Can Ukraine be a nuclear weapons power?

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India, portal publishing news and current affairs. He holds an M.B.A in International Business from the Maharishi University of Management, Iowa, USA. Twitter: @chackojoseph *views are Personal.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking at the Munich Security Conference on February 19, announced the possibility of Ukraine becoming a nuclear weapons power. According to him, today, Kiev has every reason to refuse obligations under the Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994, when former President Leonid Kuchma agreed to give up its nuclear weapons. Allegedly, Russia violated it in 2014, and now legally, nothing prevents his country from withdrawing from the NPT and developing its nuclear weapons.

To what extent is this statement justified?

Ukraine has a developed civilian nuclear industry, with legacy Soviet-era power plant reactors and nuclear research facilities. It also inherited a well-developed aviation and space industry capable of producing ICBMs and other delivery vehicles.

But, Ukraine has never had the uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing capacity needed to produce weapons-grade nuclear materials. Ukraine also did not have factories that would make real nuclear weapons on the country’s territory.

Moscow rejects Ukrainian claims

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, from 1993 to 1998, Kiev received 1.8 thousand fuel assemblies for nuclear power plants. In 2000, Russia wrote off a debt of $1.099 billion to Ukraine, “including $199 million to compensate for the cost of fissile materials.” Ukraine also received compensation from the other signatories of the Budapest Memorandum.

Moscow has repeatedly said that Ukraine has received enough compensation for forgoing the nuclear weapons option.

Uranium in Ukraine

Uranium has been mined in Ukraine since the 1950s, but production has declined significantly in recent years. Mines require huge investments. In Europe, Ukraine ranks first in uranium ore deposits. As per data provided by the World Nuclear Association, they make up 114,100 tons, or 2% of the world’s reserves, and rank 11th in the world. In general, 14 types of uranium ores and more than 100 uranium minerals are known, but just 12 of them are of industrial importance, among which uranium pitch, uraninite and carnotite are of the most significant importance. Ukrainian Uranium ore deposits contain up to 0.1% uranium. According to the licensee, the Eastern Mining and Processing Plant, VostGOK, Ukranian ores have aluminosilicate, low-iron, and monometallic chemical composition. For example, in Canadian ore, which is largely located in the Athabasca Basin in northern Saskatchewan and associated with Precambrian quartz conglomerates, the average concentration of uranium is 0.08% (from 0.03 to 0.18%). The Australian ore contains up to 0.2% or more uranium, and its main component is copper, and uranium, gold and silver are mined along the way. It consists of medium-grained chalcopyrite, bornite, chalcocite, fine-grained uranium blende and brannerite, as well as gold, silver and rare earth minerals.

In total, 17 deposits are included in the list of State Balance of Mineral Resources in Ukraine, of which 14 are located in the Kirovohrad region, 2 in the Mykolaiv region and 1 in the Dnipropetrovsk region, and in general, 21 deposits with significant reserves of ore containing 0.1% uranium have been explored.

Ukraine’s Nuclear reactors

Ukraine has four nuclear power plants with 15 power units operating. In addition, the fifth station, Chernobyl, needs maintenance, which was stopped only in 2000. But, the spent nuclear fuel was not taken from the reactor and it could theoretically be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. 

The Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, which is still operating today and has the status of a national scientific centre. Nuclear physics is officially the subject of the institute. Kharkiv Institute was founded in 1928. In 1932. The institute formed the nucleus of the lithium atom that was split for the first time in the USSR. In the 1930s, the future Nobel Prize winner Lev Landau worked in the institute. 

Ukrainian nuclear delivery vehicles

Ukraine has Yuzhmash plant in Dnepropetrovsk and Yuzhnoye Design Bureau for developing missiles. The super-powerful rocket “Zenit” and R-36M (SS-18) Satan missile was developed and built here. It still retains the experience and people for creating rockets. A lot has been lost, but Ukrainian rocket science remains. At the same time, Yuzmash cannot make all the components required for a long range ballistic missile.

Ukrainian Nuclear weapons capability

Some Ukrainian officials, such as retired General Pyotr Garashchuk , have argued that Ukraine retained enough technical knowledge to obtain a full range of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. 

Technically, there is an industry in Ukraine that, with some modifications, should be able to create nuclear weapons systems. But, no nuclear power would help Ukraine make atomic weapons because no one wants to deal with the inevitable wave of problems that will arise the day it becomes known that Ukraine is developing nuclear weapons.

Instead of offering their approval and assistance, the U.S. and its allies are likely to work against Ukraine, potentially imposing economic sanctions. The current state of Ukraine’s economy and the government’s dependence on foreign aid makes Kiev’s chances of doing what Pyongyang did is doubtful.

The operation of nuclear weapons is a huge high-tech industry. Economically hobbled Ukraine will have to invest tens of billions of dollars in its formation, and without a guaranteed positive result.

Given the circumstances, Ukraine’s nuclear ambitions may be part of an attention-grabbing campaign rather than a real roadmap.

Inherited nuclear weapons

At the time of the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine possessed the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. According to Ukrainian media, 900 warheads, 165 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) PC-18 – UR-100N UTTH “Stiletto” and PC-22 – RT-23 UTTH “Molodets” remained in the country. Significant stocks of tactical nuclear weapons, four hundred X-22 long-range supersonic cruise missiles, and strategic aviation units armed with Tu-22M3 long-range bombers were also inherited.

On July 16, 1990, the Verkhovna Rada Ukrainskoi RSR (Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic), chaired by President Leonid M. Kravchuk, adopted a declaration of state sovereignty, which proclaimed the country’s non-nuclear status. In 1991, Kiev agreed with Moscow on the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons, and in May 1992, Kravchuk informed U.S. President George W. Bush of his readiness to abandon ICBMs.  

In 1992, the United States and the inheritors of the Soviet nuclear arsenal (Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus) signed an additional protocol to the START-I Treaty in Lisbon. The document provided the disposal of all nuclear weapons or their transfer to Russia.

In January 1994, the presidents of the Russian Federation, the United States and Ukraine adopted a tripartite statement on security guarantees and compensation for Kiev in exchange for a nuclear-free status. In particular, the document allowed Ukraine to receive “fuel assemblies for nuclear power plants” from Russia free of charge. In turn, Washington agreed to transfer $175 million to Kiev.

On December 5, 1994, the leaders of the Russian Federation, the United States, Great Britain and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum. The three powers provided Kiev with guarantees of territorial integrity and promised to “refrain from economic coercion.”

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