Ahead of Russia’s recognition of the independence of breakaway regions in Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to suggest last weekend that his country could pursue nuclear weapons to defend itself against Russia’s ambitions as Putin mobilizes his forces into eastern Ukraine.
Following the end of the Cold War, Ukraine took possession of around 5,000 nuclear weapons from the collapsed Soviet Union that were stored in Ukrainian territory, making it the country with the third most nuclear weapons on Earth.
“The United States and Russia reached an agreement in 1994, known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, by which Ukraine would turn over its nukes in exchange for those security assurances,” the Washington Post reported. “The agreement is not an official treaty. It is neither legally binding nor does it carry an enforcement mechanism. And while it provides security assurances, they do not include specific promises with regard to a potential invasion.”
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Zelensky said on Saturday:
I want to believe that the North Atlantic Treaty and Article 5 will be more effective than the Budapest Memorandum.
Ukraine has received security guarantees for abandoning the world’s third nuclear capability. We don’t have that weapon. We also have no security. We also do not have part of the territory of our state that is larger in area than Switzerland, the Netherlands or Belgium. And most importantly — we don’t have millions of our citizens. We don’t have all this.
Therefore, we have something. The right to demand a shift from a policy of appeasement to ensuring security and peace guarantees.
Since 2014, Ukraine has tried three times to convene consultations with the guarantor states of the Budapest Memorandum. Three times without success. Today Ukraine will do it for the fourth time. I, as President, will do this for the first time. But both Ukraine and I are doing this for the last time. I am initiating consultations in the framework of the Budapest Memorandum. The Minister of Foreign Affairs was commissioned to convene them. If they do not happen again or their results do not guarantee security for our country, Ukraine will have every right to believe that the Budapest Memorandum is not working and all the package decisions of 1994 are in doubt.
Putin did not take the suggestion well, describing it as “this is not just bragging.”
In an address on Monday, the Russian president described the matter as “very serious and needs to be discussed in depth,” going over the situation in Donbass, and Zelensky’s threat to pursue nuclear weapons.
“Ukraine has the nuclear technologies created back in the Soviet times and delivery vehicles for such weapons, including aircraft, as well as the Soviet-designed Tochka-U precision tactical missiles with a range of over 100 kilometres,” said Putin. “But they can do more; it is only a matter of time. They have had the groundwork for this since the Soviet era.”
“In other words, acquiring tactical nuclear weapons will be much easier for Ukraine than for some other states I am not going to mention here, which are conducting such research, especially if Kyiv receives foreign technological support. We cannot rule this out either,” he said.
“If Ukraine acquires weapons of mass destruction, the situation in the world and in Europe will drastically change, especially for us, for Russia,” Putin continued. “We cannot but react to this real danger, all the more so since, let me repeat, Ukraine’s Western patrons may help it acquire these weapons to create yet another threat to our country.”