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Own Nuclear Weapons. Is Ukraine Able to Move from Words to Deeds?

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Although Kyiv finally renounced its nuclear status in the early 1990s, the topic of reviving (and actually creating from scratch) its own missile shield periodically pops up in the Ukrainian political space. The latest such statement was made by Ambassador of Ukraine to Germany Andriy Melnyk. In a recent interview with German radio station Deutschlandfunk, he said: “Ukraine has no choice: either we are part of an alliance like NATO and contributing to making this Europe stronger and more confident, or we have the only alternative left – to arm ourselves, and perhaps rethink nuclear status.”

Melnyk’s statement was actively circulated by Ukrainian and Russian media outlets, and the attention of Western media and politicians to the diplomat’s words was noticeably less. The other day, the German newspaper Die Welt published an article entitled “Nuclear weapons in Ukraine? The idea is not so funny,” which says that Ukraine does have everything necessary to create weapons of mass destruction. However, the same article quotes Harvard expert Mariana Budjeryn as saying, “While developing a nuclear program, Ukraine would have to deal with Russian sabotage or attacks by security services or even open military operations.” The very wording – “Ukraine is embarking on the development of nuclear weapons, so we are trying to calm them down” – can become a serious reason for Russian aggression, and there is an analogy with the invasion of the British-American coalition in Iraq.

Right-wing parties such as Svoboda and the National Corps have consistently spoken about Ukraine’s return to nuclear status. The representative of the National Democratic Movement, former Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, occasionally expresses the same ideas. He first mentioned this in 2008 when it came to giving Ukraine a NATO Membership Action Plan, then voiced this message after the Russian aggression in Crimea and Donbas.

The political argument in favor of returning to the “Nuclear Club” is simple: Ukraine’s security was to be guaranteed by the Budapest Memorandum; and if its signatories fail to fulfil their obligations, then Ukraine will deny its obligations, namely a nuclear-weapon-free zone. The technical and military rationale does not seem fantastic either. There are raw materials: Ukraine now has 2% of world uranium production and considerable proven reserves of 270,000 tonnes. There is scientific and production potential: a significant part of the components of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, including high-tech ones, such as control and aiming systems, was developed at Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk enterprises and research institutes. It is also possible to train personnel and deploy relevant units. There are many retired officers in Ukraine who served in the strategic missile forces, and there was a military school that trained missile officers in Kharkiv.

The most problematic resource is time and money. In the early to mid-1990s, former Minister of Environmental Protection and Nuclear Safety Yuriy Kostenko estimated the cost of Ukraine’s nuclear program at $50-100 billion (highly enriched uranium, excluding the creation of infrastructure for delivery facilities and the establishment of appropriate units in the Armed Forces). In the short term, Ukraine will not accumulate such significant funds on its own. There are precedents in the world where a nuclear program has been deployed with the help of partner countries. This is how Saudi Arabia’s aid once helped Pakistan get its missile shield. In the case of Ukraine, such an option is unlikely. Therefore, mentions of nuclear status are still part of diplomatic rhetoric: they say NATO membership will cost less than the emergence of another nuclear-weapon state on the map.

Stepan Nazarenko

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