No, Ukraine Should Not Have Been Allowed To Keep Its Nuclear Weapons

Getting nuclear weapons out of Ukraine in 1994 was a good idea, not a mistake.

Nuclear Missile Silo

One of the many shibboleths that seems to be developing out of the ongoing Ukraine/Crimea crisis is the idea that Ukraine made a mistake when it agreed to give up the nuclear weapons on its soil after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that by extension the Clinton Administration was wrong to urge the Ukrainians to do so. The logic behind the argument appears to be that Ukraine would be in a far better bargaining position vis a vis Russia today if it had retained the Soviet nuclear weapons. On some simplistic level, of course, this seems to make sense. After all, nations that have nuclear weapons aren’t likely to have their territorial integrity violated and threatened in the manner that Ukraine’s quite obviously have. Beyond that seemingly axiomatic point, though, the argument ignores the reality that existed in the early 1990s in both Russia and Ukraine and the concerns that the entire world had regarding what would happen to the nuclear and other weapons of the Soviet Union that were outside the borders of the Russian Federation.

Tom Nichols, a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College, recounts the circumstances that led to the removal of Soviet nuclear weapons from Ukraine, and in the process reminds all of us that it’s usually a mistake to view history through the lens of the present:

The idea that Ukraine is now paying for giving up its nuclear arsenal — well, technically, it was the Soviet arsenal, not Ukraine’s — some 20 years ago is coming from from a lot of directions, including the usual people whose ignorance of foreign affairs is often in direct proportion to their aggressiveness. (Two words: Sarah Palin.)

But other, more sensible people have made this argument, too, including the Ukrainians themselves. And understandably so: Ukraine, at least in theory, traded nuclear weapons for sovereignty over its own territory in 1994.

This agreement, the Budapest Memorandum (trivia points: where was it signed?) obligated the U.S., Britain, and the new Russian Federation to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in return for Ukraine’s agreement to give up the Soviet weapons on its territory. Should any party violate Ukraine’s territory, the memorandum obligated each party to…well, to do nothing. Actually, it does require us to go to the UN Security Council, which is in fact the very definition of “doing nothing.”

Back then, this wasn’t all as feckless as it seems now. Remember, people saying “Ukraine should have kept its nuclear weapons” are thinking of today’s Ukraine, not the post-Soviet chaos of the 1990s in which Russia looked like the most stable remnant of the wreckage.


The larger issue here is that those critical of the Budapest process are attached to the complete fantasy that anyone, especially in Washington, was going to agree to Ukraine keeping those nukes. That wasn’t going to happen. There were hundreds of strategic weapons on Ukrainian soil, including some two hundred ICBMs that for all we knew were still targeted at the United States.

Worse, Ukraine at the time was run by a guy named Leonid Kravchuk, whose previous job had been — wait for it — as a top member of the Soviet Communist Party in Ukraine. (He had even held the ideology portfolio, usually a hard-liner’s job.) Kravchuk was a classic Soviet bureaucrat who, like so many clever men in 1991, was in the right place at the right time when the Soviet Union went down.


Anyway, for those who think that Kravchuk made a bad deal, consider the alternative: a divided, unstable Ukraine between NATO and Russia, sitting on enough nuclear firepower to obliterate most of the Northern Hemisphere. That’s the kind of crazy situation only political scientists love. No one was going to let that happen, and it didn’t.

There’s much more at the link, at which Nichols also addresses the related arguments regarding how the United States, Europe, and NATO should respond to the Crimea crisis and any further hints of extra-territorial ambitions from Vladimir Putin.

Regarding the primary argument regarding the alleged “mistake” that was made in the early 90s, though, its rather obvious that those making the argument today are either ignorant of history or willfully ignoring it. As Nichols notes, at the time it was the Russian Federation, led at the time by Boris Yeltsin, that was arguably the most stable in the region, and the idea of an independent nuclear armed Ukraine led by a former Soviet apparatchik sitting in between the West on one side and Russia on the other is not something that anyone at the time considered a good idea. Additionally, one of the primary concerns during the years after the Soviet Union collapsed was the idea that Soviet weaponry, nuclear and otherwise, falling into unsavory hands such as terrorist elements. Given the economic conditions that existed in many former Soviet Republics twenty years ago, including Ukraine, the idea of nuclear weaponry or technology ending up on the black market wasn’t entirely plausible. Finally, as Nichols notes in his post, Ukraine wasn’t the only former Soviet Republic with nuclear weapons on its soil. Kazakhstan had them as well, and the concerns about the stability of their government were even more pronounced than the concerns regarding the government in Kiev. If Ukraine had not been persuaded to give up the weapons in its soil, it is unlikely that the new regime in Kazakhstan would have agreed to do so either. For these and many other reasons, the Clinton Administration, the Europeans, and the Russians were indeed correct in doing everything they could to encourage Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons. Attempting to rewrite history twenty years later, or to view what happened in 1994 through the lens of 2014, serves no purpose whatsoever.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Mikey says:

    I’d wager many of those who wish Ukraine had kept the nukes also wish Ukraine would use them on Russia.

    It’s a measure of how long it’s been since the end of the Cold War that some people actually think nuclear war wouldn’t be an entirely bad thing.

  2. WE are certainly better off with Ukraine not having nuclear weapons. Whether the ukranians themselves are better off remains to be seen.

  3. Scott says:

    There is an economic cost to maintaining nuclear weapons. Where was the infrastructure to maintain the nuclear weapons in the Ukraine? Did the new Ukraine have the technical and financial means to maintain nuclear weapons? I’m sure these questions came into play during that time. Ukraine is not a wealthy country and nuclear weapons would have been a huge burden.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I agree. I think there are three issues:

    1. Is Ukraine better off without nukes, particularly knowing now that Russia would breach the agreement? I think reasonable minds may disagree, but in my counterfactual Russia does not let Ukraine keep them anyway, but develops and executes a surprise invasion to eliminate Ukraine’s capability. It might be messy.

    2. Is the U.S. better off without Ukraine nukes? Yes. I would go so far as to say the U.S. is always better off, the fewer countries besides itself have nukes.

    3. Does the Russian invasion make nuclear proliferation agreements more difficult in the future? I’d say yes. The value of a weak guarantee of territorial integrity was probably small, but greater than zero. Now, its zero.

  5. DC Loser says:

    Scott is absolutely correct. The Soviet nuclear weapons infrastructure were all in Russia, with the weapons production plants deep behind the Ural Mountains in closed cities. Ukraine would not have had access to those facilities after the breakup of the USSR, and would not have had any way to replace the fissile material in its warheads (nuclear weapons degrade over time and must have its fissile material replaced at time intervals). With the economic situation that Ukraine has been in, how was it going to maintain such an expensive system like nuclear weapons and missiles? Their military is already dilapidated without nukes, I can’t imagine what it would be like with nukes, and how much we’d be fretting about Ukraine selling its nukes for money.

  6. C. Clavin says:

    On some simplistic level, of course, this seems to make sense.

    I think the people taking hawkish stand on this are only capable of simplistic thoughts.

  7. RGardner says:

    Agree to the above comments. Particularly DC Loser..
    If Ukraine had “its nuclear weapons” today, they would be only good as conventional ICBMs because the nuclear payload would not have worked (not the fissile material, rather the supporting electrical components and Tritium) [and Tritium].) . After over 20 years, few Soviet weapons would work. Zero infrastructure to maintain them in Ukraine.
    That is assuming old gyro components could even deliver weapon to target.