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The Ukraine Example: Nuclear Disarmament Doesn't Pay

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Abstract

As a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its “hybrid war” in the Donbas, the present-day nonproliferation regime, with its exceptional treatment of the permanent Security Council members, could in the future, paradoxically, encourage rather than stem the construction or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.
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THE UKRAINE EXAMPLE
Nuclear Disarmament Doesn’t Pay
Not everyone in Europe agrees with German Chancellor Angela
Merkel’s recent description of Russia’s annexation of Crimea as “crimi-
nal.” Across the EU, Kremlin lobbyists, America-haters, and those the Ger-
mans call Putinversteher (“Putin-understanders”) disseminate justifications
and apologies for Russia’s absorption of the Black Sea peninsula and its
hybrid war in the Donets Basin, also known as the Donbas. Such “expla-
nations” partly succeed because most citizens of the West are, in fact, not
particularly interested in Crimea, the Donbas, or Ukraine as a whole. First
and foremost, EU citizens want calm. International law is not national leg-
islation. Ukraine’s problems ultimately belong to the Ukrainians.
Yet, if the injustices of Vladimir Putin’s slow-motion assault on Ukraine
leave them somewhat cold, there is one dimension of the conflict that
should bring the “crisis” home to Europeans: the concrete, written com-
mitments made by Russia and other UN Security Council member states in
connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation
of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Andreas Umland is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic
Cooperation, in Kyiv, and general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet
Politics and Society,” published by ibidem Press in Stuttgart. This article was translated
from German by Andrew Kinder.
Andreas Umland
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the ukraine example
Ukraine inherited the world’s third-largest arsenal of nuclear warheads
when it gained its independence in 1991. Most of the nuclear weapons left
behind by the Soviet regime in Ukraine, to be sure, were not deployable,
since the launch codes remained in Moscow and Ukraine had no tech-
nology to guide its inherited rockets. But in theory Kyiv could have reset
the fire-control systems, and built or acquired necessary additional tech-
nology to make its nuclear arsenal at least partially operational. In 1991,
the Ukrainian armed forces possessed numerous intercontinental ballis-
tic missiles, long-range bombers and their payloads, as well as additional
nuclear warheads—according to estimates by the US Natural Resources
Defense Council, a total of 4,025 units, or 15 percent of the former Soviet
nuclear arsenal. At this point, in other words, Ukraine had far more atom-
ic weapons than the United Kingdom, France, and China combined. Even
if Ukraine had retained and made operational only a fraction of these
weapons, today it would be a much-feared nuclear power.
Yet it didn’t. Under diplomatic pressure from Moscow and Washington,
Ukraine turned over all of its nuclear weapons to Russia after signing the
Lisbon Protocol in 1992, which obligated ex-Soviet countries to surrender
their arsenals. But it didn’t turn them over immediately. In Kyiv, there was
already then suspicion that the northeastern neighbor could one day seek
to exploit the defenselessness of “Little Russia,” as Russian nationalists
often refer to Ukraine. After delaying the protocol’s ratification for several
months, Ukraine was assured of its territorial integrity, national borders,
and political sovereignty by all five permanent members of the Security
Council in December 1994, at a summit in Budapest for the Conference
on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now the Organization for Securi-
ty and Cooperation in Europe). Three of the five (Russia, the US, and the
UK) did so in a multilateral document signed with Ukraine; two (China
and France) issued unilateral declarations of their governments. The five
countries’ assurances, as well as promises of help against future foreign
political and economic pressure in the Budapest Memorandum, con-
vinced Ukraine to relinquish its remaining weapons of mass destruction.
Moscow has now not only trampled the 1994 memorandum and
numerous other multilateral agreements on the inviolability of Europe-
an borders, but flagrantly breached a number of bilateral agreements
between Moscow and Kyiv. In the case of Crimea, it went so far as officially
declaring an annexation and executing it by military force—a type of vio-
lent border-shift that has become rare since 1945.
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Andreas Umland
The consequences Russia has faced for these actions have been limit-
ed. The West remains, even after introduction of its much-praised sanc-
tions, Russia’s most important trade and investment partner. Many EU
countries, above all Germany, continue to purchase enormous amounts of
Siberian oil, the hefty export duties of which pour into the Russian state
budget every month. (Natural gas plays a much smaller fiscal role). With
the Russian economy and state budget structurally dependent on oil, the
so far undiminished energy imports from Russia have made the EU an
involuntary and indirect, but significant financial co-sponsor of Moscow’s
foreign policy adventures in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Syria. The
situation appears even more curious in light of the fact that oil is fungible.
EU countries could, without substantial difficulty, replace most imports
from Russia through contracts with other oil exporters. However, the EU
(including the UK and France as official parties to the 1994 Budapest
deal, which they seem to have forgotten about) has not taken this step
because of a mundane combination of obliviousness and venality.
All of this could continue to remain irrelevant to Western citizens, if
not for the NPT. Twenty years after Ukraine signed the treaty, one of its
recognized nuclear weapon state ratifiers violated almost every point of the
1994 Budapest Memorandum, annexing a prime piece of Ukrainian state
territory by military force, and prosecuting a hybrid yet bloody war in east-
ern Ukraine that has so far resulted in thousands dead, tens of thousands
injured and traumatized, as well as hundreds of thousands of refugees. At
the same time, Russia is waging a concerted trade, cyber, and information
war against Ukraine, using large-scale military exercises on the border to
poison the economic and investment climate in its “brother country.”
So far the international community has punished Russia with only
moderate export and individual sanctions, while the other BRICS coun-
tries have since actually courted rather than condemned the Kremlin.
