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Did Dismantling Ukraine’s Nuclear Arsenal Jeopardize Peace Today?

September 7, 2022

September 7, 2022

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Most people would be surprised to know that, at one time, Ukraine had the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, behind only the United States and Russia. Yes, in 1992, roughly 1,700 nuclear warheads and bombs were on Ukrainian soil.

But the world was a very different place then with the former Soviet Union having just dissolved on Christmas Day of 1991. The collapse of this Super Power caused concern by the United States and its NATO allies that this vast supply of nuclear weapons could fall into enemy hands. In response, the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program was initiated by the Nunn-Lugar Act (also known as the Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991), which was authored by Senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN). The purpose of the program was to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in states of the former Soviet Union and beyond.

Under the Program, American and Russian scientists, alike, worked on ways to dismantle and repurpose to peaceful uses the highly enriched uranium (HEU) which is the key component of nuclear weapons. This included the down blending of HEU to LEU to create electricity. For 15 years afterward, nearly 10% of all U.S. commercial electricity production via civilian nuclear power plants was made possible because of our country purchasing this once weapons-grade material.

To help assure Ukraine’s continued territorial integrity after the removal of its nuclear defenses, The Budapest Memorandum was created. Signed in December 1994 by the United States, Russia and Britain, it bound all three countries to respecting the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine and agreeing to not threaten or use force against Ukraine.

Of course, this precedent-setting level of nuclear cooperation between the United States and Russia ended suddenly in 2014 when Russia forcefully annexed the Crimean Peninsula. When asked about Russia’s justification for the breach, Russian President Putin responded, “A new state arises, but with this state and in respect to this state, we have not signed any obligatory documents.”

Given this history, it’s natural to wonder if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier in 2022 and its further seizure of Ukrainian territory containing Russian people would have been possible if Ukraine had maintained some level of its own nuclear deterrent. Had the international community not stepped in to secure Ukraine’s nuclear warheads and decommission its missiles and launchers, would we be where we are today in Ukraine? We can only speculate.

The fact remains, however, that no country with nuclear capabilities has ever been annexed by another power that also has these true weapons of mass destruction. World peace still hangs in a precarious balance 77 years after atomic weapons were first, and last, used in war.