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Putin’s War Is a Death Blow to Nuclear Nonproliferation

Russia has shown that an attacker with nuclear arms is fundamentally safe.

By , an analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, and , an analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
Intercontinental ballistic missile launchers and an armored vehicle are seen during a military parade in Red Square in Moscow on June 24, 2020.
Intercontinental ballistic missile launchers and an armored vehicle are seen during a military parade in Red Square in Moscow on June 24, 2020.
Intercontinental ballistic missile launchers and an armored vehicle are seen during a military parade in Red Square in Moscow on June 24, 2020. Sergey Pyatakov - Host Photo Agency via Getty Images

One of the most dangerous and far-reaching repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the subversion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—perhaps the most critical multilateral agreement for the survival of humanity. Since its first attack on Ukraine in 2014, Russia’s actions have put the logic of the treaty to prevent the spread of atomic weapons on its head. Because Ukraine once possessed nuclear weapons but gave them up when it joined the NPT in 1994, Russia’s renewed aggression makes it look as if the treaty’s purpose is to keep weak countries defenseless and prey to the nuclear-weapon states. Russian President Vladimir Putin said as much at the start of the war, when he announced that he had put his country’s nuclear forces on alert and issued ominous threats to anyone daring to get in Russia’s way.

In the early 1990s, newly independent Ukraine briefly possessed more nuclear warheads than Britain, France, and China combined. Ukraine had inherited from the Soviet Union some 1,900 strategic and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons stationed on its territory. However, against the background of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and in the spirit of the geopolitical optimism of the early post-Cold War years, Kyiv decided that Ukraine would become entirely free of nuclear weapons.

To be sure, Ukraine was unable to use most of its nuclear weapons at the time, as the command centers were still in Moscow. Yet it had accumulated not just the warheads, but also the specialized technology and engineering expertise it could easily have used to be a nuclear weapons state—by keeping a reserve of enriched uranium or plutonium, or even nuclear ammunition and warheads. Under considerable pressure from Moscow but also with generous help from Washington, Kyiv quickly transferred its entire nuclear arsenal to Russia. Ukraine signed and ratified the NPT as a non-nuclear state.

One of the most dangerous and far-reaching repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the subversion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—perhaps the most critical multilateral agreement for the survival of humanity. Since its first attack on Ukraine in 2014, Russia’s actions have put the logic of the treaty to prevent the spread of atomic weapons on its head. Because Ukraine once possessed nuclear weapons but gave them up when it joined the NPT in 1994, Russia’s renewed aggression makes it look as if the treaty’s purpose is to keep weak countries defenseless and prey to the nuclear-weapon states. Russian President Vladimir Putin said as much at the start of the war, when he announced that he had put his country’s nuclear forces on alert and issued ominous threats to anyone daring to get in Russia’s way.

In the early 1990s, newly independent Ukraine briefly possessed more nuclear warheads than Britain, France, and China combined. Ukraine had inherited from the Soviet Union some 1,900 strategic and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons stationed on its territory. However, against the background of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and in the spirit of the geopolitical optimism of the early post-Cold War years, Kyiv decided that Ukraine would become entirely free of nuclear weapons.

To be sure, Ukraine was unable to use most of its nuclear weapons at the time, as the command centers were still in Moscow. Yet it had accumulated not just the warheads, but also the specialized technology and engineering expertise it could easily have used to be a nuclear weapons state—by keeping a reserve of enriched uranium or plutonium, or even nuclear ammunition and warheads. Under considerable pressure from Moscow but also with generous help from Washington, Kyiv quickly transferred its entire nuclear arsenal to Russia. Ukraine signed and ratified the NPT as a non-nuclear state.

In exchange for full denuclearization, Washington, Moscow, and London agreed to provide Kyiv with additional security pledges. At a summit of the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (the predecessor of today’s Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) in 1994, the four countries signed the now-famous Budapest Memorandum, named for the city where the summit was held. In this document, the nonproliferation regime’s three guarantor powers—the United States, Britain, and Russia (as the legal successor of the Soviet Union)—assured Ukraine of its sovereignty, the security of its territory, and its freedom from economic and political pressure.

The two other official nuclear-weapon states under the NPT, China and France, followed suit. They provided Ukraine with separate governmental declarations expressing their respect for Ukraine’s state and borders. Similar written pledges were made to Belarus and Kazakhstan, two other post-Soviet states that had inherited parts of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. The two countries also agreed to transfer their warheads to Russia.

