The threat of mutually assured destruction by nuclear weapons helped broker a begrudging truce between Russia and the United States. Both nations’ inability to comfortably protect against missile attacks was and still is a daunting challenge to overcome; even rogue nations with minuscule arsenals can keep nations with vastly larger military capabilities at bay. If Ukraine owned such weapons, then the disparity of military capabilities between them and Russia would be void.
Prior to Russian forces crossing into Ukraine, Putin made a show of flexing Russia’s beefy nuclear arms to a global audience. In a harrowing speech, he promised that any country which dared to involve themselves in his conflict in Ukraine would “face consequences greater than any you have faced in history,” while placing Russia’s nuclear defenses on high alert. But why would Putin immediately escalate the situation to involve nuclear weapons?
To be completely frank, NATO would mop the floor with Russia in an all-out ground assault, especially with China fence-sitting on the conflict. It is estimated that Russia spends around $65 billion a year on its military, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the $686 billion the U.S. spent in 2019.
Although most Americans cannot have their basic needs met because of the disproportionate portion of government spending going towards the military, our lack of affordable healthcare and archaic public services has allowed our nation to sustain an egregiously powerful standing army. Putin is certainly aware of the strength of Western forces and was likely caught off-guard by the rapidly organized efforts of the West to support Ukraine. This resulted in Putin coming out the gates with his most powerful military deterrent to prevent a united U.S. and EU ground defense from being sent to repel Russian invaders.
But Russia can stand toe-to-toe with America with nuclear capability and America can do little to defend itself against ICBMs, or intercontinental ballistic missiles. The U.S. missile defense system has a slim chance of intercepting any missiles; our main defense is simply being out of range from enemy launchers. ICBMs make this security moot; they are launched out of Earth’s atmosphere where they are oriented to hit any target on Earth with varying degrees of accuracy. According to a report by APS Physics, “creating a reliable and effective defense against the threat posed by even the small number of relatively unsophisticated nuclear-armed ICBMs that it considers remains a daunting challenge.” The U.S. went as far as delaying the testing of a long-range ballistic missile planned on March 2 and later canceling it altogether on April 1 as to not escalate nuclear tensions further.
If only Ukraine had nuclear weapons — then they, like Russia, could use the same nuclear strategy to deter an invading force with superior numbers and firepower. They had nuclear weapons at one point but gave them up for their guaranteed independence and protection by Russia and the United States. After the fall of the Soviet Union, newly-formed Ukraine had the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, which they eventually relinquished in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. in 1994.
Unfortunately for Ukraine, none of those original guarantors held true to their word. All those responsible for the nuclear disarmament have stabbed the young nation in the back by refusing to ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia has broken this agreement by invading Ukraine, while the U.S. and U.K. have betrayed Ukraine by failing to come to their aid. Back in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, the Russian Foreign Ministry justified breaking its promises by stating, “the security assurances were given to the legitimate government of Ukraine but not to the forces that came to power following the coup d’état.”
The legitimate government they are referencing was a puppet government led by Kremlin sympathizer Viktor Yanukovych. Massive protests broke out across the country, even in eastern Ukraine, in response to Yanukovych refusing to sign a treaty with the EU that would have moved Ukraine further west away from Russia in 2013. He passed several anti-protest measures and had police violently crackdown on protesters; the Ukrainian Parliament repealed these measures and opted to impeach Yanukovych. With Putin’s crony no longer in power, Russia has taken it upon itself to simply control Ukraine by force instead of by proxy.
It may be a safe play for the United States to turn on its word in order to prevent the escalation of nuclear tensions back to Cold War levels, but it will hurt efforts for continued nuclear disarmament. If the U.S. attempts to guarantee the safety of another nation for countries like Ukraine to give up their nuclear arsenal, why would that country cede their nuclear weapons, knowing that promise had been broken for Ukraine? As of today, no country with nuclear deterrents has even been subject to a full-scale invasion.
However, a country that has sacrificed its power for promises of safety from the West is currently facing an invasion conducted by a world superpower alone. Russia’s accusations of the U.S. spreading NATO’s influence further east past agreed boundaries are the single valid reason Putin has for invading Ukraine. This isn’t Ukraine’s war, it’s part of the global chess game between Russia and the U.S. And right now, the U.S. is showing the world that we will allow our enemies to do as they please as long as they have nuclear weapons, and will do nothing to protect our allies who don’t.