Countries shouldn't give Ukraine any nuclear weapons - opinion

There are several factors that should be considered before decisions are made on giving Ukraine any nuclear weapons.

 UKRAINE’S PRESIDENT Volodymyr Zelensky visits the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine, during marking the Defender of Ukraine Day in Kyiv, last week. (photo credit: UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/REUTERS)
UKRAINE’S PRESIDENT Volodymyr Zelensky visits the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine, during marking the Defender of Ukraine Day in Kyiv, last week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin argued in early December that the risk of a nuclear war was growing. The US or other members of NATO, like Britain, which strongly supports Ukraine, could provide Ukraine with tactical nuclear weapons. It might deter Russia from becoming more aggressive in Ukraine let alone using nuclear weapons there, without putting NATO at risk since Ukraine, not NATO, would be the one that might use nuclear weapons, as Ukraine did so far with the conventional NATO arsenal. However, this is a dangerous and problematic option because of several factors.

Can NATO trust Ukraine with nuclear weapons?

NATO, as part of assisting Ukraine, has become familiar with Ukraine, mostly with its military and leadership. However, those relations are still relatively new compared with the ties between NATO members. NATO might not fully understand the Ukrainian decision-making process, which is crucial if Ukraine holds nuclear weapons. Giving nuclear weapons to Ukraine might come with severe constraints, such as that only President Volodymyr Zelensky would have the right to authorize the use of nuclear weapons.

Yet, Ukraine is quite a new state with a fragile democracy, in a midst of a full-blown war. It is not clear how much Zelensky can control the military in regard to nuclear weapons. Even if Zelensky is completely in charge of nuclear weapons, he is quite young, 44 years old. He has been in office only since May 2019 and before Zelensky was elected his background was in acting and the media.

Since late February 2022, he has gained valuable experience in leading his country in a time of war. He has been learning about government and military affairs, but it might not be enough to know how to properly handle nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the Ukrainian leadership, not only the president, is under huge and ongoing stress and they are worn down. The fatigue and the pressure on them might influence their ability to reach the best decision regarding nuclear weapons.

 UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT Volodymyr Zelensky speaks via video to the Annual Session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Madrid last month. (credit: Juan Medina/Reuters) UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT Volodymyr Zelensky speaks via video to the Annual Session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Madrid last month. (credit: Juan Medina/Reuters)

It should also be emphasized that despite the similarity between Ukraine and Russia, such as in their history, religion, language, etc., from the Ukrainian point of view this is a desperate fight for their very survival as a nation against a brutal and powerful enemy that kills and causes enormous suffering to Ukraine and its people. The fear and hate toward Russia can distort Ukraine’s decision-making about nuclear weapons. Ukraine might make a critical mistake in this matter that would have grave ramifications, including for the US.

Unlike other attacks that were launched by Ukraine, which required months of preparations, a Ukrainian nuclear strike might be prepared in a much shorter time. It would reduce NATO’s chances of preventing a Ukraine strike. Furthermore, Ukrainian conventional offensives have gone on for days and sometimes weeks, so they can be stopped at any time if NATO wants that; however, once Ukraine fires its nuclear weapons there is no way back.

Ukraine seeks to join NATO and not for the first time. Ukraine is also eager to receive more military aid from NATO. The latter sometimes turns down Ukrainian requests, which causes resentment in Ukraine. From the Ukrainian perspective, they confront NATO’s main enemy, paying a heavy price in blood and treasure while NATO militaries stay away from the battlefield and their countries are safe and free to go on with their daily lives.

The frustration in Ukraine might bring it to try to coerce NATO to join the fight by using nuclear weapons if Ukraine receives them. The odds of that would increase if Ukraine assumes that Western states might reduce their support to Ukraine and even try to force Ukraine to accept peace terms against its will.

