Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Ukrainian Nuclear Weapons Agreement

After Ukraine voted for independence in 1991 and the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine retained a very large complement of nuclear weapons.  The country agreed to give up those weapons in exchange for security assurances.  The 1994 Trilateral Statement and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances involving Russia, the US, the UK, and Ukraine finalized the removal of nuclear weapons from Ukraine in exchange for assurances that Russia would respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. (1,2)  Of course, in 2014 Russia invaded Crimea and officially announced their annexation of the territory.  This was quickly followed by a thinly veiled proxy invasion of the rest of Ukraine.

So, how did that security agreement work out for you, there, Ukraine?

The only real point to this post is that international agreements with our ‘enemies’ are often of little value or lasting applicability.  In particular, Russia, Iran, and China have been shown that they will adhere to agreements only as long as it suits their purposes and will abandon/violate those agreements without a second thought when doing so is to their advantage.

In our zeal to secure ‘peace’ we need to be exceedingly careful about agreements with enemies and recognize that those agreements are nearly worthless.

One might note that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and wound up being invaded.  ‘Might makes right’ is still a viable geopolitical factor in the world despite the desire of the US to view the world as a loving and caring place where everyone can be trusted.


(1)NPR website, “The Role Of 1994 Nuclear Agreement In Ukraine's Current State”, 9-Mar-2014,


  1. The Tsar should let the Ukrainians have their nukes,
    in exchange for jet engines and marine turbines.
    Russia defence would be in better shape.

    1. Ukraine didn't really want nukes and fairly readily gave them up. However, your point about Russia being in better shape with a happy and willing trading/buying partner in Ukraine is excellent. I really don't see what Russia has gained in their entire Ukraine/Crimea venture that outweighs what they've lost.

    2. "I really don't see what Russia has gained in their entire Ukraine/Crimea venture that outweighs what they've lost."
      Ukraine was leaving the Russian sphere, had Russia not acted, the engine factories would be disassembled and relocated deeper in to the EU, and Russia would have lost access forever.

    3. "Ukraine was leaving the Russian sphere, had Russia not acted, the engine factories would be disassembled and relocated deeper in to the EU, and Russia would have lost access forever."

      Does Russia have access to them now? Serious question - I really don't know.

    4. No, or at least much reduced, but its just a matter of time.

      Ukraine has two choices, it can continue to move towards the EU, but by the time it gets there, Russia will have reduced it to a stone age wreck. Or it can return to Russian dominion and be a relatively poor relatively controlled but not utter wreck of a country.

    5. Neither Belarus, Kazakhstan nor Ukraine realistically had any functional nukes in 1994. By mid-80s all Soviet (at least non-Navy) nukes were fitted with effective PAL subsystems, in my understanding at least partly based on technology we transferred to Soviets by end of 70s. PALs linked of course to Russian C&C. Neither Belarus nor Ukraine had the industry necessary to service pits anyhow.

      If anything, the Memorandum provided fig leaves necessary due to their internal politics to divest from the ballast of non-functional nuclear weapons. And of course prevent more enterprising individuals from transferring weapons-grade material to more capable third parties. Recall that Belarus and especially Ukraine made significant contributions to various Iranian, Chinese and, as we learned last year, Saudi and North Korean technology programs.

      Ukrainians might have been (willingly) hoodwinked, but really bad outcomes were effectively prevented by the Memorandum.

    6. @Robert
      Its odd.
      Ukraine, a industrialised nation capable of building work class jet and ship engines cant weaponise actual nuclear weapons, but half a dozen goat herder can someone threaten cities with a few grams stolen from a lab.

      Do you think thats not perhaps realistic?

      Germany had crude cruise missiles in 1944, The US crude nuclear bombs in 1945, the idea that Ukraine couldnt build a cruise missile from scratch, and a create a viable bomb from the nuclear material is just, unreasonable.

    7. @Domo There seem to be two separate issues in your comment. Let me unpack them.

      Issue 1: Goat herders. All US administrations since fall of Soviet Union devoted much attention to the issue. Efforts of our intelligence community, multitude of international cooperation programs, complete overhaul of import monitoring, border security measures, tens of billions spent over past 30 years. Through denial of access to nuclear waste, weapons-grade materials, maybe deterrence we avoided finding out how real the threat was. Personally I think it was quite a bit exaggerated, but at the same time much more was at stake in early 90s than "a few grams stolen from a lab".

