The conflict in Eastern Ukraine may be primarily a standoff between Russia, Ukraine and the West, but it will unintentionally lead to the spread of nuclear weapons and undermine efforts in stopping global proliferation.

Ukrainian defence official examines SS-19 nuclear missile before it is to be dismantled in the city of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine in 1999. Photo: AP

As a result of the Ukrainian crisis, the issue of nuclear proliferation is once again part of the global debate over international security – and not just because of the fears that Russia will use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Yet today a nation's ability to invoke a credible nuclear threat might be still very much of value in today's multipolar world.

In Ukraine's case, the existence of a credible nuclear threat might have even prevented the current standoff over Eastern Ukraine. And that is forcing states such as Iran and North Korea to re-think their approach to nuclear weapons.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine inherited the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, right after the Russian Federation and the United States. Although without operational control of the deployed weaponry (the control and access mechanisms still remained under Russian control), Kiev found itself still in physical possession of immense military firepower and potentially devastating capabilities.

Due to far-reaching security concerns of the world powers, paired with Ukraine’s insufficient maintenance capacity and exorbitant financial costs, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum regulated the handover of the remaining nuclear warheads to Russia in exchange for military assistance in the case of an nuclear attack as well as warranties of territorial integrity and sovereignty. Further, Kiev abandoned any plans for the development of such weapons and joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

But as of 2014, the Budapest Memorandum seems to have become nothing more than words. Voices from Kiev complain over an alleged “betrayal by the West” and the Kremlin's violation of the Memorandum, while Russia claims to abide by the treaty while simultaneously supporting political forces within Eastern Ukraine.

As a result, the surrender of nuclear weapons has  from a Ukrainian perspective  proved to be irrational and adverse to a nation's natural desire of securing its own existence against a superior external power.

The return of nuclear deterrence as a strategic doctrine

According to the traditional narrative, nuclear weapons provide the ultimate “life insurance” to a country, regardless of its size or the capabilities of its regular ground forces. Due to the immense destructive potential of these weapons, a substantiated willingness to use them in the case of an attack, paired with sufficient second strike capabilities, will create an equilibrium of fear among nuclear armed opponents.

This will ultimately result in a status quo of mutually assured destruction. While every side bears the risk of being drawn into a nuclear war of total annihilation, the likelihood of such an event decreases due to the rational calculus of all countries to secure survival.

This traditional way of thinking about nuclear weapons – very much in vogue during the Cold War – does not always hold up under closer inspection in today’s modern world. For example, operational realities (such as maintenance costs, technological requirements and safety issues) create a wide range of obstacles that complicate the realization of such a theory.

Besides, it remains doubtful to what extent this approach is applicable to the security challenges of the post-Cold War era. Regional conflict lines, social unrest and terrorism carry enough explosive power to even drag nuclear states into war.

However, this reflection does not stop endangered states from following the classical narrative and pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, although they lack necessary requirements.

The reasons lie within structural factors, such as the observed helplessness of smaller countries against superior military power, as observed during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 or Western participation in the uprising against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Both countries pursued nuclear weapons in the past, with Gaddafi ultimately abandoning any plans to do so in 2003 and Saddam Hussein failing to build any (despite Western accusations of having done so).

An example of how this structural conclusion strengthens the willingness of suspicious nations to push for nuclear weapons is the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea. Known to have maintained a rudimentary nuclear program since the late 1980s, decision makers in Pyongyang were conclusively determined to pursue atomic bombs after cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) turned out to be insufficient to prevent an American invasion of Iraq.  

Since North Korea was also part of the “axis of evil”, Pyongyang quickly left the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in the summer of 2003, banned IAEA inspectors from access to vital nuclear installations and conducted its first official nuclear test in 2006.  

As for now, North Korea has perversely assured its existence by repeated provocations and intentionally behaving like a “mad dog”, thereby leaving no doubt than any attempt to intervene could have devastating consequences for the entire region and all actors involved (although the real military clout seems to be relatively small).

