The current security crisis in Crimea has, up to this point in time, mostly involved conventional army and navy forces of the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Nuclear weapons, however, have the potential to rear their ugly head. Both the United Kingdom and the United States have particular responsibilities too, as signatories to the 1994 agreement on security assurances for Ukraine, agreed as part of the arrangement for the withdrawal of former Soviet nuclear weapons from the territory.
This is not the first time that nuclear security has been a factor in post-Soviet Ukrainian security. According to Steven Pifer, former US ambassador to Ukraine and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Ukraine had 1,900 nuclear weapons after the USSR dissolved. The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances for Ukraine stipulated that in return for surrendering its nuclear weapons to Russia and accession to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state, Ukraine would receive security guarantees from Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Excerpts from the memorandum state that these three would refrain from violating Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, attacking it with military forces or using economic coercion, and would respect its existing borders and independence. Furthermore, the treaty goes on to affirm that the three major nuclear powers involved will enact a policy of security assurance toward non-nuclear weapons states, meaning that they will not use their nuclear capabilities against Ukraine, and would actively seek UN Security Council action to assist Ukraine if it were to become a victim of a nuclear threat.
The specific rights and responsibilities for the U.S. and UK pertaining to Ukraine’s national security are not clearly-defined, and of course as Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council with a veto, there are limits to the effectiveness of the clause outlined in the Memorandum obliging states to seek UN Chapter VII enforcement action. Nevertheless, former British ambassador to Russia Sir Tony Brenton has declared that, if the Budapest Memorandum is indeed to be regarded as a legally-binding document, it would be ‘an option’ for the UK and the U.S. to go to war with Russia without UN Security Council endorsement.
Russia’s nuclear doctrine has recently been cause for concern, referring to the possibility of using nuclear weapons in smaller, more regionalized geopolitical conflict. According to The Economist’s Edward Lucas in his 2012 book Deception, Russia has conducted exercises for a potential nuclear attack on Poland, and has recently flown nuclear-capable aircraft into British airspace. The Russian foreign ministry has also stated that in light of the diplomatic tensions between Russia and the West, Russia may suspend international inspections of its nuclear arsenal under the provisions of the New START Treaty.
There is uncertainty and speculation as to the presence of nuclear weapons in the Black Sea. There are reports that one Russian cruiser based at Sevastopol, the Moskva, left the Russian naval base to participate in naval exercises at Novorossiysk, was gone from the base long after the exercises ended and could have returned with nuclear weapons on board. Russian media reports suggest the U.S. aircraft carrier the George H.W. Bush is approaching the Black Sea, along with three attack submarines with tactical nuclear warheads. This report is highly unreliable, however, as nuclear-tipped TLAMs and other naval tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from operations by the U.S. Navy some years ago. China has lodged a request with the Turkish government not to allow U.S. ships to enter the Black Sea. Turkey, though a NATO ally, has shown its willingness to constrain U.S. forces in the past when it denied U.S. aircraft the rights to its airspace leading up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and blocked U.S. warships entrance to the Black Sea during the South Ossetia war in August of 2008. Meanwhile the United States has between 60 and 70 tactical nuclear warheads stationed at its air force base at Incirlik, Turkey, right across the Black Sea from Ukraine.
We should be cautious about jumping to the conclusion that a nuclear standoff between NATO and Russia is likely. Nevertheless, this situation involving nuclear actors has been developing fast, and both have the capabilities to project their forces into the Black Sea region. Even without active deployment, the presence of nuclear forces in the mix inevitably throws a shadow over proceedings, forcing actors to include the possibility of dangerous escalation in their calculations. As the situation intensifies, the world will pay attention to the nuclear aspects, underlining the need to ensure the crisis does not spiral out of control.