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That proliferation question

September 24, 2014

When the Budapest Memorandum was to all intents and purposes unilaterally thrown under a bus by The Kremlin with the invasion and subsequent illegal annexation of Crimea early this year – together with the Helsinki Final Act 1975 and numerous other international and regional instruments, charters, treaties – a good deal of noise was made regarding the implications for nuclear non-proliferation.

Quite rightly to, how can the international community expect Iran – or any other nation – to accept assurances (not even guarantees) regarding its sovereign and territorial integrity that it would otherwise seek to underpin via nuclear weapons?  Why should it – or anybody else – stop any nuclear weapons programmes in the light of what The Kremlin did to Ukraine, and the subsequent response from those that assured Ukraine of its unambiguous territorial and sovereign viability when it surrendered the worlds third largest nuclear arsenal.  A memorandum half a page of text in length did not protect Crimea or parts of Luhansk and The Donbas.  Say what you will, the reality on the ground is there for all to see and no future memorandum and assurances will instill confidence.

Nations will look on and see that those who gave assurances will not even arm Ukraine with defensive weaponry, let alone robustly defend its violated territory.  Whether or not Ukraine actually needs – rather than simply wants – such defensive weaponry is a question to be written about another day perhaps.

Whatever the case, the fact remains that an overly weak and less than proportional response to such a grave breach of international law was forthcoming – and many would state the response as exists today is still too little for such a unilateral assassination of the regional and international security structure.  Weak, consistently reactionary, and untimely responses to bad precedents, and all that.

Between then and now, many emails arrived asking whether Ukraine should make a return to possessing “the bomb” – normally synchronized with Ukrainian politicians raising the issue, as Klitschko and UDAR have done on several occasions.

Those emails also including ad hominem attacks on former President Leonid Kuchma for giving away the nuclear deterrent years ago.  Former President Kuchma seemingly having a belated Neville Chamberlain experience with what proved to be worthless bits of paper due to a mendacious cosignatory.

That said, Mr Chamberlain although much maligned for his act with Hitler, in 1938 was advised from all quarters, including the British Army, that it was the only course of action.  Britain was not physically able to fight a war, and neither were the political class prepared to make a convincing case to the British public either.  A case of “do the best you can.”  That the British Army in 1939 suddenly decided it was then ready to fight a war – well poor Neville Chamberlain.  For those who delve into archived documents of the time, the evidence sadly concludes that Neville Chamberlain does get quite a rough end of the history stick, somewhat undeservedly.  Ce la vie!

Some may speculate, perhaps with wisdom, that the decision of former President Kuchma was not one made with a lot of maneuvering room either.  In fact, he was probably left with little option given The Kremlin pressure and skillful manipulation of the international community.  Let us be blunt, 1994 would have seen Crimean annexation by Russia had it not been for The Kremlin wanting  a nuclear weapon free Ukraine more.  In fact, some brighter lights may ponder further, that any such annexation would not have stopped at Crimea had Kuchma insisted upon keeping the nuclear weapon inheritance from the former Soviet Union.  Moscow was quite determined to control Ukraine’s nuclear weapons one way or another in 1994.  By 1995, Ukrainian independence from Moscow control may have been a 4 year event and no more – independence revoked.

Perhaps when official documents are eventually released, Mr Kuchma’s decision, and who now claims Ukraine was cheated, will be somewhat vindicated by as yet undisclosed but officially recorded threats made upon Ukraine by then President Yeltsin, who had by that time formed a “Ukraine doctrine”.  Time and moth-eaten  records may yet tell.

The upshot of 1994 was that Ukraine kept Crimea, The Kremlin got Ukrainian nuclear missiles, all nuclear powers gave assurances regarding Ukrainian sovereign integrity, and Ukraine acceded to the Treaty for Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

20 years later, The Kremlin still has the Ukrainian nuclear missiles and now it has Crimea too – as well as de facto parts of The Donbas and Luhansk..  Despite the apparent onset of a “freeze” in eastern Ukraine at present, it may well be matters heat up again next year if The Kremlin cannot scupper the now delayed DCFTA.  During this time the Ukrainian military complex will be churning out what Ukraine needs for a conventional defense as best it can.  European nations will be supply much needed command and control, training and intelligence sharing so that Ukraine will hopefully better defend itself conventionally if required from now on.  Defensive positions and plans will be prepared for any further warfare.

Back to the question asked and that has been deliberately avoided, despite it being asked many times of the blog.  Will Ukraine seek “the bomb” once more?

To do so formally and overtly would require Ukraine giving notice at the UN of its intention to leave the NPT.  Charters, treaties and other international instruments all vary in their notice periods for any nation to exit them.  Everything has a “get out clause” – except Jus Cogens.

As far as the NPT is concerned, the answer regarding notice is held within Article X of the NPT.  Ukraine must give 3 months notice to all other parties to the treaty and to the UNSC.  Technically, Ukraine is legally bound by the treaty for those 3 months notice, and should not pursue nuclear weapon ambitions until that time has expired.  Quietly slipping out of the NPT back door without The Kremlin noticing is simply not possible.

Such a move would be likely to seriously and adversely effect Ukraine’s relations with its western neighbours who would show their displeasure by at least stopping much needed funding – and in all probability far more punitive measures would be implemented to change the decision.  It may be that there would be some diplomatic voices muttering within the corridors of power “can’t really blame them” – but that would almost certainly not be the official positions of the States they represent.

