The announcement this week of the constitutional amendment enabling Belarus to host Russian nuclear weapons following a disputed referendum, could see the country having weapons of mass destruction on its territory for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union. This follows Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order for his country’s nuclear deterrence forces to be put on high alert, raising fears of a new Cold War as the conflict in Ukraine shows no sign of de-escalating.
The development in Belarus not only ushers in a return of nuclear weapons to the forefront of international security challenges, but also offers fresh perspectives on Ukraine and its nuclear disarmament in light of the “full-scale” Russian invasion and its possible outcome. South Africa remains the only country to have built and then relinquished its own nuclear weapons; Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan inherited their nuclear arsenal from the Soviet Union. As the second-most powerful Soviet republic after Russia, Ukraine once had the third largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world: approximately 5,000 warheads, both tactical and strategic, with Moscow holding their codes and their command and control system.
With the Budapest Memorandum signed in 1994, the three countries reached an agreement with the US, Russia and Britain, whereby they were offered security and sovereignty guarantees in exchange for giving up their nuclear weapons and joining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The three nuclear-armed signatories pledged to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” However, it appears that Ukraine has become both an issue of strategic interest and national honour for Russia, with Putin accused of wanting to restore its empire.
According to the German ambassador in Kyiv, the Budapest Memorandum is not legally binding. Moscow’s vehement opposition to the expansion of NATO eastwards, which it understandably perceives as a security threat (NATO already has its own nuclear sharing arrangements), drives its policy towards Ukraine and means that the new conflict was always a possibility. Indeed, Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 arguably rendered the agreement totally ineffectual. Nevertheless, it is the failure of the US to fulfil its promises, undoubtedly spurred on by extending the NATO alliance over the past two decades, which suggests that Western countries, especially the US, are unreliable allies and cannot be trusted.The US has form in this regard. We saw, for example, how it betrayed the people of Iraq during and after the 1991 uprisings; how it abandoned the Afghan government in the face of the Taliban takeover; how it stopped supporting armed opposition groups in Syria; and how it has betrayed the Kurds on numerous occasions. In fact, the manner in which the US under President Donald Trump turned its back on its Syrian Kurdish allies led Ukrainians to fear that they would be next in line to suffer a similar fate.
Armed with anti-Russian sanctions and western arms supplies, the Ukrainian military — which includes neo-Nazi elements — has found that it is really on its own when it comes to resisting its larger, more powerful neighbour. We can only imagine the deep regret Kyiv must feel for having surrendered its nuclear weapons free of charge, so to speak. This sentiment was conveyed by Ukraine’s former Defence Minister, Andriy Zahorodniuk, who was quoted earlier this month by the New York Times as saying: “We gave away the [nuclear] capability for nothing. Now, every time somebody offers us to sign a strip of paper, the response is, ‘Thank you very much. We already had one of those some time ago.’”
Ukraine has become the latest proof of the strategic folly of nuclear disarmament. The ongoing violation of its sovereignty is being witnessed by states that already possess nuclear weapons — North Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel — as well as those states which doubt the effectiveness of the “extended deterrence” offered by the US, such as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. Sitting it out in the wings, meanwhile, is Iran, which may or may not be in the process of developing nuclear weapons.
Before Ukraine, of course, there was Libya. In 2003, the fate of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (which had halted its nuclear weapons programme) prompted Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to foreswear his country’s nuclear weapons programme in exchange for opening up to the West. This, of course, proved to be misguided, and led to NATO’s military intervention in Libya and its leader’s brutal killing.
With international attention focused on Ukraine, there is speculation that China may invade Taiwan, particularly given the lack of US commitment to the sovereignty of the latter. Taiwan may one day also regret having abandoned its nuclear programme in the 1970s under pressure from Washington.
If only Ukrainian policymakers had paid heed to John Mearsheimer, an international relations theorist and proponent of nuclear weapons as a deterrence. In 1993, a year before Kyiv gave up its WMDs, he argued in favour of a nuclear-armed Ukraine.
“It is imperative to maintain peace between Russia and Ukraine,” explained Mearsheimer. “That means ensuring that the Russians, who have a history of bad relations with Ukraine, do not move to reconquer it. Ukraine cannot defend itself against a nuclear-armed Russia with conventional weapons, and no state, including the United States, is going to extend to it a meaningful security guarantee. Ukrainian nuclear weapons are the only reliable deterrent to Russian aggression.”
Iran also has a considerable history of being betrayed by the West, and has become accustomed to distrusting the US and its guarantees. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei said this week that he blamed the Ukrainian crisis on Washington’s provocative policies in the region. “States which depend on the support of the US and Western powers need to know they cannot trust such countries,” he insisted.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah also recently opined that what is happening in Ukraine “is the fate of those who hand over their weapons, and rely on hollow guarantees.”
While there has been some progress with regards to the Vienna talks over Iran’s own nuclear programme, it seems unlikely that there will be a return to the 2015 agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) from which the US withdrew unilaterally in 2018. The Ukrainian crisis could increase Iran’s leverage as the talks approach the finish line with as yet unresolved issues. Presupposing Iran does, in fact, develop nuclear weapons, Mearsheimer is of the opinion that it would “bring stability to the region, because nuclear weapons are weapons of peace,” in that their effectiveness lies in their non-use.
It is increasingly obvious that if we are to learn anything from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is that giving up nuclear weapons and relying on Western security guarantees instead is a deadly combination that adds up to a major national security liability for any state which adopts such a policy. Nobody can say that they weren’t warned.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.