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Was the Ukrainian Secret Soviet Nuclear Stash one of the Main Reasons for Russia’s Military Operation in Ukraine?

Source: Katehon by Alexander Azadgan

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, one question that escaped all the attention and the drama and the celebration that was going on was this: Where did all the Soviet nuclear weapons go? After all, the Soviet Union, through 40 years of the Cold War, had gone into an arms race with America. There were tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. So where did all of that go? It’s interesting that the country which had the third highest number of nuclear warheads back in the summer of 1991 was not Britain, or Canada or France. It was Ukraine! By some estimate, Ukraine had 1,800 nuclear warheads. That was second only to the United States and Russia.

Ukraine also had the biggest number of nuclear silos and military bases that were nuclear enabled. This collection included intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, nuclear enabled weapon systems, etc. So when Ukraine Declared independence back in August of 1991, it de-facto ended up with almost a third of the entire nuclear arsenal that the Soviet Union possess. Today, 30 years later, it is these very same nuclear weapons that maybe the secret reason for Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. In this article, I look at whether there are secrets about the old Soviet nuclear program in Ukraine which could be a reason for today’s full-blown military conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Soon after Ukraine became independent, it had a host of issues to deal with: economic and social aspirations of its people. There was also a recession going on at the time. There was also a run on its banks. Dealing with an inherited legacy of nuclear weapons amidst all of this, was not exactly top priority for Ukraine’s new rulers.  As such, Ukraine got into negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 1994, it proposed that Ukraine join what is called the “Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty” or NPT. As part of this treaty and as a part of Ukraine agreeing to join this treaty, it meant that Ukraine had to destroy all of its nuclear weapons.

A large part of Ukraine’s nuclear weapons arsenal had to be either returned to Russia, where it would be destroyed or be turned over to the IAEA, which would in turn dismantle these weapons. The IAEA’s job was to help Ukraine get rid of all of its clear weapons. After a few years of this process, the IAEA went on to file a report. This was back in the late 2000s which seemed to suggest that Ukraine had taken down a large part of the majority of its nuclear arsenal. But there were still some unanswered questions. I’ll get to that later in this article. But first, let’s focus on this:

Soon after its independence, Ukraine was facing of major economic crisis. There was also international isolation. Some argued that Ukraine was forced to sign in 1994’s “The Budapest Memorandum”. As per this memorandum, Ukraine would transfer all its nuclear warheads to Russia. And in Russia, these nuclear warheads would be dismantled in exchange. What did Ukraine get? It got security assurances both from Russia as well as from Western countries. The Budapest Memorandum was signed in 1994 between Russia, Ukraine, Britain, and the United States.

What this memorandum promised was that none of these four countries would ever use force or threats against Ukraine and that these four countries would respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and its borders. This agreement also stated that if any of these countries would aggressively go to war with Ukraine, then all the signatories to this Budapest Memorandum, would immediately rush to the United Nations Security Council, which will then help Ukraine.

The irony is this: Twenty years after the Budapest Memorandum was signed, Russia implemented military operations in Ukraine in 2014 and got Crimea back. It also set up a huge number of insurgent groups, particularly in the Eastern region of Donbas, which the Russians had lived in for centuries. In 2014, Russia dismissed the Budapest Memorandum as null and void. In Ukraine, there were a lot of people asking some very tough questions, very serious questions. Many were saying it’s time to get nuclear weapons back in the country for “atomic re-armament” and that the country should once again get nuclear weapons.

In March 2014, for example, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko argued that Ukraine now had both a model and a legal right to get its nucleus status back again.

Later that year there was a poll conducted In Ukraine which showed almost 50% of the population was in favor of Ukraine getting its nuclear arms back. Last year, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk said that Kiev might actually look to nuclear arms if it cannot become a full member of NATO, because ultimately it needs some kind of protection, some kind of deterrent against these repeated skirmishes and attacks and of course, the threat of war. The prevalent feeling after 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, was that what if Ukraine had nuclear weapons? Would Russia have so easily implemented its military operation had it known that Ukraine had nuclear weapons? The answer: Maybe not!

Throughout the many political, economic, and military debates that have happened since Russia’s military operations in Ukraine began, many folks in Ukraine and in the west have been saying that Russia wanted to invade Ukraine for these nuclear reserves as well as the military resources that were held within the former secret military bases that the Soviet Union had in Ukraine.

About a third of Ukraine’s nuclear assets, i.e. a third of the Soviet Union’s nuclear assets, went to Ukraine at the time that the Soviet Union collapsed. So there is a possibility of Russia and the old KGB apparatus knowing that there are still hidden nuclear weapons within Ukraine, some of which have not been accounted for. Since 2015, Ukraine’s uranium reserves – and this has been confirmed by the IAEA as well as other agencies – Ukraine’s uranium reserves have been going down significantly.

In 2015, it was about 200,000 tons of enriched uranium that has come down to about 80,000 tons according to a review done by the IAEA. A substantial amount of these results could have been traded with other countries. Keep in mind, nuclear material is also used for electricity generation. There would be a whole host of countries who have could have bought this enriched uranium from Ukraine. The IAEA simply cannot account for all of the hundred thousand (120,000) missing tons of enriched uranium, a lot of which Ukraine says it has sold to other countries.

Where is this unaccounted secret uranium gone? Could Iran be one of them? Has it gone into making a weapons program? Or has it gone into feeding the old warheads that Ukraine had inherited from Russia at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse?

One other crucial important factor is that the only working nuclear agreement between Russia and the United States – which both countries have signed on and it’s still working on the ground – is called the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The first START was signed in the mid 90s. It was basically an agreement to cap the number of nuclear warheads both for Washington as well as for Moscow.

The second START (or the new version of START that is currently on) was signed in 2010 when Obama was president of the United States and Dmitry Medvedev was the president of the Russian Federation. At that time, Obama had famously called it, “The Russian Reset”. This second version of START was completely despised by President Putin who basically felt that the whole reset was Russia getting served a raw deal, which is why after a few years – he was prime minister at that time – he came back in what was considered another a coup by Vladimir Putin. He came back as president once again by amending the Russian Constitution.

The START agreement, the one that’s been running since the mid 90s all the way through to February 2026 basically caps the number of nuclear warheads, both for America, and for Russia, at about 6,000. So, both of the countries cannot develop any more nuclear warheads beyond the current capped limit of 6,000. By trying to put pressure on Ukraine, Russia is also conveying a message to America [and the collective west] that it’s now laying down the ground rules for a new START 2 agreement. Like I said, The current START agreement expires in February of 2026, so they need a new START 2 agreement to maintain the level of nuclear warheads both in Russia and the United States to start being operational from February 2026 onward.

The Ukraine conflict is Russia’s way of suggesting to Washington and to its allies that there are going to be new ground rules as far as nuclear weapons are concerned and America and its allies have to follow those ground rules. As such, Russia has been using the card of its military operation in Ukraine to get America to the drawing board for a START 2 on terms that are favorable to Russia.