ISSN 2330-717X

The Mad Game – OpEd

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In 1993, John Mearsheimer – an International Relations theorist – had predicted that a Ukraine without any nuclear deterrent was likely to be subjected to aggression by Russia, but this was very much a minority view at the time. Today, it sounds a majority opinion. 

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It is a well-known fact that Ukraine is a post-Soviet state. Its independence came with a convoluted Cold War inheritance: the world’s third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. However, it gave up the nuclear weapons in 1994, which it had on its territory as a result of Soviet collapse. It also joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) the same year. In exchange for giving up its nuclear arsenals, Ukraine received the diplomatic recognition from the United States (US) and the other NATO allies, financial compensation as well as the security assurances of the Budapest Memorandum, signed on December 5, 1994. France and China also provided Ukraine with assurances similar to the Budapest Memorandum but with some significant differences. Historically, the explicit threat of nuclear warfare to force an opponent to perform or not to perform an action was rare since most nations were allies of the Soviet Union or the US during Cold war. The security assurances by major nuclear weapon states are still provided to many non-nuclear weapon states.

Currently, the narratives is that had Ukraine not surrendered its nuclear weapons, Russia would have never invaded it. Another opinion is that the Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenals for nothing but empty promises. The Crimean annexation in 2014 and invasion of Ukraine now have greatly hit the concept of security assurances by the nuclear weapons state to non-nuclear weapons states. Despite Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea, Ukraine in 2014 reaffirmed its 1994 decision to accede to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state. For decades, it has been owning its nuclear disarmament decision with the pride. Ukraine believed that it surrendered its nuclear weapons to be a part of the community of nations that are bound by the common rules and values. 

Nuclear weapons, however, have become a hapless reality of today’s unsettled world. In International Relations, they are generally considered the diplomatic trump cards to achieve objectives and also reliably deter attacks via the threat of retaliation. In July 2014, the then Russian foreign minister stated that his country had the right to defend Crimea using nuclear weapons, and in March 2015 Vladimir Putin, the Russian president said that during the invasion of Crimea, Russia was prepared to put nuclear forces on alert. Russia still considers that it has the right to deploy nuclear arms to the peninsula which is internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory. The Russian president Vladimir Putin has once again ordered his nuclear deterrent forces to be on alert as international tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are spiraling. To put them on alert is insane though. It is also unprecedented in the post-Cold War era.  

A prevalent trend in today’s global context is increasing the countries’ reliance on hard power and arms building. The balance of power theory in International Relations suggests that states may secure their survival by preventing any one state from gaining enough military power to dominate all others. Amid renewed Russia-Ukraine tensions, Ukraine may reconsider its status as a non-nuclear weapon state to guarantee its defense. During last month this year, Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian President renewed such sentiments, suggesting that Ukraine would potentially view the Budapest Memorandum as invalid, should its security guarantees not be met. Although the nonnuclear clause was a unilateral declaration of intention, not an international legal commitment, it came to haunt Ukraine when it became less eager to disarm.

The Russia-Ukraine war is on. It is getting into a new phase with rocket attacks on civilians in Kharkiv. While Moscow sounds nuclear alert, Kyiv agrees for the talks. Nuclear blackmail is usually ineffective against a rational opponent that has or is an ally of a power with assured destruction capability. However, after bringing upon itself the wrath of the civilized world, Ukraine may invest heavily in a nuclear weapons programme in future. It may consider the nukes as security assets rather than a security liability.

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*Gulshan Rafiq is Research Associate at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI). She can be reached at [email protected]

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