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Existential Lies. How Putin invented a nuclear threat from Ukraine to justify war

If Vladimir Putin is to be believed, a nuclear-armed Ukraine is an existential threat to Russia, and one of the goals of the war is to prevent such a scenario. Both Putin and state propaganda seem to have forgotten that in the very recent past Ukraine had the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal, and its relinquishment was funded by the United States. Today's Ukraine has neither the intention nor the ability to resume a nuclear program, while nuclear threats from Russia have reached every corner of the world.

  • Great nuclear power

  • Relinquishment of nuclear status

  • Was there any chance for Ukraine to return to a military nuclear program?

  • A log in the eye

Great nuclear power

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine had more than 1,800 warheads, 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 42 strategic missile carriers and 3,000 tactical nuclear warheads.

Ukraine received the bulk of the infrastructure and property of the Soviet 43rd Missile Army with headquarters in Vinnitsa, which included (at different times) up to 10 missile divisions, 54 missile regiments, nearly 200 special, technical and logistics support units. The total number of troops comprising the military force reached 60,000.


It was the world's third largest nuclear arsenal, second only to that of Russia and the United States. Over 220 strategic launchers, including 46 of the then most advanced solid-propellant RS-22 ICBMs, two bases for heavy bombers (Tu-160 and Tu-95MS), dozens of bases for aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons (Tu-95, Tu-24M, Su-24, Mig-27), and unique facilities for long-term storage and maintenance of nuclear warheads.

After the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine's nuclear arsenal was second only to that of Russia and the US

Yet it should be kept in mind that all the weaponry was poorly suited for the task of deterrence of a potential enemy such as Russia. Ukraine needed its own tactical missiles and combat-ready long-range aviation.

Moreover, military experts doubted that Ukraine's political leadership actually had effective military-technical control over the strategic nuclear weapons located on its territory. As Nikolay Filatov, first deputy commander of the 43rd Missile Army in 1994-1997, wrote in his book Ukraine's Lost Nuclear Missile Shield, the Ukrainian president was able to block unauthorized launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles on command from Moscow, but could not initiate an attack himself.

In any case, Ukraine was industrially and scientifically capable of independent development of nuclear weapons in the early 1990s: in essence, the only thing missing was know-how in the field of production of weapon-useable fissile materials and nuclear warheads.


According to Nikolay Filatov, during the late 1980s the Soviet industry had been producing over 250 combat missile complexes (CMCs) per year, almost half of them (120 missiles) were produced by NPO Yuzhnoye in Dnepropetrovsk. Out of 20 USSR's strategic missile complexes, 13 were designed and manufactured by the Ukrainian Yuzhnoye Design Bureau and Yuzhny Machine Building Plant.

Relinquishment of nuclear status

In 1990 Ukraine proclaimed its neutrality, non-bloc and non-nuclear status, committing itself to three non-nuclear principles: not to receive, not to produce and not to acquire nuclear weapons. But amid economic difficulties and strained relations with Russia, the process of disarmament turned out to be questionable.

When the Russian-Ukrainian bilateral talks on the fate of nuclear weapons stalled, Washington joined the process. It was the U.S. administration that actually paid for the denuclearization of Ukraine in Moscow's interests. Between 1993 and 2011, the U.S. allocated nearly $600 million to Ukraine for the destruction of strategic offensive weapons.

The U.S. actually paid for Ukraine's denuclearization in the interests of Moscow

Not a single nuclear warhead remained in Ukraine by 1996. In 2001, the last silo launcher for intercontinental ballistic missiles was destroyed. In 2012, Ukraine transferred all stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to Russia, and the research reactor in Kiev switched to low-enriched uranium (LEU).

What did Kiev get in return? American economic aid and guarantees of security and territorial integrity, according to the Budapest Memorandum. The agreement was guaranteed by Russia, the US and the UK.

In 2009, the U.S. and Russia confirmed the guarantees to Ukraine in a joint statement. And just 5 years later, Russian troops occupied Crimea amid a deep political crisis and mass unrest. After the referendum that hasn't been recognized by the vast majority of the world, Crimea and Sevastopol became part of the Russian Federation.

