Armed Conflict

Ukraine's Nuclear Moment

Eric Ciaramella
Wednesday, April 26, 2023, 11:24 AM
A review of Mariana Budjeryn, “Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022).

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A review of Mariana Budjeryn, “Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022).


History has seen many empires collapse, but only once has a nuclear-armed superpower disappeared from the world map overnight. When the hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time on December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union’s fearsome nuclear arsenal was suddenly spread out over the territory of four independent countries: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. There was no blueprint for what to do next. 

Mariana Budjeryn’s “Inheriting the Bomb” tells the story of how one of these new countries, Ukraine, came into possession of the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal—larger than the combined stockpiles of China, France, and the United Kingdom at the time—and decided to disarm peacefully a few years later. Ukraine’s denuclearization was far from a straightforward process. After initially renouncing nuclear weapons, Ukrainian officials sought recognition that their newly independent country was a rightful heir to part of the Soviet cache, deserving of equal treatment, financial compensation, and pledges that disarmament would not endanger Ukraine’s security. 

Budjeryn’s deeply researched book, published at the end of 2022, has obvious relevance today. In exchange for denuclearization, Ukraine received security assurances from the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia in December 1994, in a document known as the Budapest Memorandum. But Russia reneged on its promises, first in 2014, when it annexed Crimea and fomented a shadow war in the Donbas, and again last year, when it launched its all-out assault. (For a deeper dive into the memorandum’s history, see Mykhailo Soldatenko’s analysis in Lawfare.) 

Amid Moscow’s reckless nuclear saber-rattling and nine-year-long war of aggression against its neighbor, the Budapest Memorandum’s impotence has led many to wonder, understandably, whether Ukraine erred in surrendering its nuclear weapons. “If there were nuclear weapons in Ukraine now, if we had not made such a big mistake then, and I believe today that this was a mistake, there would have been no invasion, and we would have our territories now,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an interview in 2021, eight years after Crimea’s seizure and a year before Russia’s full-scale invasion. Even President Bill Clinton in a recent interview expressed regret for having pressured Ukraine to disarm: “I feel a personal stake because I got them to agree to give up their nuclear weapons. And none of them believe that Russia would have pulled this stunt if Ukraine still had their weapons.”

For Ukrainians, the brutal devastation Russia has inflicted on them since February 2022 has only made that counterfactual more agonizing. But Budjeryn, born and raised in Lviv and currently a senior researcher with the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, warns against simplistic narratives. Ukraine’s denuclearization, in her view, was not a mistake. “The main problem with this sort of counterfactual,” she argues, “is the presumption that one could isolate and tweak just one variable—the decision to keep nuclear weapons—without disrupting the broader web of international and domestic political and economic factors that combined to produce contemporary Ukraine. If Ukraine had refused [to disarm], it would not be the same country it is today but with nuclear weapons. Indeed, it is doubtful whether it would be a country at all.” 

Ukraine might have become a pariah state at a time when its independence was far from assured and its overarching objective was to join the global community as a member in good standing, she argues. And even if a nuclear-armed Ukraine had somehow managed to navigate alone what would have been a more hostile international environment, it would not have forged the extensive ties to the West that it did in the decades after disarmament: the same ties that today are a lifeline for Ukrainians heroically resisting Russia’s aggression. 

Nuclear Divorce

Budjeryn begins her story with the Chernobyl nuclear accident in April 1986. The shock produced by that disaster, and the Soviet leadership’s ham-fisted attempts to cover it up, galvanized Ukraine’s pro-independence forces at a time when Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika were beginning to open up the politics and economy of the Soviet Union. Anti-nuclear sentiment suffused the Ukrainian national-democratic movement, which won about a quarter of the seats in Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, in the first and only multiparty elections held in the Soviet Union, in March 1990. 

A few months later, the democratic opposition joined with the national communists in the Rada to declare Ukraine’s state sovereignty, following similar declarations by Russia and other Soviet republics. In addition to asserting the right to form an army and introduce a national currency, the Rada’s declaration envisioned Ukraine becoming a neutral state with no nuclear weapons. For the Ukrainian pro-independence movement, Budjeryn notes, nuclear renunciation was not only about Chernobyl; it was a critical security matter. So long as Ukraine hosted weapons for which command and control ran through Moscow, it could never attain true sovereignty. 

As the forces pulling the Soviet Union apart intensified over the course of 1991, the fate of the Soviet nuclear arsenal vaulted to the top of the American policy agenda. President George H.W. Bush’s nuclear focus was sensible: These weapons could, after all, end humanity. But the degree to which it crowded out other strategic considerations—namely, America’s future relationship with the constituent republics—put Washington in the ironic position of trying to keep Gorbachev in power and the Soviet Union alive against the wishes of virtually everyone but Gorbachev. Bush’s infamous “Chicken Kiev” speech to the Rada in early August, in which he warned of the dangers of “suicidal nationalism,” encapsulated Washington’s quixotic effort to hold back the centrifugal forces that were destroying its once-menacing adversary. 

