Ukraine and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

Training tactical nuclear warheads at Makarov-1 outside of Kyiv, one of four nuclear warhead storage facilities (so called "Object-S") in Ukraine.

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry documents reveal the importance of the NPT in 1994 decision to denuclearize.

This year, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is celebrating its 50th anniversary since it opened for signature on July 1, 1968.

With 191 member states, the NPT is hailed as the most comprehensive arms control treaty in history. The ultimate purpose of the Treaty (and the elaborate international regime that grew around it) is for no new nuclear states to emerge beyond the five—United States, USSR/Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom—that had already developed nuclear weapons at the time the NPT came into force.

Harvard Professor Bryan Hehir characterizes the NPT as a combination of three elements: a contract, a promise, and a pledge. The contract in the NPT comprises a two-fold obligation: nuclear possessors undertake steps to prohibit the transfer or control of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapons states (Article I), and non-nuclear weapon states agree not to receive, manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons (Article II).  Nuclear weapon states then promise that they will help facilitate the development of civilian nuclear applications with all interested parties of the Treaty (Article IV). Finally, they pledge that they will conduct negotiations towards general and complete disarmament (Article VI).

Fifty years later, historians and political scientists still debate the role of the NPT regime in nuclear nonproliferation. The mere fact that the NPT, an international institution that relies solely on the consent of sovereign nations, remains in force—and was prolonged indefinitely in 1995—is in itself remarkable. Added to this, the overwhelming majority of technologically advanced states, capable of developing nuclear weapons, chose to abstain from doing so and joined the NPT instead.

At the same time, the NPT is often viewed as a fragile institution, a system in constant distress, in the words of Harvard’s Steven Miller. Today, there are almost as many nuclear possessors outside of the NPT—Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—as there are recognized nuclear weapons states within the regime. Additionally, a handful of states, all party to the NPT—South Korea, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Romania, Taiwan, Syria, and Yugoslavia—have attempted to violate the regime by launching clandestine nuclear weapons programs. With the exception of North Korea, the violators have so far been thwarted due to concerted international enforcement efforts spearheaded by the United States.

Has the NPT been a success? Does the existence of the Treaty contribute to curbing the spread of nuclear weapons around the world, and if so, how? A collection of archival documents from Ukraine, transcribed and translated into English for the first time, provides an invaluable resource for scholars of nuclear proliferation who seek to understand why states chose to join the nonproliferation regime.

Ukraine: Nuclear by Inheritance

A successor of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine acceded to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state in December 1994. This meant not only relinquishing the right to develop nuclear weapons in the future, but also physically dismantling and removing the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal that Ukraine had inherited from the Soviet Union: 1,240 nuclear warheads arming 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) including their extensive launch control infrastructure, 700 nuclear cruise missiles arming 44 strategic bombers, and nearly 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons, including artillery shells, gravity bombs, and mines.

While Ukraine lacked key elements of a fully-fledged nuclear weapons program, and Moscow retained operational control over the ICBMs in Ukrainian territory, recent research reveals that, due to the inherited defense industry and technological expertise, Ukraine had a much greater capacity to establish independent control over these weapons systems than has been previously assumed.

Ukraine’s ultimate decision to forgo nuclear weapons and join the NPT was a great boost for the nonproliferation regime, but did the existence of the NPT influence Ukraine’s decision to disarm, in the first place?

A collection of documents retrieved from the Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine sheds light on how Ukraine’s elites deliberated nuclear choices and how the NPT weighed in on their decision-making. These files include—

- Document No. 1: Memorandum of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, December 11, 1992;

- Document No. 2:  Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, “Possible Consequences of Alternative Approaches to Implementation of Ukraine’s Nuclear Policy (Analytical Report),” February 3, 1993;

- Document No. 3: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, “Additional Information on Possible Consequences of Alternative Approaches to Ukraine’s Nuclear Policy,” February 19, 1993;

- Document No. 4.1: Minister A.M. Zlenko to Prime Minister of Ukraine L.D. Kuchma, April 21, 1993;

- Document No. 4.2: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine and State Committee of Ukraine for Nuclear and Radioactive Security, “Possible Consequences of Ukraine Not Joining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Analytical Report)”;

- Document No. 5: V. Tolubko, “Nuclear Weapons, Space, Navy: Decisions Cannot be Delayed,” July 1, 1993;

- Document No. 6: Letter No. UKOR/21-830, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, M.P. Makarevych, to Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine, V.M. Shmarov, July 27, 1993.

Deliberating Nuclear Choices

After decades as a key republic for Soviet defense industry and military planning, Ukraine began its path toward independence from the USSR with the declared intent to become a non-allied and non-nuclear state as recorded in its Declaration of State Sovereignty of July 16, 1990 (Ukrainian, English).

