Ukraine Isn’t Worth Nuclear War
Kiev's supposed friends in Poland propose the Armageddon option.
As Russia makes slow progress through brutal fighting in Ukraine’s East, there is increasing talk of a stalemate, or perhaps even an eventual revived Russian attack on Kiev. This has intensified the Zelensky government’s demand for more and more sophisticated weapons from the U.S. and European governments.
However, those demands might be too little too late. Shipments are vulnerable to Russian attack, and weapons require training, some of which is complicated and lengthy. Moreover, while Moscow’s forces suffered heavy losses initially, Russia’s artillery offensive is costing Ukraine some of its best-trained troops. Kiev’s ability to continue to rebuff Moscow’s attacks is uncertain.
Until now, the focus in Washington and individual European capitals was speeding up arms deliveries. But Polish politician Radoslaw Sikorski, a former defense and foreign minister who now sits in the European Parliament, has proposed a radical alternative: arming Ukraine with nuclear weapons. Said Sikorski: “Because Russia has violated the Budapest Memorandum, I believe that we, as the West, would have the right to give Ukraine nuclear warheads.”
His rationale is flawed. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which governed Kiev’s relinquishment of nuclear weapons left after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, included the parties’ commitment “to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine,” if the latter was attacked or threatened with attack by nuclear weapons. This was a meaningless promise, since the only presumed potential aggressor, Russia, possessed a veto with which to immobilize the UNSC. Yet Kiev signed with the knowledge that the agreement offered no meaningful security guarantee.
No doubt, Kiev might now wish that it had not surrendered its inherited nuclear arsenal, though it lacked operational control over the weapons. Given American and especially European commitment to nonproliferation, it would have been difficult for Ukraine to have kept the nukes while seeking integration with the West. India paid a substantial economic price for developing its arsenal before the George W. Bush administration accepted reality and New Delhi as a nuclear power.
In any case, Ukraine’s opportunity passed long ago. And no one suggested transferring nuclear weapons to Kiev in the lead-up to Russia’s attack, which probably would have exacerbated the crisis and accelerated Moscow’s invasion. Doing so today, with war already raging, would risk turning an already terrible conflict into a true catastrophe.
During the Cold War, nuclear weapons likely helped prevent a full-scale conventional conflict between the U.S. and USSR. However, had war broken out between them, possession of nuclear weapons would have greatly increased the war’s danger. The losing party would have been tempted to use nukes to redress the balance. Indeed, throughout the Cold War, Washington, which possessed the smaller army, threatened to respond to an invasion of Western Europe with nuclear weapons. Now the situation has reversed between America and Russia.
India and Pakistan were not nuclear powers when they fought three full-scale wars. Their ability to destroy each other may have prevented a fourth conflict, though they staged a limited but extended shootout in Kashmir in 1999, known as the Kargil War, after both had tested nuclear weapons. Pakistani provocations, such as the terrorist attacks on India’s parliament in 2001 and Mumbai in 2008, risked war, which might have been discouraged by the potential of nuclear escalation.
Of course, Ukraine requires more than nuclear weapons to become a nuclear power. It would also need a means of delivery—planes or missiles, along with related training. And, of course, such a plan could not be easily kept secret. Moscow might preemptively respond with nuclear weapons to prevent Ukraine from deploying an operational force. After Sikorski’s remarks Russian Duma head Vyacheslav Volodin warned: “Sikorski provokes a nuclear conflict in the center of Europe. He does not think about the future of either Ukraine or Poland. If his proposals are implemented, these countries will disappear, as well as Europe.”
In any case, the idea is a nonstarter. Among the allies, only the U.S., France, and United Kingdom possess nukes. France’s Emmanuel Macron has been attempting to find a diplomatic exit from the war. The U.K.’s Boris Johnson would be hesitant to deepen his European pariah status by transferring nuclear weapons to Ukraine. President Joe Biden just returned from a trip to South Korea where he reaffirmed Washington’s determination to denuclearize North Korea. Even the Polish government, which rivals the Baltic states in its willingness to send its NATO counterparts into war, has not seconded Sikorski’s proposal.
Nevertheless, the fact that a once-serious political figure would advocate turning the ongoing conflict into a nuclear confrontation demonstrates how dangerous that conflict has become. Moscow’s invasion was unjustified. However, an allied attempt to make Ukraine the victor—increasingly advocated by Ukraine’s boosters in America’s foreign-policy community—risks triggering Russian escalation.
President Vladimir Putin cannot afford to lose, and he has the means to avoid doing so, including the ability to launch a full military mobilization and use WMDs—chemical, nuclear, or both. Moscow has more at stake, and therefore always will be willing to pay and risk more. The U.S. has nothing at stake that warrants risking Kiev’s nuclear annihilation. Yet some policymakers are willing to take that chance. Indeed, both Sen. Mitt Romney and the McCain Institute’s Evelyn Farkas would do so even if Russia used nukes against someone else, a wildly irresponsible position that would risk America’s future.
Popular support for Ukraine is understandable. However, it should not come at the expense of U.S. security. The Biden administration’s top priority is the safety of America, its people, territory, liberties, and prosperity. This puts a premium on attempting to bring the Russo-Ukrainian war to a speedy close. The longer it continues, the greater the harm to Ukraine, threat to Europe, and danger to America. And the more people might be tempted to try extreme ideas like Sikorski’s. A nuclear power at war would be a terrible sight to behold.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.