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Russia Threatens to Deploy Nuclear Weapons in Crimea

Russia emphasized that it retains the right to deploy nuclear weapons anywhere on its territory, including Crimea.

In an interview with Russian news media, Mikhail Ulyanov, the Director of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms control at the Russian Foreign Ministry, said that Russia could deploy nuclear weapons to Crimea.

“Russia obviously retains the right if needed to deploy its nuclear weapons anywhere on its national territory, including on the Crimean Peninsula,” Ulyanov said.

This is not the first time that Russia, or even Ulyanov himself, has said that Russia has a right to deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea. Back in March of this year, Ulyanov told reporters, “Naturally, Russia has the right to put nuclear weapons in any region on its territory if it deems it necessary. We hold that we have such a right, though Kiev has a different opinion on this matter.”

Around the same time, Crimean officials said that they would welcome such a deployment of nuclear weapons in their territory.

Ulyanov’s most recent remarks came in response to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin telling Russia not to deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea. “The deployment of nuclear weapons in Crimea would be the most serious breach in Russia’s international commitment,” Klimkin has said, adding:

Any activity or even signals from Russia on the mere possibility of deploying nuclear weapons in Crimea will be considered the gravest breach in all international norms. In this case, the international community will need to react most decisively.

Klimkin’s remarks appeared to come in response to the earlier ones made by Ulyanov.

Others have also warned Russia against deploying nuclear weapons to Crimea. For example, a joint NATO-Ukraine Commission statement in April said: “We are also deeply concerned by statements of the Russian leadership with regard to possible future stationing of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems in Crimea, which would be destabilizing.”

That same month, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general stated: "We are deeply concerned by statements of possible future stationing of nuclear weapons and development systems in Crimea."

Russia has tried to frame any possible deployment of nuclear weapons in Crimea as less provocative than America forward deploying nuclear weapons in other European countries. In his recent interview, for example, Ulyanov said that Klimkin’s statement “can be understood as an indirect attack on the United States, as well as on Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, where U.S. nuclear weapons are already deployed. Following the Ukrainian minister’s logic, this is a direct breach of non-nuclear status of these European nations.”

The issue is not merely about Russia’s military posture—indeed, deploying nuclear weapons in Crimea would hold little military value— but also goes to the heart of the international legal status of Crimea. In 1994, Ukraine agreed to give up all the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union, and pledged to remain a non-nuclear weapon state.

By deploying nuclear weapons in Crimea, Moscow would be reinforcing that the territory is now part of Russia, which—as a nuclear weapon state—retains the right to deploy nuclear weapons on its territory.

This point was underscored by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in December of last year.

“Crimea was not a non-nuclear zone in an international law sense but was part of Ukraine, a state which doesn't possess nuclear arms,” Lavrov said during an interview with Interfax News Agency.

He added:

“Now Crimea has become part of a state which possesses such weapons in accordance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty….In accordance with international law, Russia has every reason to dispose of its nuclear arsenal ... to suit its interests and international legal obligations.”

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia/Vitaly V. Kuzmin