Watching the crisis in Ukraine unfold, it is easy to forget how much worse it could have been. In the sense of civil power, Ukraine is a nuclear state. Recall that the Chernobyl disaster took place at Pripyat, in northern Ukraine, some sixty miles from Kiev. Ukraine still has fifteen operating nuclear reactors, which contribute about half the country’s electricity. The enriched uranium used to fuel these power reactors is largely provided by the Russians (some is provided by General Electric). The Russians presumably have also been removing the plutonium the reactors produce. But it is Ukraine’s history as a military nuclear power that is so striking. In 1991 Ukraine had the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world—only the United States and Russia had more.
At the end of the Cold War, Ukraine had some 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads and hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons—the kind that are designed to be used on the battlefield. Many of these were stored in the Crimea: one of the Soviets’ most important weapons sites was at Krasnokamenka, in the Kiziltashsky valley region of Crimea, where a secret underground facility was used to assemble and store nuclear warheads, some of which were then sent to other Warsaw Pact countries. As part of the Soviets’ military defenses against Europe the tactical nuclear weapons were distributed to Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, as well as Russia. After Russia, Ukraine, which was seen as a primary front in any battle with the West, got the most.
It has never been clear how to use such weapons, which were intended to be used on advancing troops and tanks. As Oppenheimer said of the hydrogen bomb, the military targets are too small, and in practice, such weapons would produce collateral damage to your own troops. But it is clear how to use the strategic weapons, which are designed to attack whole cities: you put them on missiles or bombers. The Ukranians had a dozens of both.
Of course, at the time this arsenal was built, during the Cold War, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union so these weapons were part of the Russian stockpile. The newly independent country of Ukraine inherited them. In 1990 the Ukranian parliament adopted a non-nuclear policy, which included ridding the country of these devices. In 1992 then-prime minister and later president Leonid Kuchma decided that nuclear disarmament was not such a good idea and that Ukraine should keep a stockpile of nuclear missiles. He did not get his way, however, because in 1994 the parliament voted to make Ukraine a nuclear weapons-free state, and that year the Ukranians signed the so-called Budapest Memorandum, in which they agreed to dismantle their nuclear stockpile.
In view of Russia’s current occupation of the Crimea, it is worth noting that the Budapest accord, which was signed by Russia itself along with Ukraine, the US, and the UK, required the signers to make security assurances that any incursion on Ukranian territory by a nuclear power would be promptly taken before the United Nations Security Council. Indeed, Ukraine’s newly appointed prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has cited this agreement in relation to Russia’s intervention, calling on the Kremlin not to “violate the Budapest Memorandum.”
The memorandum, however, did not make security guarantees to this effect, which would have forced the UN to take action and put Russia in a very tight spot.
In the event, following the 1994 agreement, trains began moving Ukraine’s nuclear stockpile to disarmament facilities in Russia. About five thousand nuclear related devices were moved out on some one hundred trains. The operation was completed in 1996 and Ukraine joined the small club of nuclear states, which now includes Libya and South Africa, that have voluntarily given up their nuclear arsenals. In the 1990s, Belarus and Kazakstan also gave up their weapons. But the vast store of tactical and strategic bombs turned over by Ukraine was by far the largest in this group. In 2012 the last of Ukraine’s supply of highly enriched uranium was turned over to Russia.
As for the civilian nuclear power program, there are plans to build eleven new units and some of the older ones are being decommissioned. There is always a risk with nuclear reactors but hopefully the lessons of Chernobyl have been absorbed. The reliance on Russian uranium for these reactors is another way the Kremlin could continue to exert leverage over Ukraine, although some of the fuel is being supplied by the United States and one imagines this could be increased. Without these reactors Ukraine would run the risk of going dark. (Since the Russian incursion in the Crimea, Ukraine’s interim president has said the country would deploy armed forces around its nuclear facilities, while the Ukrainian parliament has called for international monitors to help guard its reactors.)
We can debate what might have happened if Ukraine had kept at least part of its nuclear arsenal, as Kuchma wanted. Would this have deterred the Russians or would we be facing a nuclear war? Or might the weapons themselves be in danger of falling into the wrong hands during an upheaval like the current one? Fortunately for all of us this debate is academic.