The Ukraine Invasion and Nuclear Debate

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Russian forces have closed in on the capital city Kyiv with the response from NATO in the form of condemnations and sanctions. The invasion has re-generated the interest in nuclear deterrence as Ukraine had once held the third-largest nuclear weapons arsenal before giving it up after years of diplomacy and assurances for its territorial and political independence. What kind of nuclear deterrence did Kyiv have and why did it give up, and how is its invasion seen from the deterrence angle are the questions discussed in this article.

Ukraine and the Nuclear Weapons

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had deployed nuclear weapons in Ukraine when it was part of the empire as one of the Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR had deployed strategic nuclear weapons in three of its republics, i.e., Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, besides mainland Russia. Ukraine and Kazakhstan were the third and fourth largest countries where nuclear weapons were deployed. There were 1568 strategic warheads in Ukraine, 1360 in Kazakhstan, and 54 in Belarus. Besides the strategic nuclear warheads, Ukraine had 176 SS-19 and SS-24 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), 44 strategic bombers, as well 650 tactical nuclear weapons.

Ukraine had only maintained administrative control over the nuclear weapons deployed on its territory and operations. The command and control of those weapons were centralised in Russia. The Russian Rocket Force was in operational control of nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil, and it reported to Moscow. The Russian President, through the defence minister and the Chief of the General Staff, had the launch authority and control. All these three had their nuclear suitcases in what is termed as a three-pronged strategy to launch nuclear weapons, especially under a surprise attack. The Permissive Actions Link (PALs) and other safeguard measures meant that only authorised use of nuclear weapons coming from the command and control was possible. The command and control and safeguard measures prevented negative nuclear control or unauthorised nuclear use.

Ukraine is not part of NATO, and the best response from NATO can be more sanctions, excluding Russia from the Swift payment network and providing Ukraine with modest military assistance.

The bulk of Soviet nuclear command and control infrastructure was located inside Russia, even if Ukraine wanted to develop its own command and control after the dissolution of the USSR. Ukraine had some aspects of the production of nuclear delivery systems, such as the SS-24s deployed on its soil had been produced in a Ukrainian plant at Kharkiv. It also had production facilities of guidance systems and PALs locally. With these, the SS-24s could have been serviced locally with relative ease by Ukraine. It could have also used those weapons and materials to design its weapons. In fact, Ukraine had attempted to develop its own command and control by 1993 by establishing the Center of Administrative Control over Strategic Nuclear Forces in the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence. After 1992, Ukraine had gained access to nuclear warheads, developed measures to prevent the Russian launch of nuclear weapons, and certain conditions for positive control over those weapons.

However, Ukraine had signed the 1991 Minsk Agreement on Strategic Forces to give Russia the charge of all the nuclear armament and the 1992 Lisbon Protocol to return Russia nuclear weapons and sign the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). After the 1994 Trilateral Statement and 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, Ukraine adhered to full disarmament and signed START and NPT.

But several factors influenced the Ukrainian decision to abandon nuclear weapons, such as security assurances from the nuclear powers against the threat or use of force against its territory or political independence, economic assistance, and compensation for fissile material removed from strategic and tactical systems. Earlier, the Ukrainian Parliament, in the Declaration of State Sovereignty of 16 July 1990, had affirmed the principles of non-alignment and non-membership in military blocs and pledged “not to accept, produce, or acquire nuclear weapons”. However, it can be said that the Ukrainian decision to give up nuclear weapons was mostly motivated by political and economic factors than technical ones. If it continued, it could have achieved positive operational control over the weapons under its administration. The only way for the US and Russia to disarm Ukraine if it had decided to keep all the nuclear arsenal was to physically remove nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles from its territory.

NATO’s Options

NATO is caught in a difficult situation. It is supporting Ukraine against Russia and considering its membership in the NATO alliance, which along with the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe, is the primary reason for Russia’s response. But even after the full-scale invasion by Russia, NATO can best do is slapping sanctions on Moscow which have not been able to deter Putin until now. For Putin, he has calculated that the cost of victory, crushing the Ukrainian military, regime change in Ukraine, and communicating NATO his commitment to protect Russian interests at all costs, is affordable and beneficial for the longer term.

NATO’s increased military assistance to Ukraine, which Russia may see as a delaying factor or major hindrance in achieving its objectives, can frustrate Putin and bring a nuclear risk.

With nuclear deterrence at play, NATO cannot afford a direct fight. The response from NATO is realistic as it is not expected to fight a war with Russia for Ukraine. Ukraine is not part of NATO, and the best response from NATO can be more sanctions, excluding Russia from the Swift payment network and providing Ukraine with modest military assistance.

The credibility of Security Assurance

The Crimean annexation in 2014 and a full-scale invasion of Ukraine have dealt a big blow to the security assurances by the nuclear weapons state to non-nuclear weapons state. Earlier, the Israeli raid against the Iraqi nuclear reactor and the fate of Iraq after the US invasion, and the Libyan decision to abandon the nuclear weapons program and its fate reinforces that they were punished for pursuing nuclear programs. North Korea and Iran, in this case, may have strengthened their faith in nuclear weapons for their sovereignty and defence. One example in this direction is the latest missile test by North Korea to demonstrate its missile capabilities and signal to regional adversaries and the US.

The current crisis also demonstrates it to other countries to rely on hard power and internal balancing for their defence. However, this crisis is not a real test case of the alliance’s commitment to the defence of its members due to Ukraine not being part of NATO. NATO has Article 5 which calls for “collective defence” of the alliance and can only be invoked when a member state is under attack.

While the nuclear angle of the crisis is not significant at the moment as NATO’s response remains limited to sanctions against Russia and modest military assistance to Ukraine. However, NATO’s increased military assistance to Ukraine, which Russia may see as a delaying factor or major hindrance in achieving its objectives, can frustrate Putin and bring nuclear risk. Putin’s statement to alert its nuclear forces should be seen under this context. Both the US and Russia keep their strategic nuclear forces, silo-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), in the state of readiness all the time. Putin’s statement on the nuclear alert can be seen as signalling to NATO to stop aiding Ukraine and sanctioning Russian economy.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is an Islamabad-based defense analyst. He writes on military capabilities, national security, and defense issues. He tweets at @Samranali6.

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