After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, arguments circulated that Ukraine would have been safer from Russian aggression if it had nuclear weapons. Today, this debate is back in the news. On a recent episode of Ploughshares Fund’s Press the Button podcast, Dr. Maria Rost Rublee joined Ploughshares Fund President Dr. Emma Belcher to discuss the assumptions underlying this argument and explain why it is a fantasy.
Rublee, an Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at Monash University in Australia, first investigated this issue back in 2015. In her conversation with Belcher, Rublee breaks down the technical, political, and strategic reasons why nuclear weapons would not have kept Ukraine safe from a Russian invasion then or now.
At the end of the Cold War, Ukraine inherited the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. However, the weapons left on Ukrainian territory were Soviet-era weapons, and Moscow had control of them. As Rublee explains, “all the maintenance on them had to be carried out by Soviet scientists, so essentially, [Ukraine] hosted these weapons, but they had almost no capability of maintaining them or moderniz[ing] them, let alone having the codes to actually use them.” Therefore, those insisting that keeping these weapons would have made Ukraine safer are ignoring the reality that Ukraine did not have the technical capabilities to keep or use these weapons in the first place.
This leads Rublee to emphasize that not only is it incorrect to believe nuclear weapons would have prevented Russia from invading Ukraine, but it is also the wrong question to be asking. Rublee argues that “instead of saying, ‘if Ukraine had kept [its] nuclear capability would Russia have invaded?’ The question is, what would have happened to Ukraine if it insisted on keeping Soviet nuclear weapons?”
This is where the political and strategic barriers to keeping nuclear weapons come in. Rublee highlights that Russia was actively trying to prevent Ukraine from keeping the weapons, partially because of Russia’s obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), but more so due to Russia’s connection to Crimea. Rublee says the possibility that Crimea, “this holy city of Russian Christianity, could have nuclear weapons [that could] potentially be used against Russia, it was just unbelievable.”
It was also not in the United States’ interest to have Ukraine become a nuclear weapons state. At the end of the Cold War, the United States was looking to advance arms control agreements like START I with Russia. Rublee notes that “one of the Russian criteria for entering into this new arms control agreement was that Ukraine would give up the Soviet weapons.” In fact, as part of the agreement under START I, Ukraine also signed the NPT to confirm its non-nuclear status.
Under these circumstances, Ukraine was also able to benefit from European and US investment. But, Rublee notes, “if Ukraine had stood up against the United States and Europe,” it wouldn’t have received over $30 billion in foreign aid over several years. This money was desperately needed to address domestic needs such as healthcare, education, and poverty.
Rublee highlights that the cost of attempting to develop its own nuclear weapons program instead of transferring the weapons to Russia would have been crippling. An estimated $60 billion over ten years would have been required “for all the facilities … all the training that [Ukraine] would need to be able to maintain and modernize both the nuclear weapons and the delivery vehicles.”
Rublee asks us to imagine a Ukraine with no foreign support, isolated from the West, and facing threats from Russia to give up its nuclear weapons. “How would this have worked? It wouldn't have.”
What is the reason for the great deal of misinformation about this subject? Rublee explains that the myth that nuclear weapons could have kept Ukraine safe is “a symptom of a broader problem in nuclear weapons discourse.” The biggest issue is that “people have been sold this pablum that nuclear weapons keep us safe.”
“People think that this idea of MAD, mutually assured destruction, works.” MAD relies on the theory that if one nuclear power uses nuclear weapons, another could use nuclear weapons in response, resulting in mutually assured destruction. The theory posits that this means no nuclear weapons state will ever use nuclear weapons first. However, “the fact is, we know that MAD actually doesn't work.”
What the Russo-Ukrainian War has shown us instead is that the leader of a nuclear weapons state is willing to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. Rublee cautions that “this is not the way that nuclear weapons theorists say it should happen … this is the real world. We're out of the world of theory, and out of the world of theories, nuclear weapons make us less safe.”
Rublee concludes that this response from Russia “tells us that nuclear use is much more likely than any of us care to think about.”
Alexandra B. Hall is the Policy Associate and Special Assistant to the President at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.