Ukraine's Political System Couldn't Have Handled Nukes

A Ukrainian frigate spent days with nobody knowing whose side it was on. Imagine that happening with a bomb.

In light of Russian efforts to annex Crimea and encourage political instability in eastern Ukraine, international observers and even some countries have begun questioning Ukraine’s decision to surrender its nuclear weapons following the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Under this agreement, Ukraine gave up the nuclear-weapons stockpile it inherited from the collapse of the Soviet Union in exchange for security assurances from Russia and the United States regarding its territorial integrity and political sovereignty. Had Ukraine kept its nuclear weapons, the thinking goes, Russia would not have reneged on its promises. The current crisis would never have happened.

The logic underpinning this argument is appealing. Nuclear weapons are a strong deterrent by their capacity to inflict unacceptable harm on a potential adversary. When two states threaten each other with nuclear weapons, neither side wants to initiate a military conflict and risk the damage that nuclear weapons can wreak. If at least one side were to disarm, however, then this equilibrium unravels. The state that retains its nuclear arsenal enjoys more freedom of action over its adversary and faces new incentives to start conflict and coerce concessions. Hence the relative peacefulness of the Cold War. Hence claims by some experts that nuclear weapons produce international stability, rather than undermining it.

Yet it is wrong to apply the logic of nuclear deterrence to the present crisis in Ukraine. To say nothing of how a nuclear Ukraine would have affected regional stability, it misidentifies the source of Ukraine’s weakness as rooted in the local balance of power. The weaknesses are instead domestic. Accordingly, a nuclear Ukraine would have likely made an international crisis regarding its territorial integrity even more precarious.

To begin, Ukraine’s present difficulties are rooted in the cronyism and corruption of political leaders that represent both major cleavages in Ukrainian society. Domestic political factions reflect less the alleged east-west division of its society as they do the coalitions assembled by oligarchs competing for private gain.

Take, for example, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Styling herself as pro-Western, she is an oligarch herself with private interests in Ukraine’s energy industry. Indeed, born in hope and promise, the Orange Revolution she helped lead ended in ignominy with voters, tired of scandal and infighting, removed its leaders from power in favor of Viktor Yanukovych. Not one himself, he had the backing of another oligarch, Renit Akhmatov, and went on to live extravagantly on the public dime before being ousted. By 2013, Transparency International ranked Ukraine 144th out of 176 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index.

Such corruption exists because its political elites have exploited Ukraine’s ambiguous geopolitical positioning to seek rents. Both the West and Russia have enabled Ukrainian corruption in their efforts to outbid each other for Ukraine’s diplomatic alignment. The result is serious state dysfunction, if not failure: a hollowing out of institutions that (like the political elite) have already lost the trust among ordinary citizens. It was partly for this reason that protesters of diverse backgrounds began to assemble in Maidan Square in Kiev late last year.

Nuclear weapons would only exacerbate an unstable political climate beset by shifting alliances, extensive graft and oligarchic competition. Some observers have pointed out that the spread of nuclear weapons may not be so salutary for international stability if the possessing states themselves are weak. New dangers arise if these weapons are in the hands of failing political systems where military leaders have tense relations with civilian authorities and command and control structures are loose.

Two episodes in the Crimean crisis support this observation. Only a day after being appointed by the authorities in Kiev to be the Ukrainian navy commander-in-chief, Denys Berezovsky defected and swore allegiance to the Russian-supported Crimean authorities. The government in Kiev should have done its research on Berezovsky before his appointment. Moreover, earlier in March, the political status of the Ukrainian frigate Hetman Sahaydachny was uncertain for several days. The erosion of any attachment to the Ukrainian state or the government in Kiev in parts of the country make such defections more likely and the control of military assets more difficult to manage.

Imagine then a situation where nuclear weapons, rather than frigates, are at stake. Major political factions within Ukraine could strive to capture their own share of the nuclear stockpile. Disloyal officers could hold the nuclear weapons under their oversight for ransom. In an effort to secure nuclear weapons within Ukraine amid a civil war or a breakdown of state authority, Russia would still be tempted to intervene. The central government in Kiev might not be able to retain sufficient control over the arsenal to deter or deny Russian opportunism. The risks and costs for miscalculation could be high.

Thanks to the Budapest Memorandum this frightening situation will fortunately not arise. The current crisis notwithstanding, this agreement not only provided the security assurances that Ukraine needed in its infancy, but it also prevented a dangerously fractious domestic political climate from acquiring a terrifying nuclear dimension.

Alexander Lanoszka is a graduating Princeton Ph.D candidate in the Department of Politics who has written a dissertation on alliance politics, extended deterrence, and nuclear weapons.