Although Russia has relied exclusively on conventional weapons for its invasion of Ukraine, behind the scenes lurks Moscow’s massive nuclear arsenal. Hours before Russian forces crossed into Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin reminded the world that his country was “one of the most powerful nuclear states” and that anyone who interfered with his war in Ukraine or threatened Russia directly would face “consequences that you have never faced in your history.” Three days later, as global outrage grew, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to a higher level of readiness. Even without these explicit threats, Russia’s nuclear deterrent would have prevented Western countries from intervening in Ukraine. Beyond supplying Kyiv with anti-armor and light air defense weapons, they will not come to Ukraine’s defense for fear of nuclear escalation, as U.S. President Joe Biden and other NATO leaders have made abundantly clear. Now that Putin’s attempts to seize Kyiv have been thwarted, there is a risk he will use tactical nuclear weapons to bring Ukraine to its knees. And while this scenario remains unlikely, neither Ukraine nor NATO can do anything to prevent it from happening.
This is a particularly bitter pill to swallow for Ukraine, since it was once home to the world’s third-largest cache of nuclear weapons. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine inherited a significant slice of the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal. But in 1994, the newly independent country decided to surrender that arsenal in exchange for assurances from Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States that its sovereignty and territorial integrity would be respected. The agreement, known as the Budapest Memorandum, is one that many Ukrainians have come to regret—first in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, and now even more so after its all-out assault on the country. If Ukraine had held on to its arsenal, many have argued, Putin would never have dared to invade the country.