When Ukraine Was Mightier Than China
And other magical fantasies about nuclear weapons
Many now recall that Ukraine once, briefly, had a massive nuclear weapons arsenal —and then gave it up.
Irony of ironies, 28 years ago it handed what was then the world’s third largest nuclear weapons force over … to Russia. With American encouragement.
If Ukraine had kept nuclear weapons, it’s possible it would be secure, proud and free today, and that Russia would never have dared invade.
Then again, Ukraine is dotted with nuclear power plants and spent fuel pools — which if they catch fire could poison huge swathes of Ukraine and Russia — but that did not stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from bombing and invading. So let’s look at this more closely.
Nuclear Disarmament in Return for … a Handshake?
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine’s nuclear inheritance was second only to Russia’s. It included more than 2,600 (!) tactical weapons (for battlefield use), more than 1,200 on ICBMs, and a nuclear-armed bomber force. It was an arsenal larger than the arsenals of China, the U.K. and France combined.
Ukraine gave it all away. That was a more hopeful time; the Chernobyl power plant disaster in the 1980s had turned many there against all-things nuclear, and the weapons seemed like an expensive headache.
They were handed over to Russia to decommission and dismantle. It seemed logical since Russia already held all of the command and control infrastructure, as well as all facilities to design and manufacture warheads, enrich uranium, and dismantle decommissioned weapons.
In exchange, Ukraine got the Budapest Memorandum, a 1994 document in which the United States and Russia pledged to respect Ukraine’s borders; to never use military force against Ukraine; and to initiate UN Security Council actions and other consultations if those pledges were ever breached. The memo fell short of a full treaty, was filed away and essentially never heard from again.
Isn’t it funny how a formal document like this is now meaningless “because it’s not a treaty.” It was signed, in public ceremony, by top government leaders, as part of an incredibly solemn matter — Ukraine handing over all nuclear weapons in return for security guarantees. But it’s not a ratified treaty. So, oh well.
Next time you sign something Ukraine, get a lawyer!
Contrast that with official attitudes toward a mere public assertion in 2008 — in paragraph 23 of what was basically a press release — that Ukraine will someday join NATO. That is not a treaty either, but somehow it’s worshipped like holy writ. It’s a press release summary of a meeting we Americans never voted on. Yet Washington’s more rabid foreign policy circles have long insisted upon it as a point of honor, and the White House refused to renounce it even unto the last days before the Russian invasion.
Ukrainian Prime Minister: ‘They Must Be Killed With Nukes!’
In the years after Ukraine handed over its nuclear weapons, that poor nation became ever more dysfunctional, corrupt, chaotic. The average annual income for an entire household in recent years hovered around $2,000. (Or about $38 a week — how’s that for a paycheck?)
It’s hard to imagine how 4,000-odd nuclear weapons — requiring investments in building command and control infrastructure, among many other things — would have improved that situation. For context, the United States fields about 5,500 warheads; while the Pentagon’s budget is about five times larger than Ukraine’s entire economy.
If it’s hard to imagine thousands of nuclear weapons helping Ukraine, it’s easier to imagine them for sale on black markets. Even before Putin’s invasion, Ukraine was a notorious center for illegal arms deals. One suspects that nuclear weapons would have ended up alongside the rocket launchers, explosives and other Ukrainian weaponry already being trafficked.
But let’s finesse that and assume Ukraine only kept, say, a few dozen nuclear weapons. Which they secured dutifully. Is Ukraine now “safe”?
Well, 20 years after the nukes were traded for a Budapest handshake, it was 2014. A Ukrainian political crisis over competing trade and security deals on offer — one with a European Union bureaucracy, another with Russia — led to anti-government protests and widespread violence. The elected president fled (to Russia). The protest movement seized power. New leaders spoke of joining NATO. The Donbass region, closer culturally and linguistically to Russia, and the Kremlin, expressed a shared fury at what they all saw as a U.S.-backed coup in Kyiv. The Kremlin then shocked the world by declaring it had seized the Crimean Peninsula — without firing a shot, since thousands of Russian forces were already based there, under an agreement to lease the Black Sea navy base. The Donbass immediately rose in a sympathetic rebellion — partly spontaneous, partly egged on by the toppled Ukrainian president’s political allies.
This was something of a wild card, but President Putin adapted it to his purposes. A Ukrainian civil war ensued, with one side Kyiv- (and U.S.-) backed, the other Moscow-backed. Over the next eight years the war killed 14,000 people. The dead included all 298 people on board a Malaysian airline downed by missile systems the Kremlin had supplied its side.
Would nuclear weapons have prevented the Maidan protest in 2014, and the toppling of the Viktor Yanukovych government? It’s hard to see how.
Would they have prevented the Russian seizure of Crimea? Possibly … But it’s quite possible President Putin would have engineered the annexation anyway, nuclear weapons or no. Again: Crimea did not have to be invaded, troops were already stationed there. The temptation to grab it would have been enormous regardless of the stakes.
Would Ukrainian nuclear weapons have led to nuclear civil war in 2014? (What if some of the nukes were based in Donbass, and seized by the rebels — those same rebels who, we hope accidentally, shot down Malaysian Airlines MH17?)
Nuclear civil war may be hard to imagine — but civil wars are always the angriest and most extreme. In an interview typical of the 2014 madness, the pro-Western, pro-NATO former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, was asked how Kyiv should now approach Ukraine’s eight million ethnic Russians and replied, “They must be killed with nuclear weapons.” Her interviewer agreed.
Dead Hands …
President Putin is risking all on a “shock and awe”-style invasion. If Ukraine was bristling with nuclear weapons, he might have thought twice. That is a common, and logical, conclusion.
