The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent

Courtesy Reuters


Most Western observers want Ukraine to rid itself of nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. In this view, articulated recently by President Bill Clinton, Europe would be more stable if Russia were to become "the only nuclear-armed successor state to the Soviet Union." The United States and its European allies have been pressing Ukraine to transfer all of the nuclear weapons on its territory to the Russians, who naturally think this is an excellent idea.

President Clinton is wrong. The conventional wisdom about Ukraine's nuclear weapons is wrong. In fact, as soon as it declared independence, Ukraine should have been quietly encouraged to fashion its own nuclear deterrent. Even now, pressing Ukraine to become a nonnuclear state is a mistake.

A nuclear Ukraine makes sense for two reasons. First, it is imperative to maintain peace between Russia and Ukraine. That means ensuring that the Russians, who have a history of bad relations with Ukraine, do not move to reconquer it. Ukraine cannot defend itself against a nuclear-armed Russia with conventional weapons, and no state, including the United States, is going to extend to it a meaningful security guarantee. Ukrainian nuclear weapons are the only reliable deterrent to Russian aggression. If the U.S. aim is to enhance stability in Europe, the case against a nuclear-armed Ukraine is unpersuasive.

Second, it is unlikely that Ukraine will transfer its remaining nuclear weapons to Russia, the state it fears most. The United States and its European allies can complain bitterly about this decision, but they are not in a position to force Ukraine to go nonnuclear. Moreover, pursuing a confrontation with Ukraine over the nuclear issue raises the risks of war by making the Russians more daring, the Ukrainians more fearful, and the Americans less able to defuse a crisis between them.

The case presented here for a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent is not a brief for unrestricted nuclear proliferation in Europe or anywhere else in the world. Nuclear proliferation does

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