Why the Ukraine war does not mean more countries should seek nuclear weapons

April 12, 2022
Jeffrey Knopf

This article is part of a larger Ukraine collection by CNS:
Putin’s War with Ukraine: Voices of CNS Experts on the Russian Invasion

The following is an excerpt from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many observers have concluded that the war offers a clear demonstration of the benefits of possessing a nuclear arsenal. An article in Foreign Policy described the war’s number one lesson as being “it is good to have nuclear weapons.” Two senior scholars at the Brookings Institution labeled the Russia-Ukraine war “bad news for nuclear nonproliferation,” while the authors of the piece in Foreign Policy went even further, declaring the war a “death blow to nuclear nonproliferation.”  We should not be so quick to embrace this lesson. The war in Ukraine does not make as persuasive a case for nuclear proliferation as many suggest.

The Russian invasion does point to certain advantages of being a nuclear-armed state. But it is important to consider the full balance sheet of nuclear weapons pros and cons. In the Ukraine case, the benefits of nuclear status are not as great as some have claimed, while the potential costs and risks of nuclear weapon programs have received little to no attention. Also, the war in Ukraine is not the only case in which a nuclear-armed state has been involved in conflict with either a non-nuclear or another nuclear-armed country. A review of other historical cases shows the limitations of what states buy themselves when they acquire nuclear arms.

Two distinct lessons about the advantages of nuclear possession have been drawn from the war in Ukraine. The first concerns Ukraine itself. When the Soviet Union dissolved, part of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal was stationed on the territory of newly independent Ukraine. In the years after independence, Ukraine agreed to have these weapons removed from its territory and to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) a non-nuclear weapon state. A growing chorus now regards this as a mistake. They argue that Russia would never have dared to invade if Ukraine had been nuclear-armed.

Continue reading at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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