace. His areas of focus include Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

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