The Ukes and Their Nukes

Why the Bomb wouldn't have helped Kiev protect Crimea from Russia.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Vladimir Putin's justification for invading Crimea may be more contorted than even his girlfriend, but the discussion of whether nuclear weapons would have helped Ukraine defend itself has been nearly as bad.

Vladimir Putin’s justification for invading Crimea may be more contorted than even his girlfriend, but the discussion of whether nuclear weapons would have helped Ukraine defend itself has been nearly as bad.

In 1994, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan gave up the Soviet nuclear weapons they inherited after the breakup of the USSR. Now, the usual suspects, including the strategic planning staff at the Wall Street Journal editorial page and peacocking Ukrainian politicians, are arguing that none of the past weeks’ nastiness would have happened if Kiev had kept the Bomb. In most of these accounts, a nuclear arsenal is some sort of magic wand that can wave away all of Putin’s bullying and, for more partisan sorts, swiftly return us to the glorious past when it was Morning in America. If only that were so. (Well, the part about stopping Volodya’s bullying — I’ll take a pass on a reprise of the Reagan administration.) The reality is that nuclear weapons wouldn’t have saved Crimea and can’t protect Kiev from Moscow.

I’ll spare you the review of the academic literature on whether states with nuclear weapons (or more nuclear weapons, or better nuclear weapons) are more likely to get their way in dealing with other countries. There is a healthy debate over at the Duck of Minerva that can introduce you to the contours of that discussion. Here, I will simply say that you can find a study to support any particular view. I think there are severe methodological and data problems with many of the studies. At best, I’d say the most interesting hypotheses about how nuclear weapons affect outcomes in the international system remain unproven.

A brief survey of similar crises, however, offers no reason to think a Ukrainian bomb would have deterred Moscow from seizing Crimea. In 1973, Israel possessed both nuclear weapons and, to Anwar Sadat’s annoyance, the Sinai Peninsula. On Yom Kippur of that year, the Egyptian military launched a surprise attack across the Suez Canal in an attempt to retake the peninsula. (The Syrians joined in for good measure, attempting to retake the Golan Heights.) Similarly, in 1982, the United Kingdom had nuclear weapons and, to the irritation of Argentina’s ruling military junta, the Falkland Islands. The British also had Attila the Hen herself, Margaret Thatcher — no small matter given the tendency of the most shrill American partisans to blame President Obama for everything. No matter, while the Brits were dancing to "Seven Tears" by the Goombay Dance Band, Argentina seized the Falklands. (Don’t ask the Argentines how that turned out, it’s a sore subject.) Leaders in Cairo and Buenos Aires had calculated that the territory in question wasn’t an integral part of their intended victim’s homeland and that fighting would remain conventional — which it did. Israel and the United Kingdom responded with conventional forces, not nuclear weapons.

We now have a crisis over Crimea for precisely the same reason that fighting broke out over Sinai and the Falkland Islands: Putin figures Ukraine and the world will accept Russia’s devouring of Crimea on the pretext that it isn’t a "real" part of Ukraine. And, although I think that’s a very dangerous distinction for us to draw, Putin seems to be getting away with it. Ukraine always had a credibility problem when it came to defending Crimea. Nuclear weapons don’t solve credibility problems like this; they suffer from them.

What’s more, unlike fences, good nukes do not necessarily make good neighbors. And, unlike Egypt or Argentina, Russia has nuclear weapons. While popular ideas about nuclear weapons tend to emphasize deterrence, there is another phenomenon worth considering: the so-called stability/instability paradox. The idea originated with Glenn Snyder, but our modern conception really belongs to Robert Jervis. Up to a certain point, the argument goes, nuclear deterrence makes the world safe for conventional warfare. When a nuclear-armed Pakistan seized Kargil from a nuclear-armed India or provided material support to terrorists who marauded through Mumbai, plenty of analysts in New Delhi concluded that India’s nuclear weapons simply don’t deter low-level conventional aggression below the "nuclear overhang." If Moscow wants to fund motorcycle gangs and other thugs to destabilize the Ukrainian government and whip up internal tensions, it can do that whether or not Ukraine is nuclear-armed. For those people advocating a Ukrainian bomb, take a look at Israel. If nuclear weapons are so great, why are the Israelis so worried about Iran getting one? Won’t stable deterrence usher in a new era of peace and prosperity in the Middle East? Not necessarily. A nuclear-armed Iran may well feel emboldened to expand its support to Hezbollah and other proxies that will attack Israel. Nuclear weapons don’t do jack about biker gangs and suicide bombers.

