Ukraine has never been a nuclear weapons-state and never had control over the nuclear weapons that were located on its territory following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It doesn’t have the research, technical or industrial capacity to develop and produce nuclear weapons in the short term.
The political crisis in Ukraine has led to the emergence of two myths that are kept alive by the statements of certain politicians and the media that actively spread them. First, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine is said to have possessed nuclear weapons. Second, Ukraine is said to be able to quickly regain its nuclear status.
Myth One: Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons
The disintegration of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of four independent states with strategic nuclear weapons, located on their territory: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
As the successor to the Soviet Union, Russia’s nuclear status was affirmed by the Lisbon Protocol of May 23, 1992. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine pledged to adhere to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) “in the shortest possible time” as non-nuclear states. Ukraine completed the relevant procedures on December 5, 1994 a few months in advance of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference.
At the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Ukraine had 130 SS-19 silo-based ICMBs and 46 SS-24 silo-based ICBMs located on its territory. Ukraine also possessed 19 Tu-160 strategic bombers, 25 Tu-95MS strategic bombers and 2 Tu-95 strategic bombers. However, unified operational control over the nuclear weapons and their use was carried out by Moscow from the collapse of the Soviet Union up until all nuclear warheads were transferred from Ukraine to Russian Defense Ministry facilities by June 1996.
Thus, Ukraine has never been a nuclear weapons-state and never had control over the nuclear weapons that were located on its territory following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Myth Two: Ukraine is able to quickly regain its nuclear status
In addition to making the political decision to build a nuclear weapon (which, clearly, is not on the current government’s agenda), Ukraine would have to build the necessary research, technological and industrial capacity, namely, the infrastructure for manufacturing critical materials and components, primarily, weapons-grade nuclear material (weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched weapons-grade uranium). Ukraine would also need the requisite human capital and expertise.
In the Soviet Union, the critical elements of the industrial base for producing nuclear weapons, including plutonium production reactors and uranium enrichment plants, as well as the development and production of nuclear warheads proper, were located in Russia. Ukraine still produces up to 1,000 tons of uranium ore per year to meet the needs of the 15 nuclear power plants that generate about 50% of Ukraine’s electricity. However, the uranium ore cannot be used to produce nuclear weapons without first enriching it to increase the quantity of isotope U-235, and Ukraine lacks the necessary technology. All four Soviet plants that produced low-enriched uranium for the Ukrainian nuclear power industry have been located in Russia.
The nuclear materials that remained at three Ukrainian research organizations following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which theoretically could have been used to build nuclear weapons, were removed to Russia in 2010-2012 as part of the Russian-US Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return (RRRFR) programme. This was about 250 kg of highly enriched uranium in the form of fresh or irradiated research reactor fuel.
And while Ukraine has considerable expertise in the field of nuclear energy, it does not have a critical mass of weapons experts capable of quickly developing nuclear weapons even if the political will and the industrial base will exist one day.
Thus, Ukraine doesn’t have the research, technical or industrial capacity to develop and produce nuclear weapons in the short term.
Ukraine’s role in nuclear non-proliferation
The silo launchers in Ukraine were completely eliminated in 2001. Several Tu-160 and Tu-95MS strategic bombers were removed from Ukraine to Russia, and the rest were destroyed. However, we must acknowledge that Ukraine possesses R&D and manufacturing facilities for the production of modern ballistic missiles that could be of interest to countries seeking to develop their own WMD capabilities.
As you may recall, some types of missiles were illegally transferred from Ukraine to countries in the Middle East and Northeast Asia in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2012, Ukraine convicted two people from Northeast Asia for industrial espionage and attempting to gain access to missile technology at the renowned Yuzhnoye R&D bureau (Dnepropetrovsk). Ukrainian leaders should focus their efforts in the field of non-proliferation on preventing the illegal transfer of nuclear technology.