The overarching question imparting urgency to this exploration is: Can U.S.-Russian contention in cyberspace cause the two nuclear superpowers to stumble into war? In considering this question we were constantly reminded of recent comments by a prominent U.S. arms control expert: At least as dangerous as the risk of an actual cyberattack, he observed, is cyber operations’ “blurring of the line between peace and war.” Or, as Nye wrote, “in the cyber realm, the difference between a weapon and a non-weapon may come down to a single line of code, or simply the intent of a computer program’s user.”
Nuclear deterrence thinking has become so entrenched in U.S. academic and policy circles that it only seems natural that other states regard nuclear weapons in the same terms. Yet it is necessarily so? The presentation examines the case of Ukraine to understand how its leaders interpreted the meaning of the nuclear weapons deployed on Ukrainian territory in early 1990s. Ukraine became the host of world's third largest nuclear arsenal following the Soviet collapse in 1991. Its pre-independence intention to rid itself of nuclear weapons soon gave way to a more nuanced nuclear stance that developed into a claim of rightful nuclear "ownership." Wester security theories and practices led Western audiences to assume that Ukraine might seek to keep nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the growing Russian threat. Yet a reconstruction of Ukraine's nuclear history based on recently uncovered sources reveals that while Ukraine's technological and scientific capacity to develop a nuclear deterrent was greater than commonly assumed, deterrence thinking was conspicuously lacking in Ukrainian deliberations. The presentation examines why that might have been the case and suggest that deterrence, far from being a technologically or systemically determined way of regarding nuclear weapons, is a socially and historically contingent set of concepts and practices.