Losing territory and facing a foe that seems superior

In 2014, Russia captured the Crimean Peninsula, a relatively small yet significant part of Ukraine. In response, Western states imposed sanctions on Russia and provided military aid to Ukraine, but not nuclear weapons. Since late February 2022, Russia has seized large parts of Eastern Ukraine, yet it has not led NATO to give Ukraine nuclear weapons. Furthermore, participially in late February 2022, there was a risk that most or even all of Ukraine might fall into Russia’s hands but NATO still did not deliver nuclear weapons to Ukraine to deter Russia.

In recent months, Ukraine has managed to gain some ground back, yet Russia has kept most of its conquests. Russia might even be able to recover and conquer more areas. Nevertheless, despite all the land Ukraine has lost and its struggle to recapture them, it should not get nuclear weapons for that task.

The Russian armed forces had a reputation as a capable military until the current stage of the war on Ukraine, which started in late February 2022 and exposed the poor performance of Russian forces. In that sense, NATO should have considered providing nuclear weapons to Ukraine before February 2022, when the Russian military seemed strong enough to defeat Ukraine.

It follows the same logic that applied in the Cold War: if NATO could not have stopped a Soviet advance, then tactical nuclear weapons might have been used for that task. Yet Ukraine did not receive nuclear weapons, not even when, prior to February 2022, many thought Ukraine’s military would not be able to hold back its Russian counterpart.

Ukraine integrated US weapon systems, which are deployed, and uses them based on their decision-making, yet Ukraine still relies on the US for ammunition, spare parts, etc., for those weapon systems. If Ukraine holds nuclear weapons, Ukraine will require US technical assistance in handling those sophisticated weapons, which would give the US leverage.

However, Ukraine has a certain amount of knowledge in this field going back to the Soviet era. Ukraine also has 16 nuclear reactors. Those factors might help Ukraine in maintaining nuclear weapons, which would reduce its dependence on the US. Either way, if Ukraine has full control of its nuclear weapons, it might use them regardless of the US or NATO position.

Some assume Putin sees this conflict as an all-out war with the West. Yet, it is not easy to analyze Putin. Winston Churchill defined Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” In a way, it is still true now. Despite all the vast knowledge NATO has gained of its old rival, including Putin, it is often difficult to figure out what Putin would do. Providing Ukraine with nuclear weapons might cause Putin to take harsh steps, more drastic than he has taken so far, including using nuclear weapons.

The stakes are already quite high and despite the threat from Russia, giving Ukraine a nuclear arsenal is too dangerous, considering the uncertainty about Putin and his ability to surprise NATO. Russia opposes the delivery of conventional weapons to Ukraine and Russia has warned about this several times.

Until now, Russia has not attacked the US or other NATO members, but there is no guarantee this policy will continue, especially as Russia becomes more desperate. The odds of a Russian attack on a NATO member would increase if NATO gives Ukraine nuclear weapons.

What about other allies?

If Ukraine receives nuclear weapons, other states will want them too for the same reason: fear of Russia. It has mostly to do with NATO members, particularly those that share a border with Russia. If Ukraine, which is not in NATO, gets nuclear weapons from NATO, then why should a NATO member not have them, too? States like Poland can continue to rely on NATO’s nuclear umbrella but it might not be enough for Poland, out of concern NATO will hesitate to use them to protect Poland, worrying it might ignite a full-scale nuclear war.

If Ukraine integrates nuclear weapons into its arsenal, states like Poland might demand to have their own nuclear weapons, even if only tactical ones. Furthermore, in other regions, there might be a similar request by non-NATO allies that rely on Western powers, such as Taiwan, which faces a possible invasion by a strong and intimidating power, China. The Arab Gulf States might want them, too, against Iran and so on. NATO should limit nuclear proliferation and not encourage it.

The writer has been dealing with and studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years. He served in the Israeli military and later worked for the Defense Ministry as a researcher. He has published six books in the US. His latest is Israeli Strategies in the Middle East: The Case of Iran (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).