American officials struggled to adapt as the disintegration process accelerated, especially after hardliners tried to oust Gorbachev a few weeks after Bush’s visit. The August coup set in motion a cascade of events that culminated in the Soviet Union’s demise, with the question of Ukraine’s future squarely at the center of the drama. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, seeking to wrest control of central government institutions from Gorbachev, aligned himself with Ukraine, which declared independence a few days after the coup. But Ukraine drove a hard bargain. Leonid Kravchuk, the Ukrainian communist party boss and chairman of the Rada, managed to outmaneuver both of his counterparts in Moscow, securing full independence for Ukraine after an overwhelming vote of support in a referendum in December 1991. 

Key questions about Soviet nuclear weapons went unanswered when Yeltsin, Kravchuk, and their Belarusian counterpart gathered a week after the Ukrainian referendum to declare the end of the Soviet Union. The Belavezha Accords, which replaced the Soviet Union with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), stated that the parties would “preserve and maintain, under the joint command, a common military-strategic space, including unified control over nuclear weapons.” How that would work in practice was anyone’s guess. 

The United States insisted that only one nuclear successor state emerge from the Soviet collapse. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), signed in 1968, recognized only five nuclear-weapon states: the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. It did not envision one of the signatories, the Soviet Union, dissolving into multiple states. U.S. officials also feared that the largely peaceful Soviet divorce might turn violent, rendering the region a massive “Yugoslavia with nukes.” Averse to seeing the nuclear club expand, they decided that the safest bet was for Russia to assume the Soviet Union’s place in the NPT. 

Part of the rationale for Washington’s approach was that it had long dealt with Moscow on strategic issues. There was a sense of familiarity and, as Budjeryn notes, a “conflation of the Soviet Union and Russia in Western imagery.” There were also practical reasons: Russia retained operational control over all nuclear arms on the territory of the former Soviet Union, and it was the only one of the four Soviet nuclear inheritors able to independently design and produce warheads and delivery systems. 

Still, it was impossible for Washington to ignore the fact that one-third of the Soviet arsenal was physically located outside of Russian territory. Persuading Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to disarm thus became a top priority for Washington. But it was caught off-guard when Kyiv demanded a say in the process and doggedly defended its interests at the negotiating table.

The Winding Path to Disarmament

Budjeryn deftly traces how Ukraine’s initial stance on nuclear renunciation shifted as the country grew more concerned about Russia’s efforts to establish itself as the hegemonic power in the post-Soviet space. A secession crisis in Crimea in early 1992, fanned by conservative political forces in Moscow, unnerved Ukrainian officials, who feared that swaths of the Russian elite were not ready to accept Ukraine’s independence. 

Yeltsin distanced himself from the hardliners’ territorial claims, but his eagerness to turn the CIS into a supranational organization anchored in Moscow set off alarm bells in Kyiv. In Kravchuk’s mind, he had agreed to the CIS merely to finalize the Soviet divorce, not to enter into a new arrangement that would curtail his country’s independence. Yeltsin’s efforts to strong-arm Kravchuk over the division of Soviet military assets, especially the Black Sea Fleet and naval base in Sevastopol, further reinforced Ukraine’s concerns. 

The fight over the broader vision for the CIS meant that the original formulation at Belavezha for “unified control” over nuclear weapons—some kind of joint management system that included Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan—was not viable. In the spring of 1992, Kravchuk asserted “administrative control” over the nuclear weapons on Ukraine’s territory, placing him at odds with both Moscow and Washington. His decision, Budjeryn shows, was not about wanting to retain nuclear weapons. Rather, it reflected a growing recognition in Kyiv, fueled by the single-minded American focus on denuclearization, that these weapons were the best leverage available to gain recognition of Ukraine’s legitimate security interests. 

In this context, Ukraine began to insist that the United States provide security guarantees in exchange for nuclear disarmament. Visiting President Bush at the White House in May 1992, Kravchuk shared his concerns about the Crimean crisis and potential Russian revanchism, noting with alarm the “imperial tendencies beginning to show in Russia.” He told Bush that a denuclearization deal could not leave Ukraine without “reliable” security guarantees. 

But Bush and his advisers, Budjeryn notes, were slow to grasp the depth of Ukraine’s insecurity. The White House dismissed Kravchuk’s request, pointing to run-of-the-mill commitments the United States had already made in the NPT and the Helsinki Final Act. Ukraine, understandably, wanted something more specific and actionable. Meanwhile, Moscow’s continued campaign to chip away at Ukraine’s independence only made matters worse. “As Russia’s refusal to fully accept Ukraine’s sovereignty became more apparent, and the threat of border revisionism more menacing,” Budjeryn writes, “Ukraine’s reluctance to surrender nuclear weapons deepened and the insistence on Western security guarantees became more urgent.” 

