Amid rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the latter's ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk warned that his country may turn to developing nuclear weapons if denied membership of the NATO alliance. “Either we are part of an alliance like NATO, and help to make Europe stronger, or we have only one option: to arm ourselves, possibly, to consider nuclear status once again. How else can we guarantee our protection?,” he said when speaking to Germany’s DeutschlandFunk public broadcaster on April 15th. Melnyk stressed that the Western Bloc needed to provide both moral support and modern weapons systems, as well as other forms of military assistance, to bolster the country against Russia. Russia and Ukraine are two of the largest successor states of the Soviet Union, and have been at odds since a U.S.-backed coup installed a new government in Kiev in 2014 - after which Russia recaptured the Crimean Peninsula which was historically Russian but had been given to Ukraine by Moscow in the 1950s. Ukraine has since repeatedly sought to join the NATO alliance to further cement its ties to the West.
Other than Russia, Ukraine inherited the largest military arsenal from the Soviet Union after its collapse including over 1000 nuclear warheads and a very large part of the Soviet defence industrial base. Alongside the world’s largest aircraft the Antonov An-225, its air force inherited 176 ICBMs (130 SS-19 and 46 SS-24), 43 strategic bombers (23 Tu-95 and 20 Tu-160), 241 tactical bombers (90 Tu-16, 70 Tu-22, 81 Tu-22M), 20 ll-78 aircraft for aerial refuelling, 245 Su-24 strike fighters, 80 modernised MiG-25 heavyweight interceptors and 260 MiG-29 and Su-27 fourth generation fighters - among numerous other assets. The country renounced its nuclear arsenal under international pressure in the 1990s, alongside Belarus and Kazakhstan which had also inherited nuclear arms, and decommissioned the overwhelming majority of its weapons systems with its military fielding only a very small fraction of the firepower it had in the past. The poor state of the Ukrainian economy was a major reason for this, with sustaining a large military being unaffordable.
The viability of a Ukrainian nuclear weapons program remains highly questionable without external support, with the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile industries having lost many important scientists to more attractive employers abroad and the state of its infrastructure and economy making such a program difficult to pursue. With almost all aircraft well suited to conducting nuclear strikes now retired, the nuclear program would likely need to be paired with a costly ballistic missile program - one sophisticated enough to viably challenge Russian anti missile defences. The possibility that a nuclear program would invite preventative Russian attacks, with Ukraine’s ability to defend its air space being extremely limited, means such a course of action is unlikely to be pursued. The threat to take such radical action, however, could be seen as an effective means of placing further pressure on NATO’s existing member states to accept the country into its ranks. With the U.S. increasingly shifting its focus towards East Asia and conflict with China and North Korea, however, whether it will be willing to escalate tensions with Russia by allowing Ukraine’s accession to NATO remains highly questionable.