Ukraine is caught in a struggle between the E.U. and Russia over influence in Eastern Europe. The E.U. is vocally supporting the protesters, who demand that President Yanukovich sign an association agreement with the E.U., echoing pro-European demands of the Orange Revolution of 2004. Russia, on the other hand, has granted Ukraine loans and cheap gas in order to keep the country in its own economic and political sphere of influence. This struggle over influence has led to significant tension between Moscow and Brussels.
Now imagine how much higher tensions would be if Ukraine had nuclear weapons.
As Steven Pfifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, points out in an article for the Brookings Institution, Ukraine could well have become a nuclear power. The young country inherited “176 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 44 strategic bombers and some 1900 strategic nuclear warheads” from the Soviet Union. Luckily it agreed to surrender all its nuclear capabilities in the Tripartite Agreement of 1994. It would have been extremely expensive for Ukraine to keep its nuclear weapons anyway – but not impossible. Had Ukraine’s leadership chosen a different course, Pfifer writes, consequences could have been catastrophic:
“Had Ukraine tried to hold on to a nuclear arsenal, the last 20 years would have seen a very different history. It is hard to imagine the very positive developments that took place in U.S.-Ukrainian relations in the mid-1990s—greatly expanded reform assistance, frequent summit meetings, the establishment of a strategic partnership and the creation of the U.S.-Ukraine Binational Commission, chaired by Vice President Al Gore and President Leonid Kuchma—had Kyiv held on to nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons also would have thwarted the development of Ukraine’s relations with Europe. NATO would not have agreed to a “distinctive” NATO-Ukraine partnership or a NATO-Ukraine Council in 1997, and Kyiv would have had little reason to expect much from the European Union.
Moreover, no issue between Moscow and Kyiv would have proven more contentious. Had the Russians believed that Ukraine would seriously try to keep nuclear arms, they would have resorted to all kinds of diplomatic, political, economic and other pressure to force a change of policy course. If—or when—the issue boiled over into a full-fledged crisis, the Ukrainians would have faced Russia alone, with no international support whatsoever.”
In 2014, a Ukrainian nuclear arsenal would have substantially raised the stakes in the Russian-European power struggle over Eastern Europe. Russia would certainly be more anxious over the possibility of losing Ukraine to the West, and perhaps more willing to intervene in its neighbor’s affairs. Nuclear weapons are often said to guarantee a country’s independence. But in Ukraine’s case, the opposite seems true.