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Would a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent Have Prevented the Crisis?

By Taylor Marvin

A Ukrainian Tu-22M is scrapped in 2002. DTRA photo, via Wikimedia.

A Ukrainian Tu-22M is scrapped in 2002. DTRA photo, via Wikimedia.

Could Ukraine have forestalled the Russian Federation’s invasion of Crimea if it had kept the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union? Writing in the National InterestTed Galen Carpenter returns to this argument. Noting the “undercurrent of worry that the Crimea intervention may be just the first move in a campaign by Vladimir Putin either to detach much of eastern Ukraine from Kiev’s control or to oust the new Ukrainian government and bring all of the country firmly into Moscow’s orbit,” Carpenter places blame for Moscow’s action on the early-1990s push to ensure that Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan gave up the nuclear weapons the breakup of the USSR orphaned in their territory and returned them to Russia, the designated Soviet inheritor. Again citing John Mearsheimer’s 1993 Foreign Affairs piece that argued in favor Ukraine retaining nuclear weapons, the argument follows that given the power imbalance between Ukraine and its eastern neighbor, nuclear weapons would have been the Eastern European country’s best hope of resisting Russian revanchism.

As I wrote last week, even if Russia had allowed a former SSR to retain Soviet nuclear weapons (and handwaving away two decades of divergent Ukrainian-Russian relations) it is unclear if a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent would have prevented the Russian seizure of Crimea, the immediate site of the current confrontation. After all, the same strategies Russia employed to forestall a conventional Ukrainian military and international diplomatic response to the invasion would have made a nuclear response unlikely, as well. Russia initially infiltrated deniable troops to seize key strategic points in Crimea, and then brought a large number of soldiers to the peninsula. Before the wider world realized that Russia had indeed invaded and started discussing how to respond Russian Federation forces had already dug in, and would be extremely difficult for the Ukrainian military to dislodge. In addition, while the upcoming referendum will not be a free and fair reflection of the will of the Crimean people, annexation by Russia appears to enjoy some genuine support in the ethnic-Russian-majority autonomous republic, complicating both Ukrainian and international condemnation of the invasion.

By the time a nuclear-armed Ukraine had realized that Russia had indeed violated its territorial integrity, a nuclear threat would have lost what little teeth it ever had. Compelling Russia to leave Crimea would be even more difficult that deterring it from entering. Given the bloodless Russian invasion, Russia’s historic ties to the peninsula, and the pro-Russian outlook of the Crimean people, even an enraged government in Kiev could not credible threaten to use nuclear weapons against military targets in Russia in an attempt to compel Russia to leave. Importantly, by exposing itself to a Ukrainian strike Russia would place the heavy burden of actually making the decision to escalate to nuclear warfare on the Ukrainians, and thus likely ensure that they would not actually play their nuclear card. Even handwaving away Russia’s far superior conventional and nuclear forces, a Ukraine that actually used nuclear weapons against Russia, avoided a response in kind, and successfully forced its withdrawal from Crimea would be far worse off — a pariah politically, diplomatically, and economically — than one that lost Crimea.

Moscow’s calculus would be far riskier in a world where Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons. But again, it is unclear in my mind if this risk would have deterred seizing Crimea, especially given the status Putin has invested in Ukraine, status that necessitated some form of face-saving. What is true is that a crisis would be far, far more dangerous in a world where both Ukraine and Russia field nuclear weapons but Ukraine cannot credibly threaten to respond to the permanent loss of Crimea with a nuclear attack on Russian targets, a point Carpenter acknowledges.

Sure, Ukraine’s ability to deter Russian aggression is important, as is upholding the general “no annexation” norm of the post-war international order. A Ukrainian nuclear force would also largely put to rest fears that Russia intends to peel off Ukrainian territory beyond Crimea. But by writing that Ukraine and the United States are paying the price for the “myopia” of encouraging Ukrainian nuclear disarmament, advocates of a nuclear-armed Ukraine are placing greater value on these considerations than avoiding the — admittedly unlikely — prospect of a Russia-Ukraine nuclear war that would likely kill millions of people.

Would this risk be worthwhile?

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