The terrible toll of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is plain to see: thousands killed and millions driven from their homes. The invasion also threatens to bring about a nuclear disaster. Fighting around Ukraine’s nuclear power plants might cause an accident like that at Chernobyl almost 36 years ago. The war also might draw NATO into direct conflict with Russia, leading to nuclear war. All these costs and threats from the war require an immediate humanitarian and diplomatic response.
In addition, we should not forget a subtler, longer-term impact of the Russia-Ukraine war. The Russian invasion of Ukraine could seriously damage the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. The current war provides fresh encouragement for nations to build or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons. Even if this war ends without nuclear disaster, the world may well be living with dangerous nuclear consequences for a long time to come.
Ukraine today possesses no nuclear weapons and is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commits the country to not seek such weapons. However, this situation is a change from that 30 years ago.
When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, the country was a base for Soviet nuclear weapons. At the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, 1,900 nuclear weapons remained stationed on Ukrainian soil. Measured in sheer numbers, Ukraine had the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, after the United States and Russia, within its borders. This arsenal included weapons with a destructive power of 400-550 kilotons, or more than 20 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Newly independent Ukraine’s government took an ambivalent stance toward the nuclear weapons on its territory. President Leonid Kravchuk established “administrative control” over the nuclear weapons in 1992 but assured US President George H. W. Bush that Ukraine would get rid of the weapons while “taking into consideration her national security.” The Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, similarly declared that the country would disarm but first required security guarantees. Ukrainian policymakers were presumably concerned about post-Soviet Russia, with which relations were tense. Meanwhile, the Bush administration wanted to reduce the number of former Soviet states with nuclear weapons to just one, Russia, perhaps out of a fear of a nuclear exchange among feuding post-Soviet states.
This situation led to a long diplomatic wrangle between the United States and Ukraine. American policymakers offered assurances to the Ukrainians about their country’s independence and territorial integrity being respected. However, the American policymakers would not offer their Ukrainian counterparts what the latter wanted: a legally binding guarantee that included assistance to Ukraine and automatic sanctions on an aggressor in the event of a threat to Ukraine.
Ukraine, the United States, and Russia were eventually able to negotiate a settlement, which included the Budapest Memorandum of December 9, 1994. In the Memorandum, the United States and Russia (and the United Kingdom, which was also a party to the agreement) committed “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”
The Memorandum contained essentially no means of enforcing this commitment, though: Russia and the United States pledged “to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine… if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression.” Since both nations are veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council, each could block any Security Council “action” on Ukraine’s behalf.
Whatever the Budapest Memorandum’s shortcomings, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons and to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—although the Rada warned that Ukraine might withdraw from the treaty if its territorial integrity were threatened. The Ukrainians began transferring their nuclear weapons to Russia and dismantling their own means for using such weapons. The last nuclear warhead left Ukraine in 1996; the last missile silo was demolished in 2001.
The limitations of the Budapest Memorandum became apparent in 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region and vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the territory’s transfer. Russia used its veto again this February to stop a resolution condemning its current invasion of Ukraine.
The terrible significance of these events for anti-nuclear activists is clear. As Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association recently commented, “[Russian President Vladimir Putin]’s behavior undermines the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and reinforces the impression that nuclear-armed states can bully non-nuclear states, thus reducing the incentives for disarmament and making it more difficult to prevent nuclear proliferation.”
Even before the current invasion, some Ukrainians seemed to have second thoughts about giving up nuclear weapons. In 2014, at the time of Crimea’s annexation, several Rada members proposed that Ukraine withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Others introduced a bill, which was ultimately defeated, calling for a renewal of Ukraine’s nuclear status.
Volodymyr Ohryzko, a former Ukrainian foreign minister, proposed that the country start producing nuclear weapons. Ohryzko commented, “[W]e have the moral and legal right to restore our nuclear status and take measures to protect ourselves independently.” Ukrainian popular opinion became more supportive of obtaining nuclear weapons again, with almost 50 percent of survey respondents favoring this policy in 2014.
More recently, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, seemed to suggest in spring 2021 that Ukraine could pursue nuclear weapons in the future—although the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry later walked back that comment. What course Ukraine will ultimately take, like the conclusion of the present war, remains to be seen.
The dangers of nuclear weapons spreading to more countries is yet another tragic result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Faced with such a maddening situation, the temptation is to say that the Budapest Memorandum should have provided more robust, definite guarantees to Ukraine. What such guarantees might have been is not obvious, though.
Had the United States signed a legally binding treaty in 1994 promising to defend Ukraine from attack, such a treaty would have been the practical equivalent of making Ukraine part of NATO. Yet Ukrainian NATO membership has been one of the central sticking points in US-Russian relations and has arguably contributed to the current conflict. Such a promise by the United States might have led to a conflict with Russia sooner rather than later.
An American guarantee of aid to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia in the event of a Russian attack on Ukraine might have been more politically feasible in the early 1990s. However, a combination of aid and sanctions has essentially been the actual American response to Russia’s 2014 and 2022 aggression against Ukraine—and, as we have seen, such a response has hardly resolved the problem.
The disheartening reality may be that the United States and other western nations did not have a practical way in the early 1990s of protecting a nuclear-free Ukraine from Russia. The largely symbolic Budapest Memorandum may have been the best available option.
Beyond the Memorandum, the most effective way of protecting Ukraine would have been preventing the relationships among Ukraine, Russia, and the west from deteriorating to the level they reached in the 2010s. That did not happen, though, and now Ukraine and the world must deal with the consequences.
Several significant events over the last 20 years have made nuclear nonproliferation and controlling nuclear weapons more difficult. One was the 2011 military intervention by a coalition of nations, including the United States, in Libya. By leading to the overthrow of Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi, who had renounced his nation’s nuclear weapons program in 2003, the intervention provided another strong incentive for rulers to acquire nuclear weapons and never give them up.
Other significant blows to nonproliferation have been the United States’ withdrawal from agreements such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, as well Russia’s apparent violations of the latter treaty.
Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, in violation of the Budapest Memorandum, are yet more episodes in this lamentable pattern. The two nations with the world’s largest nuclear arsenals have predictably proven to be among the most significant obstacles to reducing the nuclear threat.
A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.
 For information on the war’s death and refugee toll, see Vanessa Gera and Srdjan Nedeljkovic, “‘No Mercy’: Mariupol Bombing Compared to Nazi War Crimes,” Associated Press, March 22, 2022, https://bit.ly/3sD06lc; Tobi Thomas, “Russia-Ukraine War in Numbers: Casualties, Refugees and Aid,” Guardian, March 11, 2022, https://bit.ly/3wt1Pea; UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Ukraine: Civilian Casualties as of 24.00 20 March 2022,” Relief Web, March 21, 2022, https://bit.ly/3wfkqvb.
 Jungmin Kang and Eva Lisowski, “Could an Attack on Ukrainian Nuclear Facilities Cause a Disaster Greater than Chernobyl? Possibly, Simulations Show,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 23, 2022, https://bit.ly/3wm9x9S.
 For the treaty text and Ukraine’s status as a signatory, see “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, accessed May 15, 2022, https://treaties.unoda.org/t/npt.
 Steven Pifer, “Why Care about Ukraine and the Budapest Memorandum,” Brookings Institution, December 5, 2019, https://brook.gs/3PkJd8F.
 Mariana Budjeryn, “The Breach: Ukraine’s Territorial Integrity and the Budapest Memorandum,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, accessed May 15, 2022, https://bit.ly/3l9Yhbp.
 Pifer, “Why Care about Ukraine and the Budapest Memorandum.”
 Budjeryn, “The Breach.”
 “Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” Ukraine, Russian Federation, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and United States of America, accessed May 15, 2022, https://bit.ly/3FO2TO7.
 Budjeryn, “The Breach.”
 Mariana Budjeryn, “Revisiting Ukraine’s Nuclear Past Will Not Help Secure Its Future,” Lawfare Blog, May 21, 2021, https://bit.ly/3Mxhxff.
 Budjeryn, “The Breach.”
 UN News, “Russia Vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution on Friday That Would Have Demanded That Moscow Immediately Stop Its Attack on Ukraine and Withdraw All Troops, a Move Several Council Members Said Was Deplorable, but Inevitable,” February 26, 2022, https://bit.ly/3Nfl8OJ.
 Daryl G. Kimball, “Putin’s Assault on Ukraine and the Nonproliferation Regime,” Arms Control Today, March 2022, https://bit.ly/3Mguytt.
 Budjeryn, “Revisiting Ukraine’s Nuclear Past.”
 Olha Vorozhbyt, “Volodymyr Ohryzko: ‘Ukraine Has the Moral and Legal Right to Restore Its Nuclear Status,’” Ukrainian Week, March 21, 2014, https://bit.ly/3sE59Sx.
 Budjeryn, “Revisiting Ukraine’s Nuclear Past.”
 Lyudmila Kanaryan, “Ukraine’s Envoy on Russia’s Build-Up: Either Joining NATO or Restoring Nuclear Status,” Unian, April 15, 2021, https://bit.ly/3wfSBmy.
 See “The Forgotten War: The Libyan War and Its Legacy.”
 For information on these agreements and their breach, see “The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, December 2020, https://bit.ly/39nYsxl; “The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, August 2019, https://bit.ly/3Lg4Aoo.
© 2022 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.