What nuclear weapons might do reasonably well is to provide a measure of deterrence against existential threats, such as the Russians completing devouring Ukraine. Although I think analysts tend to downplay the credibility challenges to using nuclear weapons, completely annihilating a nuclear-armed state seems, well, sort of dangerous. Even Vladimir Putin, shirtless and astride a bear, would probably think twice about thundering into Kiev if the Ukes had the bomb. But look closely, and even this idea has some interesting subtleties. In 2008, Putin’s tanks rolled in to Georgia and then … stopped. Russia could have taken Tbilisi, swallowing Georgia up in one little bite. But something stopped Moscow then, just as Moscow — for the moment — has stopped in Ukraine. What was it? Because whatever it was seems like a far more promising route to secure Ukrainian territorial integrity than nuclear weapons.

Part of the reason that Russian armor did not roll all the way into Tbilisi has to do with Putin’s reluctance to break completely with the West. He and his cronies have bank accounts, vacation homes, and girlfriends stashed outside of Mother Russia. Putin might think the collapse of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster, but there is enough Russian money floating around London these days to suggest that it wasn’t all bad. Deterring Putin from dismembering Ukraine or his other neighbors means convincing him that the West takes Ukraine’s independence and territorially integrity seriously — deadly seriously.

Which is why Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in the first place. A lot of folks are sending around John Mearsheimer’s old polemic, "The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent." (Interestingly, his of-a-theme 1990 article "Back to the Future," which forecast that Germany and France would turn on one another in a resumption of great-power competition, gets less circulation. Scholars always look smarter when someone curates their work.) One of the overlooked passages is Mearsheimer’s prediction that "it is unlikely that Ukraine will transfer its remaining nuclear weapons to Russia, the state it fears most." Of course, he was wrong about that. One might ask why, if Mearsheimer was so wrong about what motivated Ukraine’s leadership, we should we believe the rest of his fairy tale about why states do what they do. But let’s leave that aside for the moment. Instead, let’s focus on why Ukraine gave the weapons back.

One reason is that, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the weapons on Ukrainian territory were disconnected from the systems of production and command that had sustained and controlled them. But the most important reason centers on how Ukrainian leaders conceived of their post-Soviet identity. A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan surrendered their Soviet nuclear weapons for security guarantees from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia. It is worth noting that those three states surrendered their nuclear weapons and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) not because they believed the West was likely to come to their defense in the event Russia attacked, but because they believed that Western support was unlikely unless they demonstrated that they were a normal European country. Joining international agreements and becoming a responsible member of the international community was a way of asserting their sovereignty, of persuading the West that they weren’t simply Russian client-states accidentally cut loose from Moscow. Ukraine, obviously, has done better than, say, Belarus in this regard. In some ways, that decision proved correct — Ukraine’s troubles arise from the fact that plenty of Ukrainians see a European, not a Russian, future for their country.

In contrast to the spare neorealist conspiracy theories about the rational pursuit of interest under conditions of anarchy, the most interesting scholarship today emphasizes how leaders conceive of themselves and those interests. In the case of Ukraine’s then-foreign minister, the country’s identity was absolutely clear in 1993: "100 percent European." Eschewing the NPT and building nuclear weapons might have provided some small measure of security to Kiev in the most extreme instances, but it would have undermined the country’s claim that it belonged in the West.

If Ukraine wants to preserve its independence from Moscow, Kiev has to complete its turn westward. Over the long run, that means reforming its economy and political institutions to the point that it can join the European Union and NATO. Of course, at the moment, Kiev needs to make sure there is a long run. That means managing Moscow. The strategy of placating a larger neighbor is usually called Finlandization, after Helsinki’s accommodation of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Finlandization has a bad name as a weak sort of policy, although it is worth noting that the approach worked precisely because the Finns had inflicted terrible losses on the Soviets when they tried to seize borderlands during the 1939-1940 Winter War. The Soviets won, but the Finns fought hard enough that Stalin didn’t want seconds. The world wouldn’t see cold-weather fighting like that again until the Battle of Hoth. If Ukraine can persuade Russia that, after a point, it will fight, then deterrence with a little accommodation might see Kiev through Putin’s lifetime. Finland managed to achieve this without nuclear weapons, as did its neutral neighbor, Sweden. (Though Sweden’s renunciation of nuclear weapons came only after it came very close to building the bomb.) Accommodating Moscow is not a bad policy, given the substantial number of people in Ukraine who retain ties to Russia.

Kiev’s long-term future lies in the West. And that’s where nuclear weapons would become a tremendous liability. Although the North Atlantic allies had been reluctant to further antagonize Moscow with another round of NATO expansion, that may change now — if Kiev can demonstrate that it is really a European country that needs only to end Russia’s meddling to transition to a normal European society. Nuclear weapons, whatever benefits one might imagine they confer, aren’t a part of that story.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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