February 25, 2022 | Policy Brief

Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine May Supercharge Nuclear Proliferation

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine violates the commitments Moscow reaffirmed in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Russia pledged not to threaten or use force against Ukraine, while Kyiv relinquished the stockpile of Soviet nuclear weapons it inherited. This latest breach of the Kremlin’s agreements risks making other states more likely to pursue nuclear weapons and less likely to give them up.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, newly independent Ukraine found itself with hundreds of Soviet nuclear weapons on its territory. While Ukraine never had operational control of the weapons, there was concern that Ukraine could attempt to take control over them.

This proliferation risk led Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom to sign the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. In connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and relinquishment of the nuclear weapons still on its territory, the United States, the United Kingdom, and particularly Russia agreed to:

  • “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”;
  • “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine”; and
  • “refrain from economic coercion” against Ukraine.

Russia violated these commitments with its 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Moscow has now broken them again as Putin conducts a major new invasion of Ukraine.

Despite a provision in the memorandum that calls for assistance by the UN Security Council if Ukraine is threatened or attacked, Kyiv will receive no help there. As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia can use its veto to forestall any effective action by that body. Russia is even serving as president of the Security Council this month, underscoring the council’s inadequacy for addressing such great power aggression. This was on full display on Wednesday, when the Russian ambassador set aside his duties as council president to echo Putin’s grievances and mistruths even as Kyiv’s ambassador sat nearby and held his head in his hand.

The new invasion of Ukraine adds to the long list of Russian actions that violate treaties and international agreements that the Kremlin has signed — all the more ironic in light of Moscow’s demands in recent months for “legally binding” guarantees against Ukrainian membership in NATO, as well as Putin’s recent complaints that sanctions violate international law. Russia has also violated the Minsk agreements and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, among others.

Worse still, Russia’s disregard for its commitments has dangerous implications for global efforts to counter nuclear proliferation. Putin’s actions will reinforce the message that a country’s possession of nuclear weapons decreases the chance that it will suffer invasion. That will make preventing the spread of nuclear weapons more difficult.

North Korea is now even less likely to give up or roll back its nuclear weapons program. North Korea previously referenced Libya as a case study to suggest why Pyongyang should not de-nuclearize. Putin just gave Pyongyang another example to cite.

Meanwhile, the ultra-radical regime in Tehran will likely see the events in Europe as further justification for its long-running efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

Depending on the reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, even some of America’s allies and partners might reconsider whether they need nuclear weapons of their own.

Moscow has blown off its Budapest Memorandum commitments, but the United States should not do the same. Strong support for Ukraine can minimize the damage to the nonproliferation regime from this latest Russian violation.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Ryan Brobst is a research analyst and Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow. For more analysis from the authors and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Bradley and Anthony on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman and @NatSecAnthony. Follow FDD on Twitter at @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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