Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Will Lead More Countries to Go Nuclear, Portnikov Says

December 12, 2014
An Ukrainian officer in front of empty nuclear missile containers at the missiles dismantling site in Dnepropetrovsk, February 1999. Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons in 1994 | EPA/Stringer

Staunton, December 6 – Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the failure of the West so far to repel it has a longer-term consequence that few are prepared to face: The Kremlin leader’s actions will lead ever more countries to seek to build or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons as the only reliable means of self-defense.

In a new commentary, Ukrainian commentator Vitaly Portnikov says that Putin’s aggression against Ukraine opens the way to a dangerous new world in which far more countries will feel compelled to go nuclear as the only reliable means of defending their existence as independent countries.

They will see what happened to Ukraine and will be able to draw no other conclusion unless Putin’s forces are not only expelled from Ukrainian territory but also that his country is punished as an aggressor, given that in the Budapest memorandum, signed 20 years ago, Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons on its territory in exchange for security guarantees.

The responsibility for the emergence of that vastly more dangerous world lies both with Putin, who has violated the provisions of that accord, and with the United States and Great Britain, who have failed to live up to the requirement that they defend Ukraine’s sovereignty as a non-nuclear state.

This pattern, Portnikov says provides the best possible argument for staying nuclear if your country already has such weapons or for seeking to acquire them if your government does not.

“If the territorial integrity of Ukraine is sacrificed,” he continues, “then a decade from now there will be more nuclear states” because “it will become clear that only a nuclear status is a firm guarantee of sovereignty and territorial integrity and that no sanctions of the existing nuclear powers will change anything because no one believes them any longer.”

Such an expansion of the number of nuclear states, one that Putin bears direct responsibility for because of his invasion of Ukraine, and that the West bears indirect responsibility for by its failure to stop him, will be a far more dangerous one, with a far greater likelihood that local and regional conflicts will grow into a worldwide conflagration.

“As a result, “millions of people will die, tens of millions will remain without the basis for life, and the resources of any who survive will have to be spent on the liquidation of the consequences of numerous humanitarian catastrophes,” a price that those wondering about whether and how to aid Ukraine resist Russian aggression should reflect upon.

According to Portnikov, there is “another much less dangerous path forward.” That is to “sacrifice the territorial integrity of Russia,” a country “which has violated its most important international obligations.” By organizing that future, he continues, the international community would be sending a clear message: nuclear states that violate the territorial integrity of non-nuclear states will suffer in a serious way.

Such change is “the only chance to save humanity” from a nuclear disaster in the future, he argues.

“For this, one need not fight Russia.” Sanctions, cutting the price of oil, freezing contacts with Moscow and blocking the activities of its oligarchs – “all these are effective levers,” he says, “for stimulating a cleansing crisis in a country” which exists only as an oil exporter and a violator of international norms.

Just what configuration such a Russia should have – be it a single federal state, a community of regions or independent countries – “will be defined by the citizens of Russia. That is not our affair. Ours is to solve the question about the return to within Ukraine and to within other countries which have suffered from Moscow’s aggression.”

Portnikov says that if this happens, it will be a useful lesson for the entire world, but in the first instance it will transform Russia from “an organized criminal group masquerading as a state into a good neighbor who respects humanistic civilizational values and will seek to resolve with other countries in Europe the tasks of economic development and security.”