Analysis & Opinions - Lawfare

Ukraine's Nuclear Moment

  • Eric Ciaramella
| Apr. 25, 2023

A review of Mariana Budjeryn, "Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022).

Inheriting the Bomb front Cover image

History has seen many empires collapse, but only once has a nuclear-armed superpower disappeared from the world map overnight. When the hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time on December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union's fearsome nuclear arsenal was suddenly spread out over the territory of four independent countries: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. There was no blueprint for what to do next. 

Mariana Budjeryn's "Inheriting the Bomb" tells the story of how one of these new countries, Ukraine, came into possession of the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal—larger than the combined stockpiles of China, France, and the United Kingdom at the time—and decided to disarm peacefully a few years later. Ukraine's denuclearization was far from a straightforward process. After initially renouncing nuclear weapons, Ukrainian officials sought recognition that their newly independent country was a rightful heir to part of the Soviet cache, deserving of equal treatment, financial compensation, and pledges that disarmament would not endanger Ukraine's security. 

Budjeryn's deeply researched book, published at the end of 2022, has obvious relevance today. In exchange for denuclearization, Ukraine received security assurances from the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia in December 1994, in a document known as the Budapest Memorandum. But Russia reneged on its promises, first in 2014, when it annexed Crimea and fomented a shadow war in the Donbas, and again last year, when it launched its all-out assault. (For a deeper dive into the memorandum’s history, see Mykhailo Soldatenko's analysis in Lawfare.) 

Amid Moscow's reckless nuclear saber-rattling and nine-year-long war of aggression against its neighbor, the Budapest Memorandum's impotence has led many to wonder, understandably, whether Ukraine erred in surrendering its nuclear weapons. "If there were nuclear weapons in Ukraine now, if we had not made such a big mistake then, and I believe today that this was a mistake, there would have been no invasion, and we would have our territories now," President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an interview in 2021, eight years after Crimea's seizure and a year before Russia's full-scale invasion. Even President Bill Clinton in a recent interview expressed regret for having pressured Ukraine to disarm: "I feel a personal stake because I got them to agree to give up their nuclear weapons. And none of them believe that Russia would have pulled this stunt if Ukraine still had their weapons."

For Ukrainians, the brutal devastation Russia has inflicted on them since February 2022 has only made that counterfactual more agonizing. But Budjeryn, born and raised in Lviv and currently a senior researcher with the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center, warns against simplistic narratives. Ukraine's denuclearization, in her view, was not a mistake. "The main problem with this sort of counterfactual," she argues, “is the presumption that one could isolate and tweak just one variable—the decision to keep nuclear weapons—without disrupting the broader web of international and domestic political and economic factors that combined to produce contemporary Ukraine. If Ukraine had refused [to disarm], it would not be the same country it is today but with nuclear weapons. Indeed, it is doubtful whether it would be a country at all."

Ukraine might have become a pariah state at a time when its independence was far from assured and its overarching objective was to join the global community as a member in good standing, she argues. And even if a nuclear-armed Ukraine had somehow managed to navigate alone what would have been a more hostile international environment, it would not have forged the extensive ties to the West that it did in the decades after disarmament: the same ties that today are a lifeline for Ukrainians heroically resisting Russia's aggression....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ciaramella, Eric .“Ukraine's Nuclear Moment.” Lawfare, April 25, 2023.

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