Russia’s continuing aggression against Ukraine has raised an obvious question: Was Kiev smart to give up nuclear weapons? The logic goes that Moscow would never have dared to challenge a nuclear-armed Ukraine. True, perhaps. But maintaining a nuclear arsenal would have proved difficult for the Ukrainians, and doing so would have entailed significant political and economic costs. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine had on its territory 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads along with 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and 45 strategic bombers. That constituted the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. Ukraine agreed to give up those weapons, in part due to commitments to respect its territorial integrity and sovereignty contained in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. Russia has egregiously violated those commitments with its illegal seizure of Crimea and, by all appearances, its special forces triggering armed unrest in eastern Ukraine to destabilize the country. 

Nuclear arms might—might, not would—have deterred Russia. But could Ukraine have maintained a nuclear arsenal on its own? And at what cost? Shortly after the Soviet Union’s demise, Ukrainian officials asked strategic rocket commanders about the requirements for keeping a nuclear arsenal. The officers advised that Ukraine lacked the infrastructure to ensure the nuclear warheads’ reliability and safety, to test them, to fabricate replacement components or to produce the tritium gas used to boost the weapons’ explosive force. Many warheads, particularly those on SS-19 ICBMs, were near the end of their service lives.

Ukraine had smart engineers and a well-developed scientific culture. It might have been able to build the needed infrastructure. The price tag, however, would have been immense—at a time when the economy was in free fall. By some estimates, gross domestic product contracted by 40% during the 1990s. Had Ukraine developed that infrastructure, it is doubtful the country could have maintained an arsenal anywhere close in size to what it inherited.

And doing so would have meant other costs. First, there would have been perpetual tension with Moscow. Had Ukraine kept nuclear weapons, doing so would have posed the most difficult issue in its bilateral relationship with Russia. The Kremlin would have piled on political and economic pressure. Moscow would have developed contingency plans to destroy or seize those weapons if necessary.

Second, Ukraine would have had few partners. Keeping nuclear weapons would have prevented the dramatic expansion that took place in its relations with the West in the mid-1990s. While Kiev might not have wound up as a pariah state quite on par with North Korea, it would have faced a significant degree of international isolation, including:

•No U.S.-Ukraine strategic partnership, no binational commission co-chaired by then-Vice President Al Gore and then-President Leonid Kuchma, no regular meetings with the American president and few if any contacts with European leaders.

•No charter on a distinctive partnership with NATO and no standing NATO-Ukraine commission.

•No partnership and cooperation agreement with the European Union.

Ukraine would have found itself in a gray area between a largely uncaring, if not hostile, transatlantic community and an openly belligerent Russia.

Third, outcast status would have imposed major economic costs. Neither the U.S. nor the European Union would have provided Ukraine the billions of dollars in bilateral economic assistance that they have given in the past two decades. They would have joined to block lending from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Rather than an international consortium to construct a new shelter over the destroyed nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, Ukraine would have had to foot the bill itself.

As it was, the struggling Ukrainian economy limped through the 1990s. The absence of international assistance and lending could well have led to a full-scale crash. Broke and friendless, a Ukraine facing a crisis with Russia would have done so alone. Ukrainians today understandably may feel the West has not provided enough support, but a Ukraine with nuclear arms would have received zero support. Indeed, many Western countries then might have hoped that Russia would neutralize the Ukrainian arsenal. 

Before lamenting the decision to de-nuclearize, the full political and economic costs that would have accompanied a decision to keep nuclear weapons should be weighed.