Toward the end of Bush’s term, and especially once Clinton took office, the United States realized it had made an error in prioritizing the nuclear issue in its relationship with Ukraine to the exclusion of all else. The White House pivoted to a broader engagement strategy, hoping to persuade Kyiv that its security interests would be taken into account. But Ukraine’s domestic politics had grown much more complicated in the intervening period. Kravchuk had to contend with a more obstreperous Rada, which had inserted itself into the nuclear talks with increasingly adamant demands for security guarantees and financial compensation. 

Budjeryn’s extensive treatment of Ukraine’s internal decision-making on the nuclear issue, particularly during 1992 and 1993, might seem tedious to some readers, but it is where her original research shines through. In addition to the interviews she conducted with many of the key players in Kyiv, she has unearthed numerous documents from the Ukrainian state archives that shed new light on a story that, for English-language audiences at least, has not yet been told. 

The documents are publicly accessible as part of a large collection on the National Security Archive website. They show the range of policy options considered by the Ukrainian leadership and the arguments that ultimately swayed Kyiv to pursue total nuclear disarmament. Ultimately, as Budjeryn shows, it was a multiplicity of factors that convinced Ukrainian officials that the weapons were more of a liability than an asset. Moreover, American diplomatic engagement and financial assistance were critical to finding a solution to which both Kyiv and Moscow could agree. In the end, Ukraine transferred its nuclear warheads to Russia in exchange for low-enriched uranium to fuel its nuclear power plants; dismantled thousands of missiles, bombers, and other associated infrastructure with the help of $500 million from the United States; and received security assurances in the Budapest Memorandum. 

The Errors of Budapest

The success of Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament is, of course, clouded by the failure of the Budapest Memorandum. But Budjeryn shows how the negotiating process leading up to the agreement benefited Ukraine. “Ultimately, the story of Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament is not reducible to the strong doing what they will and the weak suffering what they must,” she writes. Through determined diplomacy, Ukraine was able to assert its interests and sovereignty as a newly independent state and hold its own with two nuclear superpowers. It won recognition for its rightful claim to have inherited part of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, paving the way for compensation and a better deal than it would have gotten if it had caved to American and Russian demands at the outset. Budjeryn also hails the NPT for providing a guiding light to all of the major players at a time when the future was deeply uncertain.

That said, Budjeryn faults officials from the Bush and Clinton administrations for a lack of creativity in addressing Ukraine’s role in European security. The divergence between Russia’s desire for regional hegemony and Ukraine’s ambition to be a sovereign, European state was evident to policymakers at an early date. But Washington hoped that this tension would gradually subside as Yeltsin’s reforms took hold in Russia. At the same time, Clinton’s move to enlarge NATO without defining a place for Ukraine in, or adjacent to, the alliance only sharpened the country’s insecurity. 

In retrospect, the Budapest Memorandum could have been a solution to this problem. It might have reduced the risk of eventual Russian aggression if it had contained a clear enforcement mechanism, including punishment for violations. “The Budapest Memorandum could have been a durable part of [the] post-Cold War European security architecture,” Budjeryn writes, “but instead ended up papering over a Ukraine-sized security vacuum.” 

There were alternatives under consideration. One of the documents Budjeryn uncovered in her archival work is a 1993 proposal from the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a treaty on security guarantees. The draft treaty was a far stronger version of what ended up in the Budapest Memorandum. The legally binding arrangement would have included penalties for violators and clear pledges by the guarantors to render aid to Ukraine if it was attacked. But American officials rejected the treaty at the time. Washington believed it could achieve Ukraine’s denuclearization at a lower cost, with its future commitment to Ukraine left undefined. One can only wonder whether such a treaty might have caused Russian President Vladimir Putin to think twice about moving into Crimea in 2014. Clearly, the West’s strategy of kicking the can down the road on Ukraine’s security dilemma is no longer sustainable. Reports have emerged that the United States and its allies are considering some form of security guarantee for Ukraine, a welcome step that will be critical to the “just and lasting peace” that remains the West’s stated policy objective. 

In the two decades after Budapest, Ukraine’s leaders also failed to build a modern, conventional army that could have kept Russia at bay. Chronic underfunding and corruption hollowed out the Ukrainian military to the point that, when Russian forces covertly moved into Crimea in late February 2014, Ukraine could muster no more than 5,000 combat-ready troops to defend the country—a far cry from the well-equipped, well-trained Ukrainian army of today. Once the war is over, Ukraine’s leaders must ensure that the army does not again fall into disrepair. 

In a sense, the massive military support the United States has provided Ukraine since February 2022 is a deferred payment for nuclear disarmament in the 1990s. But the cost is far higher than it might have been if Washington had made a clearer commitment to Ukraine’s security back in the day. If there is a lesson to be learned from Budapest as the White House contemplates Ukraine’s place in the postwar European security order, it is that the easier option is not always the right one.

Eric Ciaramella, a Lawfare contributing editor, is also a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he specializes in Ukraine and post-Soviet affairs. He previously served in the U.S. government as an intelligence analyst and policy official, including at the CIA, National Intelligence Council, and National Security Council.

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