In the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War was left behind, the USA and Europe began to strive for a new balance of nuclear power in the world. They considered how to reduce the number of countries with nuclear status to avoid any new possible threats. In 1989, South Africa gave up its nuclear arsenal when it destroyed six nuclear warheads. After the fall of communism, nuclear deterrence was less of a priority worldwide.
In 1991, Ukraine appeared on the world's map as a newly independent country. It was the second-largest economy of the collapsed Soviet Union and one of its main heirs. Along with the economy, enterprises, factories, refineries, and the most significant gas transportation system in Europe, Ukraine inherited the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal.
While still a Soviet republic, Ukraine proclaimed its intent to become a non-nuclear state in its Declaration of State Sovereignty, soon after its independence in August 1991, Ukraine adopted a more cautious approach to its nuclear inheritance, concerned that Russia's monopoly on nuclear arms in the post-Soviet space would be conducive to its resurgence as a dominating force in the region. Ukraine looked forward to redefining its relations with Russia as an equal after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This included claiming ownership of all formerly Soviet material and technical resources on Ukraine's territory, including weapons.
While Ukraine stood by its commitment to become non-nuclear in the future, it preferred to denuclearize gradually through treaties with other nuclear powers.
Though some in Washington were inclined to entertain the idea of a nuclear Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker firmly believed that only Russia should succeed the Soviet Union as a nuclear state, lest the unraveled Soviet Union become a "Yugoslavia with nukes." However, the U.S. was open to the possibility of Soviet nuclear weapons remaining under "safe, responsible, and reliable control with a single unified authority" based on collective decision-making but excluding the possibility of independent control.
Nuclear disarmament occurred in three phases.
1. On 31 July 1991, the USA and Soviet Union signed Start 1 (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) The treaty barred its signatories from deploying more than 6,000 nuclear warheads and a total of 1,600 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and bombers. START 1 negotiated the largest and most complex arms control treaty in history.
2. In May 1992, Russia, the USA, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine signed an agreement known as the Lisbon Protocol. As a result, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan were recognized as parties to the Treaty on Nuclear Nonproliferation-I, joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and were included in the list of countries that do not possess nuclear weapons. All strategic nuclear warheads were available on their territory they undertook to liquidate or transfer them to Russia. This led Ukraine to sign the START 1 treaty.
3 . On 18 November 1993, the Parliament of Ukraine (Verkhovna Rada) ratified the START-1 Treaty with unilateral amendments, which stipulated that Ukraine retain nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia did not accept this ratification. After intensive negotiations between Ukraine, the USA, and Russia, on 3 February 1994, the Rada (Parlament of Ukraine) ratified the original START I Treaty and the Lisbon Protocol. Ukraine demanded the provision of security assurances by the nuclear-weapon States, formalized through the signing of the relevant international legal instrument.
4. Ukraine signed the fabled Budapest Memorandum on December 5 1994, relying on the guarantees given by the USA, UK, and Russia By 1996, the nuclear disarmament of Ukraine was completed.
As we know from the Cold War, possessing nuclear weapons serves as a deterrent and security guarantee for the nation-state that possesses them. Would Russia have declared war against Ukraine in 2014 if Ukraine had not abandoned its nuclear weapons? But could Ukraine have managed to remain a nuclear state? To answer that, let’s look at some facts.
Was Ukraine Under Pressure to Give Up Her Nukes?
Keeping a nuclear status would place Ukraine in isolation in the international arena. Countries that are a part of the "nuclear club" have to maintain a posture to prevent the emergence of new nuclear-weapon States.
The USA couldn't allow a newly formed young democracy to possess nuclear potential. The first visit of American President Bill Clinton to independent Ukraine was a demonstration of pressure and the threat of complete isolation. When his plane landed in Kyiv in January 1994, he didn't even leave the airport's territory. Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk had to go there to meet him. Clinton persuaded his Ukrainian counterpart to give up his nuclear arsenal in an hour and a half.
Under such circumstances, there was neither an opportunity nor a real sense in Kyiv to continue trying to keep nuclear weapons.
To Possess Nukes is Very Expensive.
The problem is that having nuclear weapons is not only a responsibility to others. It's also a responsibility to ourselves. It is a costly affair to keep the missiles on alert so that something does not happen that accidentally causes destruction. It requires an enormous amount of money, and Ukraine couldn't afford it at the point of transition from one economy to another.
Ukraine Didn't Have a Tactical Nuclear Weapon.
Ukraine's nuclear weapons were strategic intercontinental missiles aimed at the USA. They were powerless against Russia. Instead, Ukraine found itself under the crosshairs of American nuclear missiles.
Theoretically, tactical nuclear weapons could deter Russia in case of a conflict. And Ukraine, at some point, had from three to four thousand such warheads, but Russia quickly and somewhat secretly removed tactical nuclear weapons from Ukraine in the first months after the country declared independence.
And the strategic weapons that remained in Ukraine on the geopolitical chessboard only strengthened Moscow and played against the USA.
This factor caused pressure from the USA on Ukraine.
The World's Third Nuclear Arsenal. But Worthless.
All Ukrainian nuclear warheads were out of service by 1998, and no new ones were being manufactured in Ukraine - all production was in Russia.
Ukraine's political leadership realized that Ukraine could not become a credible nuclear military force as they could not maintain the warheads and ensure long-term nuclear safety. In 1993, two regiments of UR-100N (SS-19) missiles were withdrawn to storage because warhead components were past their operational life.
Ukrainian specialists did not have enough experience to disassemble the missiles safely, so they had to be taken to the Russian Federation. Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced that after 1998 his country would stop accepting hazardous waste into its territory.
It is also worth adding that Ukraine couldn't control its nuclear weapons. The Ukrainian president had no "nuclear briefcase" to launch rockets. Ukraine was just a storage center for nuclear weapons without the ability to use them.
The widespread belief in media that Ukraine became vulnerable to Russia by giving up the world`s third-largest nuclear arsenal is not entirely true. Possession of this arsenal would have made Ukraine a storage center for useless nukes and little more. In reality, Ukraine got rid of a nuclear burden. The crucial factor was the loss of Ukraine’s nuclear status per se. At the dawn of its nationhood, Ukraine couldn't develop a nuclear industry and ensure a conducive environment for its development. The exchange of nuclear status for security guarantees seemed rational then, but violating those guarantees is another story.