Published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Online on April 4, 2014.
Article summary below; read the full text here.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine has left many observers fearing that Washington and Moscow are headed towards a new Cold War. It is not surprising, then, that the crisis has spawned plenty of chatter about one of the Cold War’s most recognizable features: nuclear weapons.
Most of the discussion on this subject has focused on whether Ukraine was wrong to have returned to Russia some 2,000 nuclear warheads left in Kiev’s possession after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Another area of focus has been whether the United States should respond by withdrawing from threat-reduction efforts like New START and increasing the role of nuclear weapons and missile defense against Russia in US and NATO policy. (In this writer’s opinion, the answers are no and no.)
The more interesting and difficult-to-answer question about the Ukraine crisis, though, is whether and how Russia’s Crimean land grab might impact other states’ decisions on whether to acquire nuclear weapons.
In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Kiev received assurances—though not a military guarantee—from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia that in return for surrendering all former Soviet nuclear weapons, Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be respected. Now that Russia has run roughshod over these assurances, will North Korea’s resolve to maintain and expand its nuclear arsenal be strengthened? Will Iran, now engaged in negotiations with the West on constraining its nuclear capabilities, be less likely to agree to stringent constraints on its nuclear weapons capability in return for a package of incentives that could include a US security assurance? And might US allies begin to question whether they can rely on Washington’s guarantees of protection—and come to see possessing nuclear weapons as more attractive?
Many observers have answered yes to these questions, but the impact of the current crisis on nonproliferation is complex.