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Ukraine Special WeaponsAfter the disintegration of the USSR, Ukraine found itself in possession of the world's third largest nuclear arsenal. There were 176 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers with some 1,240 warheads on Ukrainian territory. This force consisted of 130 SS-19s, each capable of delivering six nuclear weapons, and 46 SS-24s, each armed with ten nuclear weapons. An additional 14 SS-24 missiles were present in Ukraine, but not operationally deployed with warheads. Several dozen bombers with strategic nuclear capabilities were armed with some 600 air-launched missiles, along with gravity bombs. In addition, as many as 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons rounded out an arsenal totaling approximately 5,000 strategic and tactical weapons. Today, Ukraine’s remaining nuclear activities are entirely civilian in nature, and Ukraine is a member of all major nonproliferation treaties and regimes.
From the first days of its independent development, Ukraine affirmed three basic principles -- not to accept, manufacture, or acquire nuclear weapons. The West remained concerned with the nuclear aspects of Ukraine's problems with weapons proliferation. Western sensitivity over nuclear issues convinced Ukraine's leaders that they could influence the West by using the nuclear lever.
The Declaration of State Sovereignty adopted by the Parliament of the Ukrainian SSR on July 16, 1990 defined the building of the army as a major task and a natural right of the future independent Ukrainian state. By announcing the right to maintain its own army, Ukraine took a significant step toward independence from the USSR. The military coup in Moscow in August 1991, combined with fears that Soviet troops in Ukrainian territory would act aggressively against the Ukrainian state, led the official leadership in Kiev to subordinate these troops to the control of Ukrainian authorities.
Ukraine also announced as its own the Soviet military property on the soil of the newly independent state. Ukraine initially announced its intention to obtain operational control over the strategic nuclear weapons deployed in its territory. Responding to these intentions, Russian military officials responded that attempts to interfere with, or to damage the command and control systems of, Russian strategic troops located abroad would constitute a direct military threat to the Russian Federation.
Originally Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk was "not worried" if nuclear weapons were sent to Russia for decommissioning. Gradually, however, his worries developed sufficiently to lead to him to reverse his position and on March 12, 1992 to suspend temporarily the transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to Russia. However, in conformity with the July 16, 1990 Declaration of State Sovereignty and other agreements signed at the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), by May 1992 Ukraine voluntarily removed all tactical nuclear weapons (approximately 3,000) inherited from the former Soviet Union.
The trilateral agreement signed in Moscow on January 14, 1994 by the United States, Russia, and Ukraine was seen as a significant Western success in disarming Ukraine of nuclear weapons. Under the agreement, the Russian Federation sent 100 tons of fuel to Ukraine for its nuclear power plants. The United States agreed to pay $60 million to the Russian Federation in support of that process. For its part, Ukraine agreed to transfer 200 nuclear warheads over a 10-month period. Ukraine joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state in 1994. Ukraine signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) on February 23, 2001. With Ukraine’s signing of the CTBT, Eastern Europe became the first of the Treaty’s six geographical regions to fully meet the Treaty’s conditions to into effect.
As of May 1994, 120 SS-19 Stiletto and 60 SS-24 Scalpel ICBMs had been shipped out of Ukraine for reprocessing in Russia.
Ukraine announced in June 1996 that all warheads had been removed from the country. A problem arose in the removal of SS-19s, which use large amounts of a toxic substance known as heptyl. The United States sent storage tanks to hold 2,200 metric tons of the substance. After the SS-19 missiles were removed from combat duty, 19 were re-used in Russia.
In May 1997 Ukraine agreed to destroy its SS-24 missiles, in addition to SS-19 missiles, silos and launch sites, utilizing $47 million provided through the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Withdrawal from combat duty of the SS-24 (RS-22) missiles started on July 1, 1998. Complete liquidation of ICBMs in Ukraine is planned to be completed by January 4, 2001. In September 1998 a US Department of Defense delegation, headed by Assistant Secretary of Defense Edward Warner, took part in the decommissioning of a SS-24 silo launcher in Pervomaisk, the Nikolayev region, Ukraine. The Pervomaisk base comprises 46 silos with SS-24 solid-fuel ICBMs. Decommissioning of a single silo launcher was estimated to cost about US $1 million, and the US Government allocated a total of US $399.2 million. The Bechtel Corporation was the main contractor in the decommissioning program of the Ukrainian silo launchers.
Ukraine inherited about 30 percent of the Soviet military industry, which included between 50 and 60 percent of all Ukrainian enterprises, employing 40 percent of its working population. Ukraine was, and remains, the leader in missile-related technology, especially guidance systems, navigation electronics for combat vessels and submarines, and radar for military jets. Strong competition in the world's weapons market forced Ukraine to look into exporting arms to politically unstable or even aggressive regimes. Ukraine established its own network for arms export and, in so doing, did not fully recognize international rules and bans. The Ukrainian military traded conventional arms on the black market and signed contracts with commercial firms. The first contracts on weapons deliveries to Iran, signed in the middle of 1992, and caused negative reaction in the West (particularly in the US).
On May 13, 1994, the United States and Ukraine signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Transfer of Missile Equipment and Technology. This agreement committed Ukraine to adhere to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) by controlling exports of missile-related equipment and technology according to the MTCR Guidelines. Ukraine has also signed the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, which was established in 2002.
The 11 strategic bombers and 600 air-launched missiles exchanged by Ukraine to Russia in payment for the gas debt were transferred in mid-February 2000 (all of which had their nuclear weapons removed by 1996). Two Tu-160 bombers flew from Priluki in the Ukrainian Chernigov region for the Russian air base in Engels. The missiles were sent to Russia by railroad. Three Tu-95MS bombers and six Tu-160 airplanes had already arrived at Engels since October 1999 in fulfillment of the intergovernmental agreements. Before being moved to Russia, 19 Tu-160 airplanes were stationed at the Priluki airfield and 21 Tu-95MS were located in Uzin.
Sources and Resources
- The Department of Defense's Cooperative Threat Reduction Program - Biological Threat Reduction Program Activities in Ukraine, DoD Fact Sheet, March 11, 2022
- Ukraine Gave Up a Giant Nuclear Arsenal 30 Years Ago. Today There Are Regrets. by William J. Broad, New York Times, February 5, 2022
- Could Ukraine Have Retained Soviet Nuclear Weapons? by Cheryl Rofer, February 6, 2022
- Nuclear Weapons and Ukraine, National Security Archive, December 5, 2019
- Nonproliferation and Threat Reduction Assistance: U.S. Programs in the Former Soviet Union, Congressional Research Service, 2012
- The Evolution of Cooperative Threat Reduction: Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service, 2015
- Armed Forces of Ukraine personnel, organization and equipment as of 1992
- Ukraine Ratifies the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization press release, 2001, last accessed May 31, 2012
- With Courage and Persistence, Eliminating and Securing Weapons of Mass Destruction with the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Programs, Joseph P. Harahan, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, 2014