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.
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.
Second, while Ukraine has 15 operating nuclear reactors at four plants (including the largest in Europe, the Zaporizhzhia NPP), its nuclear-weapons infrastructure is essentially non-existent and practically impossible to develop.
Ukraine has a modest amount of uranium in the ground, but it has no enrichment capabilities beyond the production of yellow cake, which is many steps away from weaponized uranium. The enrichment portion of a nuclear-fuel cycle is an expensive, energy-intensive, high-tech undertaking for which Ukraine neither has the economic resources nor expertise to develop any time soon.
Further, Ukraine has essentially no expertise (and certainly no real experience) in the design and production of nuclear warheads — another expensive, high-tech proposition that would take years to establish while draining its treasury of resources that must be directed to rebuilding an economy plundered by pro-Russian oligarchs who sent the country’s wealth to off-shore accounts.
In the past 20 years, the Soviet Union’s largest missile-production factory, in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, has engaged in non-proliferation and technology-conversion projects, which has left much of its nuclear-capable delivery systems (e.g., silos and missiles) either destroyed , unusable, or non-existent. Moreover, whichever Ukrainian scientists might have had nuclear-weapons expertise have either retired or passed on.
Ukraine has no ultimate disposal facilities for the significant nuclear waste to be generated by a weapons program — facilities that are also expensive to plan, design, and implement. (Ukraine currently sends the spent nuclear fuel from its operating nuclear reactors for processing and temporary storage to Russia.)
Finally, setting up and training military units responsible for maintaining, repairing, upgrading, and operating nuclear-weapons facilities — whether mobile or stationary — would take years and would hamstring any economic recovery.
Some have argued that Ukraine would have been best off had it never abandoned its nuclear-weapons capabilities. Yet it chose to do so for some of the same reasons that it couldn’t afford a program today: In exchange for giving up its weapons, it received badly needed economic aid from the United States, nuclear fuel from Russia, and a boost in its international legitimacy. Ukraine should be commended for its patience and restraint in the face of brazen Russian aggression. It deserves more attention and assistance from the West in standing firm against Putin’s dangerous revanchism.
Perhaps if the West showed real commitment to its ideals rather than offering half-hearted and largely ineffective individual sanctions, Ukraine could be persuaded to shelve the idea of renewing its nuclear-weapons status. One way to start: Fast-track talks on integrating Ukraine into the EU and NATO.
— Alexander Sich is associate professor of physics and faculty associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He spent twelve years in Ukraine conducting research on the Chernobyl accident, followed by nuclear safety and non-proliferation work.