Signing Non-Proliferation Treaty in Budapest in 1994. Pictured (L-R): President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, President Nurszultan Nazarbajev of Kazachstan, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Photo: AP

Will the Ukrainian crisis spur nuclear proliferation?

Eventually, all this affects the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. As a state that has at some point abandoned a serious nuclear arsenal, it now feels vulnerable to a superior military power that is putatively ensuring a flow of weapons to rebels within its territory and that has already annexed part of its former territory.

While it remains unclear whether a nuclear Ukraine could have avoided the takeover of Crimea in times of political chaos and social instability, leading Ukrainian politicians are already calling for nuclear “rearmament” and the reversal of a “big mistake.”

In reality, a nuclear-armed Ukraine is not a likely scenario, at least not in the near future.

Although Kiev has access to some specialists in the field, such as Vyacheslav Danilenko (who’s said to be involved with the Iranian nuclear program), it simply lacks the funding and necessary material, as all remaining highly-enriched uranium (HEU) was transported to Russia in 2012 as part of President Obama’s “Global Zero” campaign. 

Even if Kiev should become determined to build such weapons, Russia’s reaction would be far from reluctant in stopping it prematurely.

However, when it comes to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the situation is much less clear. Being surrounded by rival Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Teheran is in the uncomfortable position of observing a constant influx of weapons to the Arab peninsula (while Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are among the Top 5 worldwide arms importers, Tehran received less than 1 percent of all regional weapon imports in 2009-2013). In addition, there have been repeated threats to possibly destroy the Iranian nuclear program by force.

Although Russia is unlikely to be feared as a potential intervening power here, the structural conclusions from Ukraine are further strengthening the traditional perception that only a nuclear-armed Iran could guarantee its sovereignty and avoid aggression by external forces.

But such a development could lead to grave consequences, such as a further proliferation of nuclear weapons in Sunni states and an increasing risk of regional conflagration. This risk is high, given the transnational Sunni-Shia conflict line, Tehran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and the emergence of international jihadi movements such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).

The diminishing ability of world nuclear powers to prevent proliferation

Regarding measures to avoid such nuclear proliferation, another important factor emerges from the current U.S.-Russian standoff over Ukraine. Regardless of any aspirations of non-nuclear states, the main formula for successful global disarmament lies within the cooperation of the nuclear world powers. But unfortunately, U.S.-Russian cooperation in this sphere is currently decreasing from day to day.

Most recently, the U.S. Department of Energy and the House Armed Services Committee suspended any scientific and security-related cooperation with the Kremlin, while the National Nuclear Security Administration reviewed all programs of assistance with Moscow and sees the renewal of an important joint nuclear security cooperation agreement in danger. 

These unilateral sanctions not only affect U.S.-Russian efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism, but also undermine the functionality of the so called “Global Threat Reduction Initiative” and the “International Material Protection and Cooperation Program,” with the latter being essential in the safeguard of nuclear weapons and nuclear-grade materials throughout Russia, Kazakhstan, China and South Asia.

Moreover, the demise of the Budapest Memorandum shows repeatedly the inferiority of international law in regard to vital interests of powerful big players and strengthens doubts about the reliability of international treaties.

With regard to any future “arms for security” agreements, this rationale is unlikely to be forgotten and will certainly weaken attempts to carry out with states like Iran and North Korea (beyond that, this acknowledged self-responsibility was one of the main movements for the development of Israel’s nuclear arsenal).

Concluding, the future will be an unpleasant place when it comes to nuclear proliferation. Structural factors such as a shifting balance of power in some regions and increasing multi-polarity will dominate national security agendas, while bilateral security assurances by the U.S. might lose credibility.

As a result, Asian states with latent nuclear capacity such as South Korea and Japan, might shift back to a national policy of self-reliance and end up pushing for their own nuclear weapons in the wake of increasing tensions throughout Asia. Paired with uncertain developments in the Middle East and prolonged conflict between Moscow and Washington, chances for a decline in horizontal nuclear proliferation don’t look promising.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.