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The impact of the war in Ukraine on the future of Europe: what if Ukraine becomes a nuclear state?

Russia continues to issue periodic nuclear threats in relation to its invasion of Ukraine. Whether this involves nuclear weapons or power plants, it is clear that Moscow views this rhetoric as a useful tool. Questions must now be asked as to whether Kyiv may once again attempt to acquire such weapons in order to defend itself.

September 14, 2023 - Davit Totadze - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Shutterstock/Milan Sommer

Ukraine had a significant nuclear inheritance stemming from its history as part of the Soviet Union. The country was once home to the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, with thousands of nuclear warheads on its territory. However, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine voluntarily relinquished its nuclear weapons, mainly for economic reasons, and joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state. Since then, Ukraine has been working to secure its nuclear legacy and ensure the safe handling and dismantlement of nuclear facilities and materials. This decision of Ukraine was a crucial step in international disarmament efforts and was also facilitated by the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. The Memorandum, signed on December 5th 1994, provided Kyiv with certain security assurances in exchange for its decision to give up its nuclear arsenal and join the NPT Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state. The memorandum was signed by Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. China and France, both nuclear-armed states and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, also gave separate written assurances to Ukraine. The key points of the Budapest Memorandum include respect for sovereignty, meaning that the signatory states pledged to respect the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its existing borders. Refraining from the use of force, the signatory states promised not to threaten Ukraine. This assurance was intended to prevent any aggression against the territorial integrity of the country. If Ukraine were to face aggression or the threat of aggression in violation of the UN Charter, then the signatory states committed to consult with each other and take appropriate action to address the situation. 

The exact nature of this response was not specified but it was meant to signal strong political support. Since the signing of the Memorandum, its effectiveness as a security guarantee for Ukraine has been a topic of both debate and controversy. In 2014, Ukraine faced a significant challenge when Russia annexed Crimea following a controversial referendum. The annexation was widely condemned by the international community, including the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum. Critics of the Memorandum argue that the annexation of Crimea exposed its limitations as a functional guarantee, as the signatory states did not take direct military action to prevent or reverse the annexation. Instead, the response to Russia’s actions primarily involved economic sanctions and diplomatic measures. However, others argue that the Budapest Memorandum did serve its purpose by providing diplomatic and political support to Ukraine during the crisis. The strong international condemnation of the actions of Russia and the imposition of sanctions demonstrated a unified response in support of the sovereignty of Ukraine. It is important to understand that the Budapest Memorandum is a political commitment, not a legally binding treaty. As such, its enforceability in international law can be challenging. The situation in Ukraine remains complex, and the debate over the effectiveness of the Budapest Memorandum continues to be a topic of discussion among policymakers, international relations experts and scholars.

“Nuclear Peace”

On February 24th 2022, the Russian Federation launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. The central assurance of the Budapest Memorandum of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and refraining from using force against it, is now continuously violated. This suggests that giving up nuclear arms may have been a mistake, as decades after the agreement Ukraine was betrayed and attacked by Russia with the same weapons it handed over. Some argue that the Budapest Memorandum paved the way for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even former US President Bill Clinton stated in April 2023 that he regretted convincing Ukraine to give up its nuclear arsenal. On the other hand, others argue that nuclear weapons would most likely not be an asset for Ukraine but a security liability. Nowadays, the main question is whether becoming a nuclear power will guarantee the security of Ukraine, ensuring that the risks of further Russian military aggression are eliminated. This assumption is based on the well-known truth that no nuclear state has ever faced a full-scale invasion from a foreign power. Since the end of the Second World War, there has been no direct military conflict between two nuclear-armed states. The presence of nuclear weapons has undoubtedly influenced strategic calculations and deterrence dynamics between nations. 

