What If Ukraine Still Had Nuclear Weapons?

When Ukraine disarmed in 1994, the West made an implicit promise to protect it from Russian attack.
Not exactly a row of ICBMs. Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Tyler Cowen links to this very interesting 2003 paper about the trade-offs involved in Ukraine's 1994 decision to give up the weapons that had made it the third-largest nuclear power on earth. Robert S. Mathers, who wrote the paper, is a colonel in the U.S. Army and director of the Eurasian Security Studies Program at the George C. Marshall Center in Germany.

The paper bears reading for those interested in the strategic roots of the present crisis. Although Mathers's principal goal is to ask whether the methods the West used to persuade Ukraine to surrender its arsenal are transferable to other theaters, he makes several points about the problems the newly liberated country faced. Foremost among them was Russia's unsubtle threat to invade and take the weapons by force.

QuickTake Unrest in Ukraine

Ukraine was at this time a considerable military power. Immediately after independence, its armed forces numbered 750,000. Unfortunately, its bases and deployment were all westward, toward NATO. To reorient those forces to guard the Russian border would have been prohibitively expensive, particularly for an economy that was undergoing a rapid contraction. Demilitarization was by far the cheaper alternative.

The nuclear arsenal was tricky, because it was technically still under Russian control, but the Ukrainian government wanted to keep it to deter an attack from the east. The West basically purchased the weapons, by investing in refitting Ukrainian industry. Some 1,900 warheads were transferred to Russia. Some 111 ICBMs and 46 heavy bombers were destroyed.

And, as Mathers points out, Ukraine also gave up the means to rebuild its arsenal: From the mid-1950s through 1991, a plant in Dnipropetrovsk "produced over eight types of intermediate-range and ICBMs, to include the 10-warhead behemoth SS-24." In return for all of this, Ukraine received what Mathers presciently refers to as "perceived" promises that the U.S. would guarantee its safety against Russian attack.

Mathers, incidentally, continues to produce provocative work. Here is a co-authored paper from earlier this year about the exploitation of Afghanistan's enormous mineral wealth after NATO forces leave. Mathers predicts that the winner will be China, and that China's deepening involvement in the Afghan economy will likely be good for regional stability.

(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama" and the novel "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln." Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.)

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