Incidentally, Professor John Mearsheimer, whose statements about the West's collective responsibility for the current war have been replicated in the pro-Kremlin media and who is extremely popular among Russian justifiers of the «special military operation,» believed that it was in the interests of the United States to keep nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Precisely to exclude the possibility of a Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict in the future.

Was there any chance for Ukraine to return to a military nuclear program?

After the loss of Crimea in 2014, Ukrainian politicians repeatedly stated that giving up nuclear weapons had been a mistake and the move was too hasty, because the Budapest Memorandum that cemented that decision failed to protect the country's territorial integrity or prevent military aggression against it.

Just a few days before the war began, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky gave a hint he intended to withdraw from the memorandum. True, he said nothing about plans to acquire nuclear weapons. Russian leader Vladimir Putin immediately interpreted this as an existential threat to Russia and has been tirelessly repeating the thesis about Ukrainian nuclear ambitions every chance he gets.

Propaganda has also caught on. The state-run news agencies have been flooded with articles about a nuclear weapons program whose success was supposedly months away, NATO's plans to unleash a nuclear war against Russia with the help of Ukraine, and even the development of a «dirty» nuclear bomb at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

It is very difficult to believe all this. Even Russian experts believe that Ukraine has lost competence and technology in the field of nuclear weapons: there are no carriers, no raw materials, and, most importantly, no desire.

Theoretically, converted Su-27 and MiG-29 fighters could be used as carriers for nuclear warheads. Tactical nuclear warheads could also be carried by Tochka-U operational-tactical systems, Neptun anti-ship missiles, or Olkha multiple-launch rocket systems. Ukraine was also developing longer-range systems with a range of up to 500 km.


Uranium ore is being produced and processed near the town of Zheltiye Vody (Dnepropetrovsk region), at the Vostochny Mining and Processing Plant, but the enterprise is working intermittently and is prone to periodic shutdowns due to wage arrears.

But all this is of no practical importance, for Ukraine simply has no uranium or plutonium enrichment facilities to produce weapons-grade fissile materials. Even fuel assemblies for Ukrainian nuclear power plants were produced in Russia until quite recently.

Ukraine simply has no uranium or plutonium enrichment facilities

It would be very difficult to conceal a full-fledged military nuclear program: it needs investments in research and development, scientific personnel, equipment, tests. At the same time, all available nuclear materials and nuclear industry infrastructure are under IAEA safeguards.

Besides, no one in the world would support Ukraine's nuclear program. For the US and its allies, the nuclear nonproliferation problem is a strict priority. Kiev also understands this. Ivan Aparshin, President Zelensky's security and defense advisor, used to say bluntly that the country could not afford a military nuclear program because it would immediately fall under sanctions.

A log in the eye

Assuming that Vladimir Putin seriously fears a nuclear threat from Ukraine and that it was actually one of the reasons for the war, several questions arise at once.

Why hasn't Moscow made any attempt to discuss the problem at the UN or the IAEA and hasn't presented any evidence so far? Why is Russia's military campaign strikingly different in its choice of goals and means from similar actions by other countries, such as Israel, which have tried to militarily prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of unfriendly regimes?

Vladimir Putin often mentions former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell with his test tube presented as alleged evidence of the development of biological weapons in Iraq (by the way, any Wikipedia user knows that this is not true). But how are the current completely unsubstantiated accusations being leveled against Ukraine for its alleged intention to obtain nuclear weapons different?

According to Peter Topychkanov, Senior Fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the Kremlin's behavior regarding the hypothetical Ukrainian nuclear dossier calls into question Russia's role as a guarantor of the international nonproliferation regime and undermines every diplomatic effort in this area in the long term.

At the same time, Moscow has itself unambiguously hinted at the possibility of deploying nuclear weapons in Crimea, should such a need arise. After the start of the «special military operation,» Putin demanded that strategic deterrence forces be put on special alert, taking offense to the «aggressive statements» by the NATO leaders.

In the course of hostilities in Ukraine, the Russian military seized the inoperative Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the operating Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, using weapons right within the plant's site in the latter case.

What then poses a greater threat to the world: Ukraine's unproven nuclear program or Vladimir Putin's reckless moves?

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