When Ukraine became a newly independent state after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, its future security was far from assured. Yet in 1994, an era in which nuclear deterrence remained a central security strategy for others, Ukraine opted for nuclear disarmament - despite its own vulnerability and without securing a place under any nuclear umbrella. In return, it sought alternative guarantees for its borders.
Ukraine joined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1994 after formalising the “Budapest Memorandum”, an agreement to remove all nuclear weapons from Ukrainian soil with Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. In return, these three world powers would provide the following security assurances: to respect Ukraine’s borders, independence and sovereignty; to refrain from any use of force or economic coercion against the country; and to support Ukraine at the Security Council should it become the victim of aggression.
Today, twenty years on, their delivery on these commitments looks shaky. While Ukraine has upheld its part of the agreement, facilitating the smooth exit of all nuclear weapons from its soil and dismantling related facilities, Russia looks to be actively ripping it up with its intervention in Crimea and the ongoing build-up of troops on the eastern Ukrainian border, under the auspices of protecting Russian-speaking communities. The UK and US continue to press for a diplomatic solution to the evolving crisis but have also announced sanctions against Moscow in response to its actions.
There is little appetite for a western military intervention - and, indeed, the Budapest Memorandum does not commit direct military support to Ukraine in the face of aggression. The commitment given was to bring the issue to the Security Council through a resolution - which the US and UK did on 15th March, and was subsequently met with a Russian veto.
Some have called Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament a mistake, pointing to the west’s apparent inability to deliver on the alternative assurances it gave as proof that Ukraine may have been better off with its own nuclear deterrent. However, even if it had been technically and legally possible for Ukraine to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent (a task that would have been economically crippling and far from simple), it is misleading to conclude that a nuclear armed Ukraine might have prevented Russia from pursuing its current course in Crimea. In an arena of complete uncertainty, that is a judgment which is impossible to make.
What the events in Ukraine have revealed, however, are deep-seated dilemmas around the value of nuclear deterrence that we need to start addressing if we are to make deeper progress on disarmament and avoid further proliferation. Hyperbole and assumptions may come easily in the world of nuclear weapons - but we should not be building our policies on such shaky ground. We need to start thinking realistically about the role nuclear weapons actually play in the delivery of our respective national security strategies.
The fact is, we tend to view the concepts of nuclear and extended deterrence through a lens of extremes. We think of these weapons as a means of preventing, for example, a sudden and full scale invasion of Europe. But reality is that the world - in particular the world of geostrategic politics - operates with far more complexity and shades of grey.
It looks likely that the west will start to find itself increasingly at odds with Russia as Putin continues to look for ways to build and consolidate his concept of a “Eurasian Union”. Other eastern European states with large Russian-speaking populations are likely to be eyeing developments in Ukraine with concern. They are likely to ask the legitimate question of what, if anything, their allies in the west will do to support them - not in the event of a sudden take-over of eastern Europe, but rather in response to any creeping move to redefine existing boundaries, or seek social and economic influence.
Are we willing to “risk it all” with full-scale nuclear war to defend Russian speaking parts of Europe? The realistic answer is no. We will most likely find other ways to secure those boundaries that will hopefully lead us away from another cold war rabbit hole. One place to start would be to start looking again at the role that we think nuclear deterrence plays in our global stability, and the role that it actually plays. Much of central and eastern Europe may sit under the NATO nuclear umbrella - but the fact is, nuclear deterrence is a lot weaker than we want to believe it is. Although we continue to invest heavily in the concept for “national security” reasons, these weapons are entirely irrelevant in the overwhelming majority of geostrategic competition. Which begs the question - when are they relevant?
There is certainly a risk that some states - including in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula - could draw the conclusion from events in Crimea that the only way for any nation to assure its own security is through independent nuclear weapons possession. But a freefall into nuclear proliferation is clearly not an option for promoting global stability. It would almost certainly make the national security of those states choosing such a route immeasurably worse, as they themselves would be pulled into an unstable and unknowable multi-polar, multi-dimensional strategic game of signalling, targetting and being targetted.
Nuclear weapons are not the only option for providing assurance - indeed, they are not a reliable option at all. When we need assurance, nuclear deterrence simply does not deliver. Let’s start being honest about that fact, and thinking creatively about how else we establish the international structures, laws and systems that we actually need to promote a more stable global environment and tackle the common challenges that threaten us all.