Or: he might have still believed he could strike rapidly, decapitate Kyiv and secure the nukes; might have miscalculated; might have lost Moscow.
A nuclear explosion in Moscow, by the way, in some accounts triggers the Perimeter system — also known as the Dead Hand — which automatically launches multiple nuclear missiles at … us.
That’s right. Even today — when President Putin has ordered nuclear weapons aimed at America put on ever-higher alert — even today a terrorist attack or major accidental explosion in Moscow could put the United States on the receiving end of, to borrow a phrase, “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
… And Bloody Noses
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, American ships were dropping “small” depth charges in an attempt to “signal” a Soviet submarine to surface and surrender; but on board that submarine, where the explosions reverberated enormously, the officers were terrified. Unbeknownst to all they were armed with “the special weapon” — a nuclear missile. The captain wanted to use it. His second in command agreed. But by pure luck, a passenger on board was an officer of rank — a man who, one year earlier, had survived the horrific K-19 nuclear submarine reactor fire — and he alone vetoed the outbreak of nuclear war.
Fast forward decades, and we find President Donald Trump demanding his Pentagon punish North Korea. This was in 2017, when Trump and Kim Jong-un were trading childish public insults — “Little Rocket Man,” “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” — and North Korea was frequently testing missiles, including the July 4th launch that Kim called his Independence Day “gift to American bastards.”
The Trump surprise attack would be considered whenever the North Koreans were preparing another missile. As recounted in Fred Kaplan’s excellent book “The Bomb,” it would open with U.S. Army Tactical Missiles, known as ATACMs — “Attack’Ems!”, get it? — striking the launch pad. Either they would destroy the missile on the pad, or hit the pad anyway after the launch, as punishment for it.
Press leaks dubbed this the “bloody nose” plan, because it assumed Kim could be intimidated with one good punch. But military leaders knew this could easily escalate, and warned not to throw that punch unless prepared to follow with the standing war plan — which involves hitting North Korea with up to 80 nuclear weapons.
To be clear, that would be a genocidal attack. That’s right. Our official U.S. war plan for North Korea, if ever activated, envisions wiping out a population of 25 million people, including more than 2 million children under the age of five. To note this isn’t sentimentality, it isn’t emotional blackmail. It’s simply clear-eyed recognition of reality — of a morally indefensible and abhorrent reality.
North Korea conducted 15 test launches over that year. Every time, the Pentagon organized a conference call for consideration of the “bloody nose”. On five occasions, when the missile seemed particularly concerning — perhaps headed toward Japan — a defense secretary pre-authorized to launch ATACMs was rapidly conferenced in. On two occasions, the defense secretary ordered ATACMs fired — but demonstratively, along the North Korean border and into the Sea of Japan. South Korean officers —who were also brought into the “bloody nose” conference calls — each time also fired their own Hyunmoo-2 missiles, along a similar path. (And on three occasions when the U.S. military simply observed, the South Koreans still fired their missiles as warning shots.)
President Trump was never conferenced in. (Phew.) But ATACM warning shots had already been fired when he stood outside a New Jersey golf course to warn North Korea they might soon be on the receiving end of “fire and fury.” Earlier he had claimed — wildly incorrectly! — that U.S. defensive missiles could shoot down any and all incoming North Korean missiles.
It's easy to imagine how the United States — over-confident, our leaders convinced we can shoot down any retaliation — might have attacked North Korea, miscalculated, and escalated rapidly into a world-ending disaster. It’s also easy to imagine how, when we position opposing militaries into tense and close proximity, a local commander’s idea — “let’s drop depth charges to signal them to surrender!”— could spin out of control.
So it should be just as easy to imagine how Russia — over-confident, convinced of its righteousness — might have attacked even a nuclear-armed Ukraine. Or how even now, small events could snowball with terrifying rapidity. It could happen in Central Europe. Or in the South China Sea (where some are already advocating we breach our treaty obligations and frantically arm Taiwan with nukes). Or on the Indian subcontinent, where India and Pakistan have hundreds of nukes pointed at each other yet still fought a major war in 1999 and tense border skirmishes in 2016, 2018 and 2019. (A nuclear war over there between India and Pakistan crashes the climate and the agricultural production over here.)
Often people observe there has been no massive, nations-consuming calamity in the 76 years since World War II. They say, 76 years of peace, why it must be all of the nuclear weapons! Never mind that there was no massive, nations-consuming war for the 99 years of peace between the end of Napoleon’s rampages in 1815 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. We will console ourselves with magical thinking. Nuclear weapons will simply sit patiently on the table like Chekhov’s gun, waiting to be fired. And waiting.
Back in the real world, U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert — poised for launch within minutes. As an emergency medicine physician, I have more time to make critical decisions about one heart attack than the 12 to 30 minutes the Pentagon sets aside for the U.S. president to decide whether to give all of human civilization a thumbs down. The hair-trigger alert policy has been criticized by Barak Obama, George W. Bush, former heads of CIA and NSA, former secretaries of defense and state, and three former heads of U.S. nuclear forces. These high-level, sober statesmen use language like “absurd” or “absolutely insane” in describing our day-to-day nuclear policy. As President Obama himself testily asserted at one of his national security council meetings about nuclear weapons, “Let’s stipulate that this is all insane.”
He then added, “but” — and continued down the same rabbit hole as commentators today, who argue that Ukraine and the world would have been so much more secure had Ukraine only stayed nuclear-armed, if we just had more nuclear weapons stirred into the mix.
Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times and a journalist who covered the war in Chechnya for the Los Angeles Times, is now an emergency medicine physician in Massachusetts. He is the immediate past chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility.