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23 April, 2014  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych,  

Nuclear Reincarnation. Does Ukraine Need Its Nukes Back?

Russian military aggression has recently become a constant threat, while the Western powers are failing to fulfil the security guarantees they extended to Ukraine under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. The issue of nuclear or other similarly effective weapons with which to defend Ukraine’s borders is again high on the agenda

By giving up its nuclear weapons Ukraine managed to peacefully go through the stormy 1990s in the post-Soviet territory and leave the USSR quite painlessly. The control centre for strategic nuclear missiles located in Ukraine was in Russia. If Ukraine had kept them, it would have remained under Russia’s umbrella and essentially refused to embrace true independence. This is not to mention the excessive financial burden of maintaining the missiles and the infrastructure. However, Russian military aggression has recently become a constant threat, while the Western powers are failing to fulfil the security guarantees they extended to Ukraine under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. The issue of nuclear or other similarly effective weapons with which to defend Ukraine’s borders is again high on the agenda.

What Ukraine gave up in the 1990s

Twenty-three years after the breakup of the USSR, the core of Russia’s nuclear arsenal is still made up of the SS-18 missiles designed in Ukraine. As of 2014, the Russian Federation has some 680 Ukraine-made nuclear warheads on SS-18s, 600 nuclear warheads on SS-19s produced in Russia but with a control system made in Ukraine’s Kharkiv and around 300 warheads on Russian Topol (SS-25) and Yars (SS-27) missiles which include components manufactured in Ukraine. All SS-19s must be decommissioned by the end of 2016. The production of strategic missiles in Russia cannot keep up with the ageing of its nuclear arsenal, so it tries to maintain control over Ukraine’s missile-building complex at any cost.

In 1991, Ukraine inherited the third largest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world. It included 46 silo-launched SS-24 missiles carrying 460 nuclear warheads and 130 SS-19s carrying 780 warheads. Considering the parameters of these missiles, they were a threat to the USA but could hardly protect Ukraine from Russia. Moreover, Ukraine had, from Soviet times, 19 TU-160 strategic bombers and 600 air-launched cruise missiles. Its entire nuclear arsenal included some 5,000 warheads, but they were all controlled from Moscow. To compare, Russia now has around 14,000 nuclear warheads, including 1,500 to 1,600 of the strategic variety.

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Ukraine did not and still does not have facilities to produce fuel-grade or weapons-grade enriched uranium. In the 1990s, this system would have required a huge investment – US $3bn, or US $10bn in current prices. It was precisely this national nuclear missile control system that Ukraine lacked in order to become a full-fledge nuclear state back in 1992. “The Russians began to actively work through their agents of influence, such as Dmytro Tabachnyk, inside Ukraine in order to force it to give up the entire missile industry as soon as possible,” a high-ranking official in Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service, who dealt with nuclear issues at the time, has told The Ukrainian Week on condition of anonymity. “The problem was that we were Russia’s main competitor at the international market for weapons and missile and space technology. Against the backdrop of friendly talks, very serious efforts were being taken to undermine Ukraine’s defence capacity and make it impossible for our state to maintain its nuclear status. All means were used, from secret financing of Ukrainian politicians, especially in the left-wing part of the spectrum, to bribery of officers and experts to economic pressure.”

Ukraine’s and Russia’s military industries worked as one mechanism in Soviet times. These were the infamous “inseverable economic ties between brotherly peoples” that Moscow loved to talk about. The Kremlin terminated all military industrial contracts starting from 1 January 1992, causing an economic collapse in Ukraine. In particular, the missile and space industry, which employed over 200,000 people, was left without orders. Nearly half of Ukraine’s electricity was produced by nuclear power stations that used Russian nuclear fuel, and suddenly Ukraine was unable to pay for it. In these conditions, the country faced a coordinated position of the USA, Great Britain and Russia, which demanded giving up nuclear weapons and missile technology and in exchange offered aid in overcoming the crisis. Finally, Ukraine’s government agreed, but all it received was apparent security guarantees, an aid package, supplies of nuclear fuel in exchange for nuclear warheads, as well as access to the commercial markets for Ukraine’s missiles.

At the moment, it seemed that Ukraine bought time by saving the missile and space industry from demise and the economy from collapse. Moreover, it kept 250kg of weapons-grade uranium, enough to make dozens of warheads if need be. However, in the course of nearly 20 years none of Ukraine’s presidents and governments ever tackled the issue of strategic security. In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych gave up the weapons-grade uranium to the USA based on an agreement Americans previously made with Viktor Yushchenko in exchange for financing a centre of neutron research in the Kharkiv Physics and Technology Institute. According to information obtained by The Ukrainian Week, most of this money has been embezzled.

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No nuclear alternative

There are three major varieties of nuclear weapons: land-launched, sea-launched and air-launched. Land-launched missiles are further divided into short-range (tactical, up to 500km), medium-range (1,000-5,000km) and long-range (upwards of 5,000km). According to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty(INF) between the USSR and the USA, intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles were banned. Ukraine joined the treaty back in the 1990s.

Nuclear missiles are programmed to hit a certain set of targets within their range. All launch pads are joined together into one nuclear weapons management system, which issues launch commands.

Long-range missiles are usually called strategic, because their purpose is to destroy the strategic potential of an enemy, such as cities, military bases, etc. They typically carry several warheads each of which can manoeuvre on its own, deceive anti-missile defence systems and deliver nuclear charges within several dozen metres of the target.

The range of strategic missiles is limited from the bottom by the demands of the INF treaty, even though their control system can be programmed so that they would choose a trajectory to hit a target in the prohibited zone. Russia is already experimenting by launching strategic missiles with the range of 2,500km, which is approximately the distance from the Russian missile base in Verkhnyaya Salda (Urals) to Lviv or Odesa in Ukraine.

Nuclear weapons are means of universal destruction, which is both its strong and weak side. If an enemy is invading the country gradually, little by little, as Russia is doing in Ukraine now, nuclear weapons are useless. Let us look at the Russian aggression against Ukraine from a position in which we have strategic nuclear weapons. Let us assume that Russia has seized Luhansk or Kherson. Will Ukraine press the button of mutual destruction that will wipe out, among other cities, Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Lviv and Kharkiv? Of course, not. That is why strategic nuclear weapons are unfit for a local war like the one in which Ukraine has been drawn into.

An alternative option to fill the vacuum

Will tactical nuclear weapons help Ukraine? They more or less even out the chances of a small and large army, but there are many nuances. First, Ukraine would have to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The world community may accept the diplomatic step as such, but any attempts to restore nuclear status will be met with a very hostile reaction.

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Ukraine is now supported by the entire world, but by taking this step it would place itself alongside North Korea or Iraq under Saddam Hussein. No-one will lift a finger to protect Ukraine from Russia’s invasion, which will take place immediately after the effort to restore nuclear status becomes known. In this case, Ukraine can forget about European integration and cooperation with NATO.

Technologically, in order to restore tactical nuclear weapons Ukraine would need to produce a new missile carrier with a range of at least 500km, which is the distance between Chernihiv and Moscow, a control system and a weapons-grade uranium enrichment system. This programme would take three to five years to implement and many billions of dollars in financing.

As far as financing is concerned, ex-Minister of Environment Protection and Nuclear Safety Yuriy Kostenko, who held this office in the early and mid-1990s, said: “To create a system for developing enriched uranium and plutonium, we have working nuclear power plants, but to extract and further enrich these elements, we need brand-new production facilities. They will cost US $50-100bn to build.” Add to this the cost of constructing missiles and creating military units to service them.

The main blow in this case, however, will be the economic sanctions which the West will inevitably impose. If Ukraine manages to overcome all of this, then the question will arise: Why do we need nuclear weapons if we can keep Russia at bay even without them? Many experts say that withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, spending many billions of dollars on weapons that are unlikely to ever be used and facing inevitable international isolation as a consequence simply does not make sense.

Instead, there is a completely legal alternative in creating a high-precision missile system with a medium or short range that will employ modern conventional warheads. One such type is the so-called thermobaric weapons, also known as vacuum bombs. They are as powerful as miniature nuclear bombs, but do not violate numerous international treaties or require an entire industry like that for obtaining weapons-grade uranium and producing plutonium. For example, the available Russian heavy thermobaric weapons have the explosive yield of some 44 tonnes of TNT. This kind of weapon cannot send the aggressor back to the Stone Age or turn someone into “nuclear ashes” but is a fairly serious deterrent to make any aggression pointless and very dangerous. Ukraine must make use of its scientific, technical and military potential which is sufficient today to create such cutting-age defence systems.

Ukraine, no doubt, needs to step up its cooperation with NATO with an option of soon joining the alliance. This will permit expanding NATO’s nuclear umbrella to cover Ukraine. Moreover, the Budapest Memorandum is an important argument to clear the way of all obstacles. However, it should be understood that in conditions of increasing instability in the world caused by Russia’s actions, Ukraine still needs to combine European Atlantic integration with the development of its own high-precision weapons. This will permit Ukraine to stay within the boundaries set by international treaties while at the same time safeguarding the country against any surprise events along its eastern and southern border.


Andrew Zhalko-Tytarenko is a theoretical physicist and author of nearly 90 publications. In 1993-95, he worked as the deputy head and then acting director general of Ukraine’s National Space Agency. He participated in negotiations over Ukraine’s nuclear and missile weapons. He is now an independent expert, a contributor to The Diplomatic Courier (USA), Diplomat & International Canada and a columnist with The Thruster, an American magazine that covers issues in modern space business. Zhalko-Tytarenko lives in Canada

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