Ukraine and the Sorry State of Non-Proliferation

Russia’s impunity and the lack of action from the West could make nuclear weapons more attractive to regimes of all sorts.

6 Mar 2022

London, UK

by Matthew Eric Bassett

Despite the pontifications, hand-wringing, and sanctions from political leaders in the West about Putin’s war against Ukraine, they are all aware that they have only two real choices about what they can do about it: (1) escalate to war against two nuclear powers; or (2) let Putin harm, take, and steal whomever and whatever he wants.

The popular suggestion of using NATO’s air power to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukrainian skies would indirectly but rapidly lead to the first option. Western leaders are wise to askew it and one can understand why they prefer diplomatic dressing-downs and economic sanctions. But even the harshest of those sanctions, like those involving SWIFT or the Russian Federation’s national bank, fall under the second choice. As any survivor of an abusive partner can attest, that second option is still fraught with peril. Abusers never stop, bullies never stop, until they are forced to. Power and control are things they pursue for their own sake, and they derive pleasure from inflicting suffering on others. Abusers always escalate, so the second choice is hardly less risky than the first.

But let us pretend for a second that Putin’s war against Ukraine and her people will be a contained, isolated incident (it won’t) and that it doesn’t portend further aggression against free peoples in the West (it will). It nevertheless would still harm Western security to an incredible degree because Putin’s ongoing war in Ukraine represents a complete failure of the Wests’ efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially in Iran and North Korea.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, its nuclear arsenal was left, relatively unguarded, in several now-former Soviet states, namely Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine. As these sovereign states won their independence and took control of the military assets within their borders, concerns grew in the west about this proliferation of new nuclear states. By 1994, in a moment representing a peak of optimism for the rule of law and human civilization, Ukraine agreed to give up her nuclear weapons in exchange for several guarantees on a piece of paper. The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances was signed by each of the three new nuclear states mentioned with the permanent UN Security Council members and original nuclear powers of the United States, United Kingdom, and Russian Federation. Thus Ukraine (along with the two others) was promised that these three nuclear powers would1

  1. respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence within its existing borders;
  2. refrain from the threat of the use of force against Ukraine;
  3. refrain from using economic pressure to influence Ukraine’s politics;
  4. seek immediate Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine if Ukraine should become the victim of an act of aggression or threat of aggression;
  5. and refrain from using nuclear weapons against Ukraine.

One might note that those first two guarantees are protections that Putin currently enjoys despite his waging war. He also enjoys, as a result of his having nuclear weapons, the ability to wage such wars with impunity. This is why despotic states seek nuclear weapons and why it is vital to the interest of the West to prevent states like Iran or North Korea from acquiring them. That Putin has nuclear weapons is why no Western nation will come to the aid of Ukraine. That Iran does not possess them and that North Korea does not have the ability to deliver nuclear weapons is why those nations hesitate to assault Israel, South Korea, Japan, Western Europe, et cetera. (It is easy to forget that North Korea has already developed nuclear weapons2 and is currently working on technology to deliver them to the western coast of the United States.)

While the diplomatic efforts to prevent these states from acquiring nuclear weapons, especially by the Obama administration, should be lauded, the West has not generated any example that giving up a nuclear weapons program is good for a country. In 2003 during the run-up to the United States’ second Iraq war, ostensibly done to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, Libya gave up its burgeoning nuclear weapons program to normalize relations with the US and seek relief from sanctions. By 2011, a US-led NATO coalition bombed Libya, though its leader, Gaddafi, tried to argue that his voluntary disarmament should protect his country from assault by NATO aggression 3. The similarities with Ukraine are discomforting; Ukraine was explicitly promised by Russia and other nuclear powers that its borders and sovereignty would be respected in exchange for disarmament. (Of course, Iraq itself did not actually have weapons of mass destruction, and it is hard to imagine that Iraq would have faced a US invasion if it did possess nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.)

The examples set for the world look grim: abandon nuclear weapons and you risk invasion by a nuclear power. Acquire nuclear weapons and you can do whatever you’d like, including invading a non-nuclear power. It is no wonder that Iran does not want to come back to the bargaining table, not to mention that the US abandoned its promises to Iran that were made in exchange for the cessation of its nuclear weapons program. Saudi Arabia and other regional powers must be re-evaluating their defense policies – they must be imagining the horrors that could await them without nuclear weapons and the powers that they could have if they managed to acquire them. The situation would be similar to the pre-WW1 Great Powers racing to acquire colonies and naval power but more terrifying. And even attempts by the US and UK to uphold their end of the Budapest Memorandum in the UN Security Council show how useless that UN organ has become, much like how the League of Nations become irrelevant in the days before WW2.

If we want to live in a peaceful world, and that means one free from nuclear weapons proliferation, then we will have to demonstrate that (1) voluntary disarmament need not lead to aggression by a hostile power, and (2) using your arsenal to allow you to engage in such aggression can not be tolerated. The West should continue to avoid a direct military confrontation with the Russian Federation because of the risks of thermonuclear war. But it must also show that the second choice is also unacceptable by arming Ukraine and banning the importation of any Russian energy, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that it is serious about non-proliferation. Regardless of the short-term pain, future peace depends on it.