Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at the Munich Security Conference on 19 February that Kiev may reconsider the country’s non-nuclear status under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. What message does this statement send to the US, Europe, NATO, and Russia?
“The [Ukrainian] president’s words should be very disturbing for Europe because it means that security will depend on a strategic military buildup, which must sound very dangerous to Brussels”, says Alberto Hutschenreuter, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Service of the Nation (ISEN) and former professor at the Escuela Superior de Guerra, Argentina. “For the world, this means that nuclearisation is seen as an option from a national security viewpoint. It’s a very dangerous message. The Ukrainian president’s statement does not contribute to reaching an agreement with Russia. Moreover, it looks like a warning to NATO aimed at forcing the alliance to continue taking steps to accept Ukraine into its ranks”.
Following the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine found itself home to the world’s third-largest nuclear stockpile after that of the US and Russia. However, Ukraine’s Declaration of State Sovereignty in 1990 made it clear that the new state “adheres to three nuclear-free principles: not to accept, produce, and purchase nuclear weapons” (Art IX).
On 5 December 1994, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan were granted access to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons under the Budapest Memorandum signed by Russia, the US, and the UK at an OSCE conference in Hungary. Under the accords, the three post-Soviet republics gave up the atomic arsenals deployed by the USSR in their respective territories in exchange for security guarantees from the three major nuclear powers.
“I am initiating consultations in the framework of the Budapest Memorandum”, Zelensky said on 19 February. “If they do not happen again or their results do not guarantee security for our country, Ukraine will have every right to believe that the Budapest Memorandum is not working and all the package decisions of 1994 are in doubt”.
Zelensky should have studied the issues related to the nuclear non-proliferation agreement of 1994 better, says Hassan Beheshtipour, an Iranian international relations analyst and expert on nuclear issues. The Ukrainian president should learn why Ukraine handed Soviet nuclear arms over to Russia and why Kazakhstan and Belarus did the same after the collapse of the USSR, according to the analyst.
“Many people in the world think that the possession of nuclear weapons can improve security and prevent attacks from outside”, Beheshtipour says. “But in fact, this is not the case; if Ukraine resorts to building nuclear weapons, it would find itself in international isolation and would face an increasing security threat. This would happen because both Americans and European countries would be categorically against Ukraine’s nuclear status since it would pose a threat not only to Russia, but also to Europe”.
Ukraine’s neutrality and non-nuclear status would better serve its national interests than an attempt to produce nuclear weapons, according to the analyst. Finland’s neutrality helped it maintain working relations with the USSR, the US, and Europe at the peak of Cold War, recalls Beheshtipour. “As a result, it strengthened its position so much that the most important disarmament conference was held in 1975 in Helsinki”, the analyst notes.
Kiev’s effort to build its own nuclear arsenal could drag the entire European region into a “security dilemma”, echoes Mani Mehrabi, a foreign affairs analyst and member of the scientific board of the Institute of International Relations of the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to him, it would trigger a domino effect prompting other countries to build up their armaments in order to ensure security. As a result, the potential arms race could completely undermine the region’s security, he warns.
“Kiev is raising the [nuclear status] issue to sow panic in Europe, but neither Russia, nor other European countries, or the United States will make it easy for him”, stresses Atilio Borón, Argentine sociologist and political scientist. “Moreover, they will veto [Ukraine’s] initiative. Therefore, there is no talk of nuclear blackmail”.Russia, however, takes Zelensky’s remarks very seriously: on 22 February President Vladimir Putin stated that the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine is a strategic threat to Russia. Moscow has no doubt that Ukraine is capable of delivering on Zelensky’s threat since it inherited considerable nuclear expertise from the USSR.
“Ever since Soviet times, Ukraine has had fairly broad nuclear competencies”, said Putin. “There are several nuclear units [in the country] and the nuclear industry is developed quite broadly and well. There are schools there. Ukraine has everything to solve this issue at a much faster pace than those countries who strive to achieve this goal from scratch”.