This decision was predicated upon the memory of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster of 1986, as well as the desire to form its own army and break military ties with Moscow. Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, later confirmed the nuclear renunciation in an aptly titled Statement on the Non-Nuclear Status of Ukraine of October 24, 1991, a move deemed necessary in order to obtain international diplomatic recognition of the fledgling Ukrainian state.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, however, some political forces came to view Ukraine’s unilateral renunciation as hasty and premature. Relations with Russia, a country bent on emerging as the sole inheritor of the Soviet Union’s place and status in the world, deteriorated quickly. The United States and its allies, driven by concerns over proliferation and stability in the post-Soviet region, focused overwhelmingly on the issue of nuclear disarmament at the expense of all other areas of engagement. The fate of the 43rd Strategic Missile Army and its 30,000 troops, the 46th Long Range Strategic Aviation Army deployed in Ukraine, and the vast defense industry, including Yuzhmash, the world’s largest ballistic missile plant in Dnipropetrovsk, entered into the calculations of Ukraine’s decision-makers.

The documents presented here span the period between late 1992 and the first half of 1993, when the crux of Ukraine’s internal deliberations over the fate of its nuclear inheritance took place. Although Ukraine’s official commitment to denuclearize remained unchanged throughout this period (see Document No. 1), the documents show that other options were considered in earnest.

One file on the “Possible Consequences of Alternative Approached to Ukraine’s Nuclear Policy” (Document No. 2) was prepared by Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) at the request of the Verkhovna Rada, where opposition to the prompt and unilateral denuclearization began to mount in the Spring of 1992. In the report, the MFA considered three options:

1) nuclear renunciation;

2) full-fledged nuclear possession; and

3) retaining a portion of ICBMs (namely, 46 SS-24s produced in Ukraine) with a conventional payload.

Although the MFA did not make its recommendation explicit, analysis suggests that its preference was for nuclear renunciation and NPT accession.

A follow-up report (Document No. 3) was prepared by the MFA at the request of the Rada leadership to specifically address the nuclear option. The MFA analyzed the technological gaps in Ukraine’s nuclear fuel cycle, estimated direct monetary costs of building up a full-fledged nuclear program, and attempted to assess strategic, political, and economic repercussions of such a decision.

Once again, this document suggests that the MFA strongly favored nuclear disarmament and accession to the NPT. In MFA’s analysis, the value of a nuclear deterrent was undermined by the uncertainty inherent in a potential nuclear conflict and the overall increase in the likelihood of a nuclear exchange that comes with an increase in the number of nuclear-armed states, a line of reasoning that resonates with the NPT Preamble.

The MFA Report on “Possible Consequences of Not Joining the NPT” (Document No. 4.1 and Document No. 4.2) was specifically addressed to Ukraine’s Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma, former director of the Yuzhmash missile factory, indicating that it was prepared at his request. The report drew on the examples of Israel, India, Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea, and South Africa to argue that international reaction to Ukraine’s abstention from the NPT would be “only negative” and that Ukraine’s bid for a nuclear status was unlikely to be successful. The report also highlighted supply-side limitations facing Ukraine should it set out to develop a nuclear program, which the MFA argued could not be overcome because of Ukraine’s deplorable economic situation and because “counting on any assistance and support from other states [in developing a nuclear weapons program] is impossible.”

Document No. 5 is a position paper written by a Ukrainian MP Major-General (ret.) Volodymyr Tolubko, at the time director of the Kharkiv military college for missile troops, but formerly the commander of the 46th Missile Division of the 43rd Strategic Missile Army deployed in Pervomaisk, Ukraine. In his report, Tolubko boldly advocated for the retention of the 46 SS-24 ICBMs as “the most effective means of deterrence and guarantee of national security” and proposed to operate them under joint Ukrainian-Russian control. He also suggested engaging with the Russians on the division of the space-based military systems and offered his opinion of the strategic value (or the lack thereof) of the Black Sea Fleet.

The Tolubko paper provides interesting insights into a faction of Ukraine’s nascent defense establishment in the early 1990s. Only recently split from the Soviet military behemoth, many—although not all—senior officers, such as Tolubko, had a difficult time firmly defining allies and adversaries in the changed strategic context of Ukraine’s independence. It is not that Tolubko continued to view Russia as a kindred entity or a long-term ally, but his estimate of Russia’s willingness to engage with Ukraine on an equal and mutually beneficial basis seems quite generous in retrospect.