      Issue 2: Ukrainian capabilities in nuclear domain in early 90s. Was it possible to disassemble whatever warheads were available there, machine the resultant material into a cruder working device? Technically yes, even though it is trickier then people think. Could they do this? No. While technical infrastructure might have existed locally, they had neither the money nor purpose nor people capable of doing that. This is the key difference between Ukraine AD 1990 and US AD 1945.

      Across past 20 years, I have spend almost a year in Ukraine. Ukraine is not an industrialized country. It is world's best example of a deindustrialized country, with a massive brain drain and demographic and civic collapse thrown on top of it. While it is true Ukraine was Soviet's equivalent of Southern California when it comes to concentration of aerospace / defense industry, with Kiev being half of Soviet Silicon Valley. These capabilities were quite rapidly lost in the 90s. By 2000s they could only refurbish old Soviet technologies and keep up low-scale manufacturing of some slightly tweaked designs, but I am unaware of anything new being rolled out by Ukrainian industries. In either case, last four years entirely wrecked them.

      It is about time, people and money really. Technology is secondary. Ukraine lost people, had no money and ran out of time.

    8. Not completely lost their military industrial knowlege
      "North Korea’s Missile Success Is Linked to Ukrainian Plant, Investigators Say"
      The plant may have been selling its tech to China as well.
      Confirms what Robert was saying about loss of population
      "Dnipro has been called the world’s fastest-shrinking city. The sprawling factory, southeast of Kiev and once a dynamo of the Cold War, is having a hard time finding customers."

    9. "These capabilities were quite rapidly lost in the 90s. By 2000s they could only refurbish old Soviet technologies"

      So in the early 90's, it was likely well within their abilities to either replace the Soviet/Russian lockouts with Ukrainian ones, or they could disassemble the warheads and rebuild them.

    10. "I really don't see what Russia has gained in their entire Ukraine/Crimea venture that outweighs what they've lost"

      I don't think that gains or losses matter. The Crimean endeavor is meant for Putin's voters. He and his fellow former KGB agents rule the country as some sort of a mafia. Russian economics is in a very bad shape. They are trying to show Russian people, that it is because of external enemies. They choose NATO and European Union as these enemies, because Russian people are used to seeing the threat in the west.

      Many common Russians perceive their motherland as one of the world’s great powers. They are disappointed when they see that it is no longer true. Putin is trying to make them believe that Russia is important and powerful.

    11. It's both. In the classical realist international relations thinking, "prestige" is a great power interest (neorealists try to simply look at things as a balance sheet).

      Crimea was the last base of the Tatars (Mongols) in the Russian world against whom the Russians struggled against for five centuries. Finally Catherine the Great conquered the Khanate of Crimea in the same year that American independence was formally established and recognized.

      The population of Crimea is majority Russian and strongly preferred to be reunited with Russia. The peninsula is also the main home of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

      The Putin regime's popularity was at a lower ebb in the first half of the 2010s owing to reduced economic performance and too much voter fraud and corruption in 2012. Putin clearly did not welcome the disturbances in the Ukraine as evidenced by the reluctant, minimal support provided to the separatist republics in the Donets Basin. In 2014 it would've been easy for them to conquer Mariopol and even Kharkov and establish direct land links to the Ukraine. Russia refused to support that endeavor.

      The Russian economy is in okay, but not great, shape. It's about as prosperous as Poland (per capita GDP around $30k ppp) and has a modest unemployment rate. Sanctions, high interest rates, and the large federal budget surplus contribute to the weak growth environment. The new policy of import substitution is difficult and thus far has only been truly successful in agriculture (Russia is now the world's largest wheat exporter, and their agricultural exports have overtaken their arms exports).

      The government has an official policy of raising the national rate of investment via large-scale state investment into infrastructure (especially roads, which need it) and import-substitution. The investment is welcome, but if interest rates and the budget surplus remain high the private sector is not likely to ramp up their investment.

      The "mafia" thing is dramatic, but not a bad description. Low-level corruption in Russia has been strongly reduced under Putin and effectively stamped out in the more advanced areas (Moscow, St. Petersburg, etc.). But high level corruption by Putin's top associates like Sechin has if anything gotten worse. One of the more disappointing recent developments was the takeover of one of Russia's few entrepreneurial success stories, the Magnit chain of supermarkets, by the Kremlin-linked VTB Bank.

  2. Anybody here recall the assurances that the US made to Russia in the early 1990s regarding its influence in the former Soviet near abroad?

    1. Yeah, the US should overthrow the democratic governments of eastern Europe and impose Russia Compliant strong men...

    2. "Anybody here recall the assurances that the US made to Russia in the early 1990s "

      What, specifically, are you referring to?

