During a lecture tour at the Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv last week, I was taken aback when a priest from the university joked that since my background is in nuclear engineering, Ukraine should consider eliciting my help to restore her position as a nuclear-weapons state.
I was not amused, but brushed it off as worries over the upcoming quite-illegitimate Crimean referendum. I was wrong.
Since then, and much to my dismay, Ukrainian member of parliament Pavlo Rizanenko, a member of a more moderate party, noted, “Now, there’s a strong sentiment in Ukraine that we made a big mistake” in giving up nuclear weapons.
In the past two weeks, Oleh Soskin, director of a prominent Ukrainian think tank; Volodymyr Ohryzko, minister of foreign affairs from 2007 to 2009; and member of parliament Oleh Tyahnybok from the nationalist Svoboda party have also called for Ukraine to consider renewing its nuclear-weapons status.
Russia has blatantly reneged on the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which obligated signatory states to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine,” and pledge “that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine.” This memorandum followed the January 1994 Trilateral Agreement between Russia, the United States, and Ukraine, under which Ukraine eliminated its 1,900 strategic warheads, 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons, 176 ICBMs, and 25 strategic bombers, and acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state.
Putin is hell-bent on reestablishing a supranational Russian-dominated state encompassing the countries of the former Soviet Union (whose dissolution he claimed was “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century”). His cold logic is one of pure political will and military power that has humiliated the U.S. and Western Europe. Perhaps most damaging, Putin’s actions have exposed kinks in the West’s commitment to the international rule of law and human rights, which have taken a back seat to economic interests and fears of a nuclear conflict.
But the nuclear option for Ukraine is no option at all, for two main reasons.
First, Russia’s aggressions and provocations — with likely more to come given West’s de facto complacence — and its reneging on the Budapest Memorandum shouldn’t force Ukraine to follow suit. While Article 10 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty grants any signatory state the right to withdrawal, and while Putin has so undermined the efficacy of international agreements (so that states may now freely and legally consider withdrawing from any of them), there is nonetheless a high road. Ukraine, as weak and as threatened as she is, can demonstrate to the world that the rule of law actually means something — even as it endures the potential loss of its sovereignty. Standing by its international commitments would make Ukraine a beacon.