Ukraine: Back to the Future?

As the crisis in Ukraine continues to escalate, Russia and the West remain at a standstill, both sides gauging what responses further actions will elicit. Most of the coverage has been focused on the economic and political implications of the current situation.  However, the crisis has significant bearing on nuclear proliferation, both in the Euro-Slavic region and internationally.  The high volume of nuclear material that had been and still is located in the west of the former USSR makes an unstable Ukraine a possible locus for nuclear sales.  Additionally, the confrontation between Russia and the West in Ukraine may strengthen the Iranian position, potentially hampering any development of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action.

Ukraine has a tumultuous history with nuclear technology.  The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on Ukrainian territory, and while the graphite-moderated Chernobyl types have been (predictably) decommissioned, the Ukraine operates 15 pressurized water reactors with 14 Gigawatts (electrical) of generating capacity.  While a portion of the uranium ore is mined in the Ukraine, the fuel enrichment and fabrication is supplied by (surprise!) Russia.  Used fuel is stored, and hypothetically available to be reprocessed, in the Ukraine at reactor sites and in the “Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” (Background information can be found here.)

Upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was home to the third-largest nuclear stockpile in the world, with 1,080 nuclear warheads on its soil, with delivery platforms ranging from ICBMs and bombers to tactical nuclear weapons.  In 1994, Ukraine voted to divest itself of its nuclear stockpile and either destroy or sell off its delivery systems, exchanging a large portion of its strategic bomber force with the Russian Federation to pay down its massive oil debt. Ukraine became a nuclear-weapons free state in June 1996.

However, Ukraine did not simply give up its weapons. It secured, via the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, an assurance from the United States and the Russian Federation. Signatory nations (which included the US, Russia, and the UK) agreed to honor Ukraine’s borders, and pledged never to use force to manipulate or influence the nation.  Prior to the Russian occupation of Crimea, this agreement had been respected.

The situation in Ukraine is clearly unstable, with a full-blown ground war becoming increasingly possible. As long as NATO avoids any direct clashes with Russia, it’s unlikely that nuclear arms will be employed in this conflict, but a new and enduring confrontation between the two sides raises the question of whether Russia will once again deploy tactical nuclear weapons on its frontiers. The deployment of these weapons in the USSR and Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe gave rise to fears of “loose nukes” — poorly catalogued and secured weapons that might get lost, sold, or stolen — at the end of the Cold War. Thankfully, the removal of tactical nuclear weapons from the front lines in the early 1990s, along with greatly improved Russian infrastructure and governmental stability, eased this threat. Nevertheless, Russia is believed to have a large arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, and a return to relying on them would raise questions about the future. Furthermore, Russia’s recent termination of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program established under 1992 Nunn-Lugar accords has reduced transparency and cooperation.

Over the long term, too, the government in Kiev may look to nuclear weaponry as a force multiplier to offset Russian military superiority.  This motivation becomes more likely if hardline nationalists gain full control of the Ukrainian government, reverting to nuclear arms production to assert themselves on the international stage. An unstable country with a serious threat on its border, nuclear weapons ambitions, and a large nuclear infrastructure raises uncomfortable questions about the future of nuclear security in the former Soviet sphere.

The crisis also may have proliferation effects outside of Eastern Europe, particularly pertaining to the Iranian nuclear negotiations. If Russia’s annexation of Crimea proceeds despite Western threats and protestations, Vladimir Putin will have divided the P5+1 and further eroded the West’s credibility. The US Department of State announced recently that it would not recognize the plebiscite underway in Crimea. However, mere statements will not determine the course of events.  The outcome may shift the perceptions of Iran’s leadership, who may calculate that the United States is unable or unwilling to follow through on its threats and warnings in general.  If the Iranian nuclear negotiations stall or break down, it will be difficult bring Iran back to the table during the remainder of President Obama’s term, and the Iranian government may make a new calculation about the feasibility of pursuing nuclear weapons.


  1. Pavel (History)

    “The high volume of nuclear material that had been and still is located in the west of the former USSR”? The only nuclear material still located in the west of the former USSR is in Belarus. Ukraine has none – it shipped its last HEU to Russia in 2012.

    “reverting to nuclear arms production”? When exactly was Ukraine producing nuclear weapons?

  2. Tobias Piechowiak (History)

    I can’t really see how Ukraine could revert to
    weapons making. They don’t have any inherited USSR weapons and they lack everything from fissile material to the knowledge of bomb making.
    I maybe misunderstood the statement?

    Very nice article btw

  3. Scott Monje (History)

    I’m not so sure about Iran. Under the current leadership, in the current economic situation, I suspect that Iran prefers to reach a deal that will change its relationship with the outside world. In addition to the nuclear talks, they’ve even been opening up to the Saudis behind the scenes. Now, how long the current administration will last and how much control it has over potential spoilers are still open questions, but I don’t think it’s accurate to see them as forced into negotiations solely by the threat of attack.

  4. Pedro (History)

    As a Brit, I’m starting to feel that I might need more nuclear weapons in the near future.
    And now that abrogating treaties is becoming fashionable, I wonder who’ll be the first to restart testing.

  5. Cthippo (History)

    Plutonium derived from power reactor fuel really isn’t suitable for nuclear weapons due to the high concentrations of Plutonium 240 which creates all sorts of problems with predetonation. Likewise, Ukraine doesn’t have the infrastructure to reprocess and extract the plutonium, or the expertise to design the weapons.

    Hypothetically speaking, if they did decide to go the nuclear route they would probably be best off restarting the other RBMK1000 reactors at the Chernobyl NPP. Units 1-3 continues producing power for years after Unit 4 exploded, and the RBMK is designed to produce plutonium as well as power by using a shorter burnup to minimize Pu240 contamination.

    That said, the Ukranians would also have to build reprocessing canyons with remotely controlled manipulators, a massive array of gloveboxes for handling the plutonium, and facilities for machining it. They would also have to come up with a design and validate it before production could begin. Could Ukraine do this? Sure. Could they do it covertly? Probably not.

    They certainly couldn’t do it without alienating NATO and the EU on whom they are dependent for their future as an independent state.

    I agree with Scott, Iran wants a deal to lift the sanctions and the west has finally come to terms the Iranians can (probably) live with. Events in Ukraine aren’t going to impact the negotiations with Iran, but the US inability to back up it’s threats in Crimea and Syria is going to have an impact eventually.

  6. jeannick (History)

    As far as I’m aware Chernobyl unit 1 and 2 were operated for a long while after the accident.
    unit 3 was seriously damaged but didn’t rupture
    unit 4 suffered an internal reactor vessel explosion
    spreading radioactive fuel rods for hundred of feet all around
    the moderating graphite blocks took fire and provided a thermal column for ashes and debris to be wind borne all over Northern Europe .

    • Anon2 (History)


      Graphite moderated reactors are a bad design waiting for an accident. One bad mistake and the graphite catches fire and bingo — you’re whole downwind footprint is radioactive for the rest of human history. Fukashima was bad. Chernobyl was worse.