The suggestion that Ukraine should have kept its Soviet-era nuclear weapons is a counterfactual fantasy that groans under the weight of its technical, political and strategic assumptions.

‘If only Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons, this would never have happened.’ The counterfactual heard around the world after Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 makes intuitive sense. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine became the world’s third-largest nuclear power (behind Russia and the United States), with approximately 1,900 strategic and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons. Surely Russia would not pick a fight with such a well-armed adversary? This common wisdom has surfaced in numerous articles in the popular press, with the argument that Washington’s non-proliferation efforts in the early 1990s have come back to haunt the West. Academics, such as Eric Posner and John Mearsheimer, have joined the recent chorus. Mearsheimer – who argued soon after the Soviet Union’s collapse that Ukraine should have kept the nuclear weapons left on its territory – asserted last March that ‘if Ukraine had a real nuclear deterrent, the Russians would not be threatening to invade it’. 

This counterfactual, however, is a fantasy; it groans under the weight of numerous technical, political and strategic assumptions – many of which are questionable, and some of which are simply wrong. We should not be asking, ‘If the Ukraine of today had a second-strike nuclear capability, would Russia have invaded Crimea?’ Instead, the question should be: ‘What would have happened to Ukraine if it had insisted on keeping Soviet nuclear weapons, being able to maintain and modernise them, as well as being able to maintain and modernise a second-strike delivery capability?’ As Ramesh Thakur has argued, Ukraine and its diplomatic relationships would have evolved so differently that ‘the deterrent claim for the events of 2014 simply cannot be constructed as a credible counter-factual narrative’. In addition, I contend, if Ukraine had attempted to keep the Soviet nuclear arsenal for its own military purposes, Crimea most likely would have been annexed by Russia long before 2014.

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Maria Rost Rublee is a Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University. Her first book, Nonproliferation Norms: Why States Choose Nuclear Restraint (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009), won the Alexander George Book Award for best book in political psychology.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

April-May 2015

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