This period has been referred to as the “Nuclear Peace” or “Long Peace”, as major powers have avoided direct military confrontations with each other. The concept of nuclear deterrence suggests that possessing nuclear weapons can dissuade potential adversaries from launching large-scale military attacks due to the fear of a devastating nuclear response. This principle is often referred to as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which states that both sides of a nuclear conflict would suffer catastrophic consequences. This makes such a conflict irrational and highly unlikely. It is essential to emphasise that the absence of a full-scale invasion against nuclear-armed states does not mean that conflicts have not occurred or that other forms of military actions, proxy wars, or other hostilities have not taken place between nations. The presence of nuclear weapons has not eliminated conflicts but may have influenced the way states manage and resolve them. However, it is also worth noting that the dynamics of international relations can change over time, and no situation is entirely predictable. While the historical record shows that nuclear weapons have played a role in strategic stability, global security is continually evolving and influenced by various geopolitical factors.

A nuclear Ukraine?

If Ukraine were to become a nuclear-armed state, it would have significant implications for regional and global security. It is important to note that this is a hypothetical scenario, as Ukraine currently adheres to the NPT Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state. There are also no indications of Kyiv pursuing nuclear weapons at this time. However, for the sake of analysis, it is possible to consider the potential consequences of the transformation of Ukraine into a nuclear power. Ukraine becoming a nuclear-armed state would likely escalate regional security tensions, especially with Russia, its neighbour to the east. Given the history of conflicts and territorial disputes between the two countries, the presence of nuclear weapons in Ukraine could raise the risk of military confrontation. The possession of nuclear weapons by Ukraine could also raise concerns about accidental or unauthorised use, leading to an increased risk of escalation during times of crisis or conflict. The decision of Ukraine to acquire nuclear weapons would undermine global non-proliferation efforts and the credibility of the NPT. It might even encourage other countries in the region or around the world to reconsider their own nuclear ambitions. 

As a result, the international community, particularly the United States, Russia and the European powers, would likely react strongly to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Ukraine. There could be diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions and efforts to pressure the country to abandon its nuclear programme. The nuclear status of Ukraine could significantly alter its relationships with other countries, affecting trade, diplomatic ties and international cooperation on various issues. While nuclear weapons might provide a deterrent against aggression, they could also lead to increased security risks for the country. Nuclear weapons could make Ukraine a target for potential adversaries, and the country might become embroiled in arms races and security dilemmas. If Kyiv acquired nuclear weapons, it could trigger an arms race in the region with neighbouring countries, particularly those with security concerns. These states might feel compelled to enhance their own military capabilities, including pursuing nuclear weapons themselves. It is important to reiterate that the above points are speculative and based on a hypothetical scenario. The international community has consistently advocated for a world free of nuclear weapons, and the vast majority of countries adhere to non-proliferation norms and treaties. Any decision by a country to pursue nuclear weapons is met with serious concern and can have severe consequences for global security and stability.

The real danger

Returning to the development of nuclear weapons would be a difficult task for Ukraine. Most likely this topic will remain academic in nature, so this aspect of international nuclear security may remain the same in this respect. But even if Ukraine does not become a nuclear power, the European region is still not safe from a possible nuclear catastrophe that Russia could cause in Ukraine. Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has constantly threatened Ukraine and the world with the potential use of nuclear weapons. Later, Russia came up with a different idea of using nuclear power plants, rather than deploying nuclear missiles or bombs, as radioactive weapons. Russia may try to cause a disaster at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), the largest of its kind in Europe. These concerns are reasonable since when the invasion began, one of the first Russian attacks was on the ZNPP. During the assault, the Russians repeatedly fired at the nuclear power plant. After the March attack, Russian soldiers then occupied the site. They have since turned it into a military base to house units in southern Ukraine. Knowing the history of Russian occupation, once a territory is captured by Russian troops, it will take decades to force them to give it up, if this is possible at all. It is clear that European nuclear security will remain a hot topic for a long time to come.

Davit Totadze is a Georgia-based researcher who focuses on good governance issues and serves as president of the Human Rights Research Center (HRRC).

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