Updated: 24-Apr-2002 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 41 - No. 4
Aug. 1993
p. 11-14


Anatoly Zlenko
Foreign Minister of Ukraine

After the dissolution of the USSR at the end of 1991, Ukraine was left with the world's third-largest strategic nuclear force, and a substantial number of tactical nuclear weapons on its territory. Ever since, the fate of this arsenal has been a matter of considerable concern, both for Ukraine and for the rest of the world.

The purpose of this article is to try to put in perspective Ukraine's position on this issue and the reasons for action - or the perceived lack of it - by the Government and the Verhovna Rada (the Parliament) in this connection.

Paramount among our national interests is the need for our newly independent state to guarantee its security in an environment full of present and long-term threats. On top of the obvious threats - the same ones perceived by NATO and advanced as a rationale for continued reliance on nuclear deterrence - we have many other imminent risks. Here, it is sufficient to mention only two of them, generally well-known to those who follow developments in the geostrategic area of the former Soviet Union: external threats to the inviolability of borders, territorial integrity and even the very existence of Ukraine, on the one hand; and internal instability directly linked to the economic situation in Ukraine, on the other.

In order to face the potential external threats, Ukraine needs effective arrangements for the protection of its national security. These could rest on friendly relations with our neighbours and strong conventional armed forces supported by a healthy economy or, failing that, on the continued reliance on nuclear deterrence. It has to be mentioned here that many in Ukraine now argue that in view of the fact that we already have nuclear weapons on our territory, the latter option would be more effective and less expensive.

To face another major threat - that of internal instability due to the worsening economic situation - Ukraine obviously needs far-reaching reforms which would change the whole fabric of our society and result in the establishment of an effective market economy. To achieve this goal without massive social dislocations and the impoverishment of the population, we need professional advice, technical assistance and, not least, substantial financial aid with clearly defined objectives closely linked to the overall plan of market-oriented reforms.

In short, both the external security and internal stability of Ukraine depend on the active involvement of the international community and, above all, of NATO countries, in solving those two problems.

Until now, such an involvement has been sadly lacking. There is a general feeling in our country that the West is only interested in one issue: when Ukraine will ratify START I and accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There is no evident resolve on the part of the international community and its established, effective structures - such as NATO, the G-7, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, etc. - to provide Ukraine with meaningful assistance, either in terms of security or economic development, which is crucial to the outcome of the debate on the fate of nuclear weapons.

Setting the record straight

Most commentaries and statements on the issue of nuclear arms in Ukraine tend to be an over-simplified, one-sided version of the situation, usually based on the following false assumptions:
  • that Ukraine has taken upon itself the obligation to immediately become a non-nuclear weapon state due to outside pressure and as a condition for its recognition, and now is trying to renege on these commitments;
  • that Russia is the only successor state to the USSR with regard to the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union, irrespective of their location;
  • that Ukraine is attempting nuclear blackmail to obtain unreasonable or uncalled for commitments on the part of the West both in terms of security guarantees and promises to underwrite Ukraine's nuclear weapons' elimination programme.
Before proceeding any further, these issues have to be clarified.

First, the decision to become a non-nuclear weapons state in the future was the outcome of the internal debate in Ukraine conducted prior to actual independence. The result of the debate was influenced more than anything else by the tragic experience of the Chernobyl disaster. The Verhovna Rada, reflecting the will of the Ukrainian people, first officially stated Ukraine's intention to become, in the future, a non-nuclear weapons state in the Declaration on State Sovereignty of 16 July 1990, and later reconfirmed this, with certain conditions attached, in its statements and resolutions adopted in 1991 and 1992.

What is important here is that these documents represent declarations of intent and are not legal obligations to other states. They provided the authority for the Executive Branch of the Government to conduct negotiations and sign international agreements on the issue. Nevertheless, though the initial mandate for action by the Executive Branch was given by the Verhovna Rada, under the Constitution the Parliament retains the final say on entry into force of any obligations taken on by the Government on behalf of the country. In other words, there are no legal obligations which would bind Ukraine to being a non-nuclear weapons state before the final decision of the Parliament to accede to the NPT is taken. This is a very important point, somehow intentionally or otherwise overlooked by most commentators.

Second, after the disintegration of the USSR, four of its successor states - Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and Ukraine - had both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons on their territory. According to generally accepted principles of international law, all of these successor states have equal rights and obligations arising from their succession from the predecessor state. Based on this principle, Ukraine has an equal right along with Russia to be a nuclear weapons state.