Ukraine is receiving significant Western political and economic assistance,
but up to this point little direct and official military support. Many observ-
ers see a permanently frozen conflict in the Donbas as the most likely ulti-
mate outcome, although the Ukrainian state would thus lose additional
territory the five powers assured in 1994 would remain inviolable. Nation-
al insolvency looms for rump-Ukraine. In the worst case, the Ukrainian
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the ukraine example
state could altogether collapse.
The NPT seems to be in as much jeopardy as Ukrainian territory as
a result of Russian aggression. In the case at hand, three atomic Security
Council members grant a disarming country explicit and written security
assurances in exchange for dismantling its nuclear weapons. One of these
great powers, however, 20 years later unilaterally declares them invalid
while the others react with pathetic declarations and minor sanctions.
Looking at the fate of Ukraine, what country without nuclear weapons
or no close alliance with a nuclear power can now be assured of the invi-
olability of its borders? If a member of the Security Council is allowed to
expand into the territory of a neighboring country, then the international
nonproliferation regime becomes hollow, little more than a vehicle for
the official atomic powers to advance their own agendas.
Moreover, a key reason for the West’s lack of military support for
Ukraine lies in Russia’s overkill capacity and the fear of a third world war
acutely felt by many Europeans. This means that implementation of the
nonproliferation regime has, in the Ukrainian case, caused the opposite
of its intended aim. Nonproliferation stipulations specified in the NPT
and the special privileges Russia enjoys as an official nuclear weapon state
ratifier combine to become instruments of a coldly calculated utilization
of weapons of mass destruction to achieve an illegal military occupation
and secure a scandalous territorial expansion.
As a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its “hybrid war” in
the Donbas, the present-day nonproliferation regime, with its exception-
al treatment of the permanent Security Council members, could in the
future, paradoxically, encourage rather than stem the construction or
acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.
These grave consequences seem to have been lost in the shuffle
of opportunistic cynicism that has marked much of the great powers’
responses to Russian aggression. For example, in July 2015, a group of
10 French parliamentarians, most belonging to the Republicans party
of former and possible future president Nicolas Sarkozy, visited occu-
pied Crimea. By doing so, they were violating, at least, the spirit of the
Western sanctions regime against Russia’s annexation of the peninsula,
causing jubilation in Moscow. The official visit by these French right-wing
politicians to Simferopol spit in the face of the “Statement by France on
the Accession of Ukraine to the NPT” issued on December 5, 1994, by
France’s center-right Balladur government (including then Minister of
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Andreas Umland
Budget Sarkozy). In this official document, handed to Kyiv in connection
with Ukraine’s renunciation of its atomic weapons,
France reasserts its commitment to respect the independence and
sovereignty of Ukraine in its current borders, in agreement with
the principles of the final Helsinki Act and the Paris Charter for a
New Europe. France reminds its attachment to the principles of the
CSCE according to which borders cannot only be modified through
peaceful means and mutual agreement, and the participating States
refrain from using threats or force either against the territorial
integrity or the political independence of a State, or through any
other means incompatible with the goals of the United Nations.
Worse, China is amplifying the corrosion of the international security
system in what amounts to a Euro-Asian side game it has played since the
beginning of the Ukrainian crisis. Beijing has avoided taking a clear posi-
tion on Russia’s conduct, and abstained from the spring 2014 UN General
Assembly vote condemning the annexation of Crimea. Behind the scenes,
the Chinese are trying to extract the greatest possible political and eco-
nomic benefit from the discord between Moscow and the West. Beijing
purposefully ignores the fact that Ukraine possessed nuclear potential that
exceeded China’s arsenal many times over when it was handed a Chinese
governmental declaration in support of Ukrainian territorial integrity and
political sovereignty, similar to the French one, in December 1994. China, as
a powerful Security Council member, has thus strengthened the perception
that the NPT will be ignored by the official atomic powers when it comes to
asserting their national interests at the expense of non-nuclear states.
If Ukraine, briefly the world’s third-largest atomic power, can be han-
dled in this manner after naively giving up its large post-Soviet nuclear
arsenal, what kind of support, in a crisis situation, can non-nuclear states
expect, states that cannot even point to security assurances like those given
to Kyiv by Russia, the US, Great Britain, France, and China in December
1994? When supposed guarantors of the international nonproliferation
regime so dramatically turn their backs on the inviolability of borders,
the message to all current and future national leaders is clear: Your
own atomic deterrent is the only effective instrument for ensuring your
country’s full sovereignty.
... Worse, the young Ukrainian state once had, for a couple of years, the world's third largest (formerly Soviet) nuclear warheads collection (Budjeryn 2014;Budjeryn and Umland 2021;Umland 2016). Under joint pressure from Moscow and Washington, Ukraine agreed, in 1994, to transfer this huge arsenal fully to Russia, and to join the NPT as a nonnuclear weapons state ("Budapest Memorandum" 1994;Pifer 2017). ...
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This article was submitted in late 2021, and became dated after Russia's demonstrative preparation as well as start of an open, large-scale invasion of Ukraine early 2022. We nevertheless publish this commentary here in order to document the debate about the events leading to the escalation. No adaptations to the original 2021 article were made after the outbreak of high-intensity war on 24 February 2022. Avoiding a larger military escalation in the Russian–Ukrainian conflict is an important aim. Yet, historical experience suggests that concessions by Ukraine or its Western partners toward Russian revanchist aspirations in the Donbas may not help achieve it. On the contrary, Western softness, and Ukrainian weakness vis-à-vis the Kremlin will lead to further confrontation.
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