Hidden costs of the conflict in Ukraine, part 3: nuclear proliferation
In Parts 1 and 2, I reviewed the environmental costs that can arise during military conflicts. There are the obvious costs of war itself, but there are also hidden costs for things like post-war recovery and cyberattacks. In this last part, I want to cover an environmental threat that is somewhat unique to the Ukrainian conflict and that we must take into account: nuclear proliferation.
Some information on nuclear proliferation and disarmament in Ukraine
To really understand the risks here, you have to go back to 1991. Before that, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was the most powerful communist government on the planet and frequently worked to support communist uprisings and communist governments around the world. When the United States and other democratic capitalist (or capitalist-leaning and very undemocratic in some cases) allies decided to contain the spread of communism after World War II, the Cold War was born.
Although containment had mixed historical results, it worked quite well against the Soviets, but was not perfect. The United States and its allies suffered setbacks and problems with the approach. A big downside of the long Cold War was that both sides had stockpiled huge numbers of nuclear weapons, but thankfully never used them in anger.
The Soviet Union, however, had problems. With a stagnant economy, a disastrous war in Afghanistan, and the Chernobyl disaster, Soviet leadership eventually grew weak and lost public support. The downing of a civilian airliner flying from Alaska to Korea has also weakened them, both at home and abroad.
Ronald Reagan seized on these weaknesses and pitted the US government against the Soviets in a costly space arms race that he knew they could never win, doing crazy things like the Star Wars program. Attempts at reform failed (the Soviet Union was held together by force, and they reduced force), and the Soviet system collapsed under its own weight. The Soviet republics that were previously under the control of Moscow became independent countries and took with them many Soviet military facilities and equipment.
The problem of “bulk nuclear weapons”
Ukraine came away with plenty of nuclear weapons, but didn’t have the money to secure and maintain them. Western powers feared that Ukraine’s weapons would fall into the wrong hands. The idea of terrorists, rogue states and other scoundrels getting nuclear devices was frightening. The spy thriller genre of books and movies often featured “nuclear suitcases” that the secret Soviet army was supposed to have, and there was much fear that these would be smuggled into the United States and used against towns.
To collect and dispose of Ukrainian nuclear weapons, Western powers had to convince Ukrainian officials that they would not later fall prey to Russia. After the mass death of the Holodomor and the ensuing suffering under the Soviet Union, the fear of future abuse was not unreasonable. So the United States brokered a deal in which the Russians agreed to respect Ukraine’s borders and the United States agreed to protect them if it let the world get rid of its nuclear weapons.
It was still feared that some of the weapons were missing (especially “suitcase nukes” which probably never existed), but the problem has been largely resolved.
Fast forward to 2014
This arrangement worked quite well for decades. President Obama, with good intentions of avoiding war with Russia, signaled that he did not want to defend the country and refused to supply weapons (but, to be fair, he approved the supply of equipment non-lethal military). Putin, seeing that Ukraine might be open to invasion, did what many predicted he would do: invade. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 took away part of the country.
Clean Technica is not about global geopolitics, so to be fair, I will present both sides of this question. Residents of Western countries view this and other acts against Ukrainian sovereignty as territorial aggression, while Russia sees itself as responsible for all Russian-speakers, including those beyond its borders. Moreover, Russia wants to find a safer position in Europe against NATO forces, and land in Ukraine would go a long way toward that goal. Which position is the right one? That’s up to the reader to decide.
If Ukraine falls, nuclear proliferation could take off
No matter who is right, there is a major problem that will arise if Russia takes over Ukraine or takes over everything. Ukraine gave up its right to nuclear weapons because bigger countries promised it protection, and they ultimately broke that promise. The argument won’t help Ukraine withdraw from the Russian Federation (or help it overthrow a puppet government if it does), but it would certainly raise concerns in other countries to which Western powers promised help.
Taiwan, for example, once had a nuclear program. The United States government did not want to go to war to defend this program, nor to see a nuclear exchange across the strait, so it pressured Taiwan to give up developing nuclear weapons. Japan does not have nuclear weapons, but widely known to be able to produce one in a year if they chose to. South Koreans discussed the development of their own nuclear weapons to counter North Korea’s nuclear weapons. It’s unclear how many other countries could technically create a nuclear program if they felt the need (nuclear latency).
If countries that currently depend on the United States and its allies for their security suddenly think Team America: World Police won’t show up, they’ll want to have their own assurances of their continued existence.
Environmental effects if widespread nuclear proliferation were to occur
Latent nuclear states (those that could rapidly develop them) usually already use nuclear material for peaceful purposes. Nuclear energy is the most important, but there are also other uses, such as medicine. Thus, a nuclear program would likely not result in increased impacts from mining and enrichment. The environmental issues would primarily stem from the additional enrichment steps required to go from energy-grade uranium to weapons-grade materials (assuming this is necessary).
The biggest concern is that the risk of nuclear war would increase. The world has enough to worry about already with the unfinished civil wars in Asia. Major wars between North Korea and South Korea, or between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) would already be disastrous. Adding the risk of a nuclear exchange (either of which could drag the United States into nuclear war) is almost unimaginable in terms of human and environmental destruction.
Featured Image: An image of the world’s first nuclear test, Trinity, New Mexico, the start of nuclear proliferation. Public domain, US government image.
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