There is no doubt that Ukraine possesses both the technical and scientific ability to not only produce the weapon delivery systems, but also the nuclear warheads themselves.  It has no need to search for such expertise externally.

Officially, Ukraine no longer hold any weapons grade material.  Unofficially however – who knows?

Ukraine has never experienced a trustworthy leadership domestically, and neither has the international community experienced an entirely trustworthy Ukrainian leadership either.  Pick any Ukrainian administration since independence and lurking beneath there is a notable breach of international law somewhere – up to and including breaching UN arms embargoes (Yushenko/Tymoshenko).  Thus a declaration that Ukraine holds no nuclear weapon grade material may be seen as somewhat dubious on past form.

Should Ukraine have misled the international community (again), just how much weapons grade material it may still retain would be yet another unknown.   How long would it take to create a small deployable nuclear arsenal?  A rough guess -18 months, or less.

Whatever the case, if deciding not to officially leave the NPT, and thus prevent the inevitable Kremlin  response if it had, could Ukraine pursue “the bomb” – up to a point – and yet be deemed to remain within the NPT?

The answer to that may not be as clear cut as the NPT would seem to make it prima facie.

Here the case of Israel and its “nuclear ambiguity” is raised.  For any with an interest in diplomacy, grubby agreements, tacit nods, and the elasticity of treaty interpretations, spend an hour reading through the 107 pages of documents from the time when Israel was actively in pursuit of nuclear weapon capability, and its interaction with the USA.

In short, the US seems to grudgingly acknowledge Israel would not change course no matter what carrots and sticks were to be used.  Both sides, it appears, accepted that a nuclear weapon not fully assembled fell within the parameters of the NPT.  What qualifies as “not fully assembled” is somewhat open to interpretation.

For example, is a 15 second delay for an insertion of a circuit kept in a different room prior to firing, deserving of the label “not fully assembled”?  Who could make unannounced and timely checks to insure there was no full assembly, so swift any check would not allow enough time to “disassemble” weaponry just a little to comply? (And reassemble as soon as those who checked leave.)

All interesting stuff.

Regardless of technical abilities, formal or informal routes, legal gymnastics, treaty text wiggle room and any liberal  international understanding for the Ukrainian position – or not – there is little doubt that Ukraine would suffer from leaks of the intelligence kind whilst it is still undoubtedly riddled with Kremlin infiltrators and informants.  Achieving a nuclear weapons capability in secret is extremely unlikely to occur.

There is not much second-guessing a The Kremlin response to Ukraine “nuking up”.

But what of the key question Ukraine would have to ask itself if pursuing “the bomb”?

Would a nuclear armed Ukraine deter a nuclear armed Kremlin from a creeping conventional takeover of Ukrainian territory in the months and years ahead?  Would the ability to turn some small areas of Russia into radioactive dust deter a Kremlin capable of turning most, if not all, of the territory of Ukraine, into an atomic ashtray?

The Kremlin is currently revising its military doctrine and lowering the bar for nuclear weapon use.  It is also purported to be mulling over leaving many international treaties that now hamper the way The Kremlin wants to be able to operate.  Ukraine may not be the only nation currently mulling over giving notice on some very sensitive international instruments.

In a seemingly increasingly (and deliberately) destabilised Kremlin neighbourhood, would attempting to become a nuclear armed neighbour be a plus or a minus?

If Ukraine thinks “yes having the bomb will deter” then it must also decide upon ruling in a “first strike” military doctrine – even if it could pull off and Israel-esque “nuclear ambiguity” scenario and accompanying ambiguous doctrine .  Limiting itself to a “second strike only” doctrine would not prevent a conventional war that it would lose.

And so to return to answering those emailed questions.  Could and should Ukraine pursue “the bomb” once again?

Could it?  Technically and scientifically yes it could – and without any external assistance whatsoever.  Whilst remaining within the NPT?  Probably not – although there would appear to be a historical precedent for a very generous interpretation of the treaty.

Should it?  Accepting there is always going to be a serious mismatch between Ukrainian and Russian military capabilities with Ukraine on the wrong side of the numbers, the answer still remains, pursuit only if there is a genuine belief that such a deterrence would work – and if the pursuit of such a weapon would indeed be worth it at the expense of other priorities and external relationships.

Would Ukraine be able to comfortably rely on a MAD vis a vis The Kremlin, or would it be mad to rely on MAD when The Kremlin has systematically thrown out all the norms post 1946 with regard Ukraine and its territory thus far?

With only Poland officially offering to arm Ukraine with defensive weaponry, the eventual formal – but singular – coalition birth of the UkrPolLit Brigade on 19th September, and NATO seemingly intent on doing the absolute minimum with regard to any threat anywhere on the planet, there is certainly a requirement for Ukraine regarding self-reliance when it comes to defence.  It is perhaps natural justice that the death of the Budapest Memorandum may see Ukraine decide to be the first to proliferate in its wake.

All of that said, if Ukraine did decide to pursue “the bomb” once more, seemingly it would not be the only nation in the Black Sea neighbourhood to be doing so.

There will be readers now, stating the question has once again been dodged – skillfully or otherwise.  They would be right.  Solid arguments both for and against taking such a strategic decision can be made, and as with Messrs Chamberlain and Kuchma’s historical decisions, much would depend upon the maneuvering by the people behind the curtains as to the outcome of any future Ukrainian decision.

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