Although he might have represented a broader sentiment prevalent in the strategic missile troops and parts of the defense establishment, Tolubko was a lone voice in Ukraine’s public discourse speaking of Ukraine’s nuclear inheritance in terms of deterrence. In stark contrast to the MFA analysis, the Tolubko paper paid only marginal attention to the NPT and to the adverse international reaction that was sure to follow Ukraine’s refusal to join it. In their evaluation of the paper, the MFA quickly highlighted these omissions and dismissed the report as “very removed from reality” (Document No. 6).

Nuclear Choices are Not Monocausal

Reading through the documents it becomes evident that Ukraine’s deliberation over nuclear choices involved the consideration of a multitude of factors: security, international political weight, technological capacity and prowess, direct and indirect economic costs, civilian nuclear energy development, relationships with great powers, perceptions of the international community, and leaders’ ideas of their state’s identity and its place in the world.

All of these things mattered for Ukraine’s decision-makers. Indeed, it was part of the policy-making exercise to consider the broadest possible array of nuclear choices and their positive and negative consequences (see Document No. 2).

For historians, this comes as no surprise. Yet for those social scientists who are keen on isolating, measuring, and determining key drivers of nuclear proliferation and restraint, the evidence from Ukraine’s case suggests that it might be more productive to focus on exploring the necessary and sufficient combination of nonproliferation drivers and the relationships between them—for they are often interrelated—than to look for a single determinant.

In this vein, it would be wrong to argue that the NPT was the decisive factor in Ukraine’s decision to disarm. It did, however, frame Ukraine’s nuclear deliberations and projections in a number of important ways.

NPT as the International Normative Framework for Nuclear Possession

The unprecedented nature of proliferation due to the collapse of a nuclear superpower cast a shadow of profound ambiguity on the status of nuclear arms deployed in the non-Russian Soviet successor states: Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. To whom did these weapons rightfully belong now that the Soviet Union was gone?

While Ukraine’s political elites stood by their earlier commitment to disarm, they nevertheless resented Russian claims that Soviet nuclear weapons on Ukraine’s territory belonged to Russia alone. Ukraine insisted that it should be included as an equal party to the Treaty on Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START), signed by the United States and the Soviet Union on July 31, 1991. This mile-stone arms control treaty took nine years to negotiate, but 19 days after its signature the Soviet Union began its precipitous fall, leaving the Treaty unratified.

Despite Russian objections, the United States acquiesced and on May 23, 1992, in Lisbon, Ukraine, along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, signed a protocol that brought them into START as “successor states of the former [USSR],” who should “assume the obligations of the former [USSR] under the Treaty” on condition that they join the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states “in the shortest possible time.”

The multilateralization of START confirmed that Ukraine was not a passive bystander, but rather an active participant in deciding the fate of Soviet nuclear weapons. At the same time, the Lisbon protocol became Ukraine’s first international legal commitment to denuclearize. It also meant that START would come into force only after it was ratified by the legislatures of all five signatories, including Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada.

Ukraine’s president Leonid Kravchuk introduced START and the Lisbon protocol to the Rada in November 1992, but the ensuing deliberations revealed that due to differing positions on Ukraine’s nuclear future, START ratification and NPT accession would not be smooth. The Verkhovna Rada was not going to simply rubberstamp what the executive had signed in Lisbon.

By the end of 1992, international pressure on Ukraine mounted. In response, Ukraine’s MFA circulated a Memorandum dated December 11, 1992 (Document No. 1) that explained Ukraine’s official nuclear policy to foreign governments and international media. The MFA confirmed Ukraine’s commitment to denuclearize and pointed out its proactive engagement with the IAEA.

One of the most interesting passages in the Memorandum concerns the MFA’s attempt to define Ukraine’s unprecedented nuclear predicament and with it, its claim to the weapons systems deployed on its territory:

Ukraine’s situation in regard to the nuclear weapons deployed on its territory is unique and has no precedents in history. At the moment of the collapse of the former USSR, at least four states (Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and Ukraine) had an undeniable right to be considered nuclear states as equal successor states of the Soviet Union…

Ukraine, as a state that has no intention to possess nuclear weapons, consistently pursues policies not to acquire control of nuclear explosive devices, in accordance with Article II of the NPT, however, it undeniably has property rights to all components of nuclear warheads, both strategic, deployed on its territory, and tactical, withdrawn in Spring 1992 for dismantlement and elimination to Russia.

Ukraine’s claim to rightful ‘nuclear ownership’ was alarming politically, and Russian diplomats added fuel to the fire by accusing Ukraine of nuclear ambitions and backtracking on its commitment to denuclearize. Within the international legal framework of the NPT, as well, Ukraine’s claim to ‘nuclear ownership’ could hardly be sustained and legitimized: no category of ‘nuclear owner’ as distinct from a nuclear-weapons-state defined by Article IX, pt.3 of the NPT, existed within the regime. The only place for it was outside of the NPT.