Third, Ukraine never played any role in the decision-making process which led to the creation of the third largest nuclear force in the world on its territory, but the people of Ukraine had to pay against their will and aspirations for that dubious 'privilege'. The NATO countries, which demonstrated a high level of resolve and determination to contain the Soviet threat, allocating substantial financial resources to that cause, now, it seems, expect Ukraine to shoulder most of the burden of eliminating the nuclear weapons and their delivery systems located on its territory.

In fact, Ukraine is less responsible for the existence of these weapons on its territory than those countries which, through their multi-million dollar loans and credits to the former Soviet Union, helped, in part, to finance the Soviet military machine, including its nuclear component.

It is obvious that, due to the state of its economy, Ukraine is unable now or in the foreseeable future, to allocate any substantial funds towards the elimination of strategic nuclear arms based on its territory. That is the reality and if other states are truly interested in seeing the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, it would only be natural to expect more active efforts on their part to solve the financial side of the problem.

Ukraine is proposing a mechanism for this purpose - the International Fund for Nuclear Disarmament in Ukraine - an idea first advanced by President Leonid Kravchuk in his statement at the International Economic Forum in Davos last February. Details of our vision of the financial, legal and organizational frameworks for the creation of this international fund will be introduced by Ukraine shortly, but in any case, the proposal will be formulated to meet the requirements for effectiveness, due control and the participation of the donor countries in the decision-making process.

Practical steps

Ukraine has taken quite a few practical steps leading to the goal originally set by the Parliament of becoming a non-nuclear weapons state. Among these are:
  • the signature of the Lisbon Protocol which transformed the START Treaty from a bilateral into a multilateral treaty, where Ukraine is an equal partner;
  • the introduction by the President to the Verhovna Rada of the START I Treaty for ratification and the NPT for approval of accession to the Treaty;
  • official notification to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Ukraine is ready to conclude an agreement placing relevant nuclear facilities in the country under IAEA safeguards.
Other practical steps taken by the Government include negotiations with the Russian Federation, the US, other nuclear and non-nuclear states, and international organizations, with a view to concluding agreements crucial for Ukraine's eventual decision on the ratification and implementation of START and the NPT.

The other important issue in the debate on the future of nuclear weapons in Ukraine is the problem of the status of the strategic nuclear forces deployed there. This issue was the key subject of two rounds of tense negotiations between Ukraine and Russia which have been taking place over the last six months and, as yet, have not produced any practical results. The differences in the positions of our two sides are serious enough and, it seems, can only be settled at a high political level.

The position of the Russian Federation is based on the assumption that Russia is the only legal successor to the former USSR's nuclear weapons, giving it sole ownership rights to these weapons and, therefore, the strategic nuclear forces deployed in Ukraine should be under Russia's jurisdiction and full command. This position is unacceptable to Ukraine. We believe that our country is an equal successor state to the former Soviet Union, has exceptional proprietary rights to fissile materials and other components of nuclear warheads, including both strategic - presently located on our territory - and tactical weapons, the latter having been removed from Ukraine for their dismantlement and elimination back in Spring 1992.

For us, it is a matter of principle and what is important here is that the resolution of this issue would not affect the security concerns of anyone, but would have serious implications for Ukraine's economic development.

In our negotiations with the Russian Federation, we have stated our preference to have the nuclear weapons dismantled and eliminated at the same facilities that originally produced them. That means that we are ready to agree on the elimination of strategic nuclear warheads on the territory of Russia, where all such facilities are located, but only if we can agree on acceptable terms for monetary or other compensation (e.g., in the form of fuel for Ukrainian nuclear power stations).

Another issue being negotiated with Russia deals with environmental and safety aspects of the nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The Russian side has insisted that agreements in these fields can only be concluded if Ukraine recognizes Russia's proprietary rights to the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union located in Ukraine.

All these groups of issues are closely linked and could be settled on the basis of a broad political compromise.

The general outline of such a compromise, which could provide a workable and mutually acceptable solution to many of the above-mentioned problems, has been agreed upon at recent bilateral meetings between the Prime Ministers of Ukraine and Russia and we expect that at a follow-up meeting, Presidents Leonid Kravchuk and Boris Yeltsin will be able to sign the relevant agreements.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1993.