By Taylor Marvin
The Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula has prompted an interesting round of parlor speculation — if Ukraine had nuclear weapons, would it have been able to deter Russia’s so-called intervention? After all, the question is not entirely academic. After the dissolution of the USSR, the newly independent Ukrainian state inherited the third largest nuclear stockpile in the world. Under the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum Ukraine returned these weapons to Russia and signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, all in exchange for a security guarantee initially signed by Russia, the US, and UK.
After the last week’s very high-profile violation of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty, many have suggested that Ukraine’s choice was a grave mistake. In particular, many have highlighted a 1993 Foreign Affairs article by John Mearsheimer suggesting that, under threat from Russia, Ukraine should keep its inherited nuclear deterrent.
Along with its recent return to prominence Mearsheimer’s argument has fallen under new criticism. Duck of Minerva contributor PM asks whether a nuclear-armed Ukraine would be more stable and less threatened by Russian domination, and concludes that the answer is probably no. In an interesting post Anton Strezhnev also questions Mearsheimer’s logic, writing that faced with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Ukraine whose power could be counted on to increase in the future Russia would not have permitted its neighbor to keep nuclear weapons anyway. “The deterrence argument is moot,” Strezhnev concludes. “If nuclear weapons had any meaningful deterrent effect on Russia, then Russia would likely have acted militarily in the 90s to prevent a nuclear Ukraine rather than let Ukraine wield its leverage in the future.”
I suppose that in the interest of following an alternative history through we can also question whether the Orange Revolution, the Euromaidan movement, and Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster would have been allowed to proceed in a counterfactual nuclear-armed Ukraine as they did in our world, though the example of Pakistan and others suggests that outside powers are not guaranteed to forcefully impose political stability even when nuclear weapons raise the stakes.
But, like Strezhnev and Phil Arena, I think the entire question of whether a Ukrainian nuclear arsenal would have prevented the Russian invasion of Crimea is misguided. The current crisis may be, in Sarah Kendzior’s words, the “progenitor of bullshit analogies,” but in our nuclear-armed Ukraine hypothetical I think one is particularly apt: the Falklands War.
@filarena I think Ukraine crisis has more in common with Falklands War than hypothetical invasion of nuclear power, with all that implies.
— Taylor Marvin (@taylorjmarvin) March 4, 2014
In spring 1982 Argentina invaded and occupied the Falklands Islands, or Islas Malvinas, a British possession laying roughly 300 miles off the Argentine coast. The military junta then ruling Argentina was under pressure, and believe that seizing the islands — long a grievance among ordinary Argentines — would boost its domestic popularity through a ‘rally around the flag’ effect. Through a complex signaling failure and incompetence not limited to the Argentines (see Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins’ The Battle for the Falklands for more) the junta also calculated that its anti-communist ally the United States would not challenge, or would at least acquiesce, to its seizure of the islands, and that the United Kingdom would not pursue a difficult and risky military operation to retake them.
Of course, at the time the United Kingdom was a nuclear power with the capability of conducting a nuclear ballistic missile strike on the Argentine mainland. However, this did not stop the junta from ordering the operation, because it judged that even if the United Kingdom was committed to regaining the Falklands the prospect of a British nuclear first strike against a non-nuclear state — even an aggressor — would be so unpopular that the threat was not credible (though Argentina was not party to the NPT at the time). It would be, and was, up to the British to retake the islands militarily. Placing the heavy burden of escalating to nuclear force on the British, even if it was a burden Argentina didn’t have the capability to bear, would be their limited-warfare shield.
Crimea has many parallels to the Falklands. While not an island, the Crimean Peninsula is largely non-contiguous with Ukraine proper, and can be culturally constructed as to not “really” belonging to Ukraine. Much like Argentines have long claimed that las Malvinas by rights should belong to Argentina, Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority and historical association with the Russian imperial project have, in Moscow’s narrative, allowed it to be detached from wider notions of Ukrainian sovereignty. Importantly, the physical and military geography of both Crimea and the Falklands allowed them to be quickly seized by invading forces, allowing the aggressor to create the “facts on the ground” before their opponents could react.
Obviously, there are substantial differences between the two examples. Both via geographic proximity and culture, Crimea is arguably more important to both Russia and Ukraine than the Falklands were to Argentina and the United Kingdom, and is home to two million people. The long land border between Russia and Ukraine presents the distressing possibility that the current crisis could spiral into a general land war, something impossible in the South Atlantic. A conflict over Crimea between a nuclear-armed Ukraine and Russia would also include two nuclear actors, not just one — an extremely consequential difference.
But the Falklands War is still the best analog for a hypothetical crisis between a Ukraine that retained its nuclear weapons and Russia. Following the counterfactual, and hand-waving away two decades of divergent history before the current crisis, if the British nuclear arsenal was not sufficient to deter the Argentine invasion of the Falklands it wrong to assert that a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent would simply have prevented the current crisis. Like the Kargil crisis Strezhnev highlights, limited wars between nuclear powers are possible. The Falklands example further suggests that nuclear weapons are not an iron-clad guarantee against territorial predation, especially if the territory in question is constructed as to lie outside of the defender’s heartland.