The MFA recognized limitations faced by Ukraine when advancing its claim to legitimate nuclear ownership: despite the confident tone of the Memorandum targeted at foreign audiences, its internal reports emphasized that legitimizing Ukraine’s claim to any nuclear status internationally would be all but impossible (Documents No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4.2). The reasons for this was not only that Ukraine did not possess operational control over strategic nuclear missiles on its territory which undermined the notion of fully-fledged ‘ownership’ (see Document 4, especially part II). Ukraine’s diplomats also understood that without international recognition and legitimation of Ukraine’s nuclear status, it would be difficult to translate nuclear force into international power. Indeed, Ukraine’s ability to conduct “active foreign policy” would become limited as a result (see Documents No. 2, pt.1.3).

NPT as a Regulatory Regime

One way in which international institutions produce desirable outcomes is by specifying rules and imposing incentives for their observance and consequences for their violation. For example, access to civilian nuclear cooperation is one way in which the international nonproliferation regime offers incentives for nonproliferation.

In its analyses, the MFA correctly noted that abstaining from the NPT would put Ukraine on the wrong side of the IAEA, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Zanger Committee, thus damaging Ukraine’s prospects of developing nuclear energy and other civilian nuclear applications (Documents No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4.2). The area of particular concern was the supply of nuclear fuel for Ukraine’s nuclear power plants from Russia:

[B]y not joining the [NPT], Ukraine will not be able to maintain equitable economic and scientific-technological ties with other states in the nuclear industry. As a result of such isolation, for instance, supplies of nuclear fuel and equipment from Russia, necessary for Ukrainian nuclear power plants, could halt. In accordance with the Decree of the President of the Russian Federation, such exports are prohibited to countries, whose nuclear activity is not subject to IAEA comprehensive safeguards. The creation by Ukraine of its own nuclear fuel cycle requires time and significant additional expenditures. Amid a deepening energy crisis, any disruption in electricity supply (nuclear power plants produce up to 30% of all electricity in Ukraine) would lead to further deterioration of the economic situation in our state. (Document No. 4.2)

In addition, to nuclear related export controls, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) would become an important factor in Ukraine’s decision to denuclearize. Although mentioned only once in the documents (Document No. 3, pt. 6), membership in the MTCR as a full member and a supplier of rocket technology, which opened to Ukraine only after its accession to the NPT, saved Ukraine’s space industry and its famed Yuzhnoie Design Bureau and the Yuzhmash missile plant from total demise.

NPT as a Locus of the International Nonproliferation Norm

International treaties normally confer legal obligations on a sovereign state only once that state makes the decision to join the treaty and undertake the obligations specified in it. Discussion of the NPT by the Ukrainian diplomats reveal, however, that the nonproliferation norm—that is, a prescription that no new nuclear states should emerge—is not reducible to the NPT and cannot be understood in narrowly legalistic terms of international treaty obligations.

The documents reveal that Ukrainian diplomats felt the weight of the imperative not to proliferate even before Ukraine formally undertook this obligation by joining the NPT. The reason for this was not only the fear of enforcement efforts – opprobrium, isolation, sanctions, military action – by the United States and its allies, as well as Russia, but also the fear that Ukraine could set a precedent that would embolden “nuclear threshold” states and thus become implicated in damaging the nonproliferation regime (see Documents No. 2, pt. 1.3, and Document No. 4.2, part VIII).  

In this sense, the nonproliferation norm is best understood both as a legal obligation the NPT confers on its signatories and an informal international social norm that confers a prima facie obligation not to acquire nuclear weapons upon all states whether they are party to the NPT or not. This, of course, does not mean that all states will comply, but it does mean that the onus of justification falls squarely on the proliferating state, forcing it to provide reasons—for itself, as well as for the international community—for acting against this prescription.

* * *

Without a doubt, the NPT as an international legal framework, the bearer of the nonproliferation norm, and the cornerstone of the regulative nonproliferation regime, did not materialize out of ether and does not go on enforcing itself. It relies on the support and compliance of the overwhelming majority of states in the international system, as well as on the power of states capable of enforcing it.

Nor do enforcement efforts always succeed: since Ukraine’s renunciation, India, Pakistan, and later North Korea have developed nuclear weapons despite the international opprobrium, sanctions, and isolation Ukraine so vied to avoid. Today’s rising nationalism, populism, and the waning of great power support for international institutions will present a further challenge to the nonproliferation regime.

As it marks 50 years in existence and approaches its 10th Review Conference in 2020, the NPT might yet prove more enduring and resilient in the face of these challenges than expected. The Ukrainian documents help understand why.

Mariana Budjeryn is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. She is currently working on a book “Inheriting the Bomb: Soviet Collapse and Nuclear Disarmament of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.”
More posts by Mariana Budjeryn