    3. Meat Lover is correct. Such an "arrangement" was indeed made in 1990/1991:

      In terms of its treaty weight, 1991 assurance had exactly the same as the Budapest Memorandum: none. As a matter of fact, we were on the record that the Budapest Memorandum is not legally binding long before Crimea affair:

      Also, it is worth remembering that the Budapest Memorandum included a commitment not to impose economic sanctions on Ukraine, Belarus or Kazakhstan in response to their internal policies. By 2014, we had both Ukraine and Belarus under a host of economic sanctions...

    4. President George H. W. Bush, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, President Francois Mitterand, Chancellor Helmuth Kohl and their foreign ministers promised President Mikhail Gorbachev to not expand NATO eastward and not to extend membership in the NATO alliance to former member states of the Warsaw Pact in 1990.


    5. While I am in agreement with the late George Kennan and Paul Nitze that the US made a series of foolhardy strategic mistakes in Eastern Europe after the Cold War, this doesn't excuse Gorbachev's idiocy.

      Why didn't Gorbachev insist on a formal treaty delimiting NATO's eastern limits? Even if Bush I, Thatcher, Kohl, and Mitterand were entirely sincere and trustworthy they were obviously going to retire some day.

  3. "The country agreed to give up those weapons in exchange for security assurances."
    By all sides by the way, with the US involvement in the 2014 coup those assurances were allready worthless.

    Second point: The Nuclear weapons were storaged on Ukrainian terriroty, but it was not a state with nuclear weapons. It had no Command and Control over those weapons, in the same way as Turkey does not have Command and Control over US nuclear weapons in its own country.

  4. This is a great example of short-sighted foreign policy on the part of Washington, not the Ukraine, or Russia; the USA had a real opportunity to step in to Eastern Europe as a stabilizing force at the end of the 1990s.

    I am not suggesting a Marshal plan 2.0, but certainly we could have done a lot more to liberalize markets; hire, or at least offer university and research positions to academics and weapons scientists and engineers; and at least offer partnerships at an intergovernmental level.

    These efforts would have greatly reduced the regional “brain drain,” to some of which ended up in SW Asia, China, NK, and of course organized crime.


    1. There was the Nunn–Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, which was successful.

      Ex-Soviet states hired many Western academics and consultants to advise on economic reforms in the '90s, with mostly disastrous results (not solely due to these Western hires of course).

      Russia finally began to recover when the Ruble collapsed at the end of the '90s, and then in the '00s it had the good fortune of high oil & gas prices.

    2. Apart of territorial gains, Russia got about 4-5 ethical Russians (or Ukrainians, no big difference from the cultural point of view) so badly needed to Russia's declining demography.

  5. Russia wasn't an "enemy state" in 1994. Just two years prior Lockheed (the merger with Martin Marietta was in 1995) had purchased all of the design data for the Yakovlev Yak-141 which was used to create the lifting fan system for the F-35B. Can you imagine something like that today?

    The Budapest Memorandum perhaps wasn't so great for the Ukraine, but it worked out well for the great powers none of whom welcomed a nuclear-armed Ukraine--nor would they today. And in any case since the Ukraine has been the worst-governed post-Soviet state (barring Moldova) it's not like they were capable of maintaining a nuclear deterrent. The country is poorer than it was when the USSR dissolved and has lost a quarter of its population.

    My understanding is that the official Russian position is that the Maidan coup d'etat which removed the Yanukovych constituted a violation of the Budapest Memorandum and therefore legimized the Russian response in Crimea and the Donets Basin. Not being an international lawyer I have no idea if this claim is legitimate, but obviously the Russians believed there was a threat to their security and acted accordingly.

    I don't think the lesson is that international agreements are useless for great power security. The START regime with Russia is working quite well. Abandoning the INF treaty has imperiled Western European security (not that they appear to have noticed) thanks to the capabilities of PGM-warheads on theater ballistic missiles. Reaching back into naval history, the Washington and London naval treaties were successful for a time in limiting naval expenditures at least.

    There is however a very strong lesson in this for lesser states, which is that trusting your security to agreements with great powers is foolhardy and no substitute for real defense capabilities. The Swiss have the right attitude here.

    As for relations between Russia and the Ukraine, they had substantial cooperation and mutually beneficial trade prior to 2014. Even today they're still major trade partners. The Ukraine was placed in a very bad position of 2014 in being forced to choose between the EU and Russia.

    The Ukrainian government received a bad deal from the EU which was insufficient to cover their desperate financial needs and made the decision to choose the more generous--in the short-term--deal from Russia which offered $25 billion. The government reversed course and switched to Russian side, which resulted in massive protests that it responded to very poorly and caused its ouster.


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