The NPT—which has been signed by 191 countries, more than any other arms control agreement—was finalized in 1968 and went into effect in 1970. The treaty’s goal is to avert the spread of nuclear weapons, foster cooperation on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and work toward complete nuclear disarmament. It was extended indefinitely in 1995, not the least against the background of the successful denuclearization of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

The NPT is the bedrock of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. It contains the only binding commitment to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states. The agreement explicitly acknowledges that preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons cannot be achieved by individual states but requires the dedication and collaboration of the global community.

The NPT also contains the obligation of nuclear-weapon states to not transfer nuclear arms to other states—and of non-nuclear-weapon states to refrain from receiving, manufacturing, or acquiring nuclear weapons. It includes a promise by nuclear-weapon states to help promote the development of civilian nuclear applications of all treaty parties. In its preamble, the NPT recalls that countries must refrain, in accordance with the United Nations Charter, “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.”

The effect of the nonproliferation regime has so far been that the vast majority of countries have abstained from acquiring atomic arms. Outside the NPT, only India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan have developed their own nuclear weapons capability. However, their arsenals are smaller than those of the NPT’s five official nuclear-weapon states: Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States, which are also permanent U.N. Security Council members. More than half a century after its signing, the NPT remains largely intact. Its 10th review conference is scheduled for later this year after several postponements due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With Russia’s military and nonmilitary attacks on Ukraine since 2014, the seizure and annexation of Ukrainian territory, and the ongoing invasion, the Kremlin has put the logic of the nonproliferation regime on its head. With the nuclear-weapon states’ security guarantee to Ukraine so obviously worthless, it looks now as if the NPT’s purpose is to provide the five official nuclear-weapon states—which happen to be the world’s strongest conventional military powers as well—with an opportunity to extend, at relatively low cost, their territories. They can do so at the expense of smaller nations naive enough to believe in the rule of international law, which have signed the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states.

Russia’s behavior toward Ukraine since 2014 is thus a threat to the integrity of the NPT, the global order of which it is a foundation, and the security of the NPT’s 191 signatories, including Russia itself. By so obviously breaking the NPT, Russia has severely undermined worldwide faith in the plausibility of nonproliferation, diminished the will of individual states to participate in its pursuit, and increased the potential and temptation for additional states and nonstate actors to acquire and use nuclear weapons. Russia’s attacks on and dismemberment of Ukraine thus erode the security of all.

What long-term incentives will Russia’s renewed attack on Ukraine create?

Russia was able to attack Ukraine because the former is a nuclear-weapon state. Not only does Ukraine lack these arms to deter an attack, but it is also forbidden by the NPT to obtain them. Were Ukraine a nuclear power, Putin and his military leaders surely would have thought twice before launching their invasion.

Middle powers not protected by larger alliances such as NATO can learn three simple lessons. First, it is good to have nuclear weapons—either to advance your designs on another country’s territory or to deter just such an attack. Second, it is not good to give your weapons away. Third, it makes little sense to rely on treaties, memoranda, assurances, and other statements—even if they are fully ratified, legally binding, and supported by the governments of the world’s most powerful countries.

For many countries, the lesson will be to follow a wiser policy than Kyiv did when it gave away its warheads and nuclear material. Instead, a country’s chances to stay sovereign and keep its territory intact will be higher if it obtains and keeps nuclear warheads. Starting a new nuclear weapons program isn’t easy today, but once a new, disruptive technology makes it easier to develop or buy nuclear weapons, many countries will want to get them—all the more so if they have a rapacious neighbor that already has such weapons or that they suspect of wanting to get some.

For that rapacious neighbor, the lesson is that it might get a chance to grab a piece of another country lacking sufficiently deadly arms and naively trusting international law. Following Putin’s playbook, resolute threats to use nuclear warheads will make sure that no outside powers will come to the help of a non-nuclear neighbor that’s under attack. Russia has shown that an attacker with nuclear arms is fundamentally safe. Even far short of a full-scale invasion, Russian behavior in Georgia and elsewhere demonstrates again and again that it can act with impunity, with a few minor arms deliveries and economic sanctions the worst possible reaction by outside powers—and even those sanctions are usually weak and abolished over time.

What else do you need to know to find the bomb an attractive solution?

Andreas Umland is an analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs’ Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies. Twitter: @UmlandAndreas

Hugo von Essen is an analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs’ Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies. Twitter: @HugovonEssen

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