The United States recently announced its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, citing ongoing Russian violations. This raised alarm among arms control experts and many European states, which see the INF as a crucial element of European security.
But there’s another problem — more than a bilateral arrangement, the treaty also curtailed missile programs in former Soviet states, including Ukraine. The death of the INF could unshackle Ukraine’s missile program, too. Here’s what you need to know.
Who inherited Soviet missile capabilities — and constraints?
The U.S.S.R. and the United States signed the INF in 1987 to prohibit ground-launched missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles (500 and 5,000 kilometers). By 1990, the two countries had verifiably destroyed some 2,700 intermediate-range missiles. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, Soviet obligations under the INF were multilateralized among all its recognized successors.
Ukraine emerged with ample nuclear and missile capabilities. It inherited the world’s third-largest arsenal of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and strategic bombers — as well as a formidable military-industrial complex. This included the Yuzhnoye missile design bureau and plant in Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro), one of three premier suppliers of ICBMs for the Soviet arsenal. However, as a legal successor state of the U.S.S.R., Ukraine remained constrained by the INF’s limitations.
Ukraine — along with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia — also became a legal successor to START, a treaty that aimed to slash superpower strategic nuclear arsenals by 40 percent. The Soviet collapse left START unratified, with START-accountable nuclear arms strewn across the territories of the four states. The non-Russian successors, however, undertook the obligation to denuclearize completely and join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Ukraine sought security guarantees
Sensing a growing threat from Russia, Ukraine delayed the decision on START and the NPT, demanding robust security guarantees from the nuclear states, namely the United States and Russia, in return for giving up its inherited weapons systems. Ukraine’s powerful missile industry, on the brink of collapse after the termination of procurement orders from Moscow, supported this delay.
One option to remain in the missile business would have been to retain the 46 SS-24 ICBMs produced in Dnipro and deployed in Ukraine, fitting them with conventional warheads (to remain on the right side of the NPT). My research suggests that Ukraine seriously considered but eventually scrapped this plan and destroyed all ICBMs, in part because the range of these ICBMs was too long to credibly deter Russia. The distance between Kiev and Moscow, as the crow — or missile — flies, is only about 435 miles.
Ukraine ultimately joined the NPT and disarmed completely in exchange for security assurances pledged by the United States, Britain and Russia in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.
Here’s the issue today — 20 years later, Russia became Ukraine’s most serious existential threat. In 2014, Ukraine’s ramshackle military proved unprepared to counter Russian aggression.
Even with substantial improvements, Ukraine’s conventional forces will remain inferior, unable to meet Russia in a full-scale open battle. While the West has extended political and military assistance, Ukraine’s prospects of NATO membership remain dim. In a hot war with Russia, Ukraine can count only on its own capabilities.
Do ballistic missiles — nonnuclear ones — offer a deterrent?
Ukraine could gain some deterrent capability from a ballistic missile with a range of 300 to 740 miles (500 to 1,200 kilometers), carrying a high-precision warhead with a high-explosive conventional payload and targeted at Russian military command centers, bases or critical infrastructure nodes. Of course, Ukraine’s nonnuclear missiles would be no match for Russia’s nuclear might, or its air and missile defenses.
But with few options, Russia’s reported deployment of INF-range missiles and the need to defend its homeland, Ukraine would have high resolve, making its deterrent threat credible. The risk of even a single missile successfully reaching a Russian target from Ukraine, the country Russian propaganda has been dismissing as a failure, might force the Russian leadership to think twice before escalating the conflict.
The high stakes of nuclear use, conversely, would diminish the credibility of Russia’s deterrent threat to counter Ukraine’s conventional attack with a nuclear response. A nuclear detonation on Ukrainian soil would have a serious impact on Russia’s population, as well as those of neighboring NATO countries.
The Yuzhnoye facility, which survives by engaging in international space projects, would probably be more than willing to resume its missile-related work. Dnipro, Ukraine’s missile capital, has served as the logistical hub for the war in Donbas, organizing supplies, channeling manpower and pulling Russian-issue shrapnel from the wounded. Its citizens, including missile engineers, harbor no illusions regarding the Kremlin’s designs on their country.
With Russia and the United States both walking away from the INF, Ukraine has the means, motive and now no international legal constraints to embark on a missile program, an option it is considering, according to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.
Would this be destabilizing, or would Ukrainian missiles offer peace through strength?
NATO heavyweights such as Germany, opposed to a redeployment of INF-range missiles in Europe, would consider a Ukrainian missile program destabilizing. Ukraine would, however, probably garner the support of Poland and the Baltic states — which are eager to bolster their own defenses against Russia.
The United States under the Trump administration might remain agnostic. And while Washington could pressure Ukraine not to embark on a missile program as a matter of policy, justifying such demands would be difficult given the U.S. role in initiating withdrawal from the INF. Ukrainian missiles might thus put stress on NATO cohesion.
Russia would probably mock a revitalized Ukrainian missile program — in public. In private, it would be likely to take active measures to undermine such a program, fearing that Ukraine would become a necessary party to future regional arms talks.
The specter of a Ukrainian missile program might induce Russia to come to the negotiating table with the United States before Ukraine could be included as an equal party. Russia might also agree to a moratorium on deploying INF-range missiles to Kaliningrad or even on its European territory. Ukrainian missiles, then, might become a useful leverage for the United States against Russia.
The INF started out as a treaty between Moscow and Washington. But how far the reverberations of the INF’s collapse will be felt remains to be seen.
Mariana Budjeryn is a research fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard. She is working on a book about the nuclear disarmament of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine after the Soviet collapse.