Hidden Costs of Ukraine Conflict, Part 3: Nuclear Proliferation

In Part 1 and 2, I went through the environmental costs that can occur with military conflicts. There are the obvious costs from warfare itself, but there are also hidden costs to things like recovery from war and cyberattacks. In this last part, I want to cover an environmental threat that’s somewhat unique to the Ukraine conflict that we must consider: nuclear proliferation.

Some Background On Nuclear Proliferation & Disarmament In Ukraine

To really understand the risks here, we have to go back to 1991. Before that, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was the strongest communist government on the planet, and frequently worked to support communist uprisings and communist governments. When the US and other democratic capitalist (or capitalist-leaning and very undemocratic in some cases) allies moved to contain the spread of communism after World War II, the Cold War was born.

While containment has had mixed historical results, it worked fairly well against the Soviets, but wasn’t perfect. The US and allies did suffer setbacks and problems with the approach. One big disadvantage to the long Cold War was that both sides stockpiled massive numbers of nuclear weapons, but fortunately never used them in anger.

The Soviet Union had problems, though. With a stagnating economy, a disastrous war in Afghanistan, and the Chernobyl disaster, Soviet leadership eventually became weak and lost public support. The shoot-down of a civilian airliner flying from Alaska to Korea also weakened them both at home and abroad.

Ronald Reagan seized on these weaknesses and pitted the US government against the Soviets in an expensive space arms race 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 cut back on the force), and the Soviet system collapsed under its own weight. The Soviet republics that had formerly been under Moscow’s control became independent countries, and they took a lot of Soviet military installations and equipment with them.

The Problem of “Loose Nukes”

Ukraine walked away with a lot 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 thought of terrorists, rogue states, and other ne’er-do-wells getting nuclear devices was frightening. The spy thriller genre of books and movies often featured “suitcase nukes” that the supposedly Soviet military secretive had, and there was a lot of fear that these would be smuggled into the United States and used against cities.

To collect and dispose of Ukrainian nuclear weapons, western powers had to convince Ukrainian officials that they wouldn’t later fall prey to Russia. After the mass death of the Holodomor and subsequent suffering under the Soviet Union, the fear of future abuses wasn’t unreasonable. So the United States brokered a deal where the Russians agreed to respect Ukrainian borders, and the US agreed to protect it if they let the world dispose of its nuclear weapons.

There were still fears that some of the weapons had been unaccounted for (especially “suitcase nukes” that probably never existed), but the problem was largely solved.

Fast forward to 2014

This arrangement went fairly well for contracts. President Obama, with good intentions of avoiding any war with Russia, signaled that he didn’t want to defend the country, and refused to provide weapons (but, to be fair, he did approve the provision of non-lethal military gear). Putin, seeing that Ukraine might be open for invasion, did what many predicted he would do: invade. The 2014 annexation of Crimea took a chunk of the country.

CleanTechnica isn’t about global geopolitics, so to be fair, I’ll present both sides of this issue. People in western countries see this and other acts against Ukrainian sovereignty as territorial aggression, while Russia sees itself as for all Russian-speaking people, including those beyond its borders. Plus, Russia wants to find a more secure position in Europe against NATO forces, and the land in Ukraine would go a long way toward that goal. Which position is right? That’s for the reader to decide.

If Ukraine Falls, Nuclear Proliferation Could Take Off

Regardless of who’s right, there’s a major problem that’s going to pop up if Russia takes more of Ukraine or takes over the whole thing. Ukraine gave up its right to nuclear weapons because bigger countries promised it protection, and then they didn’t end up fulfilling that promise. The argument won’t help Ukraine get itself back out of the Russian Federation (or help it remove a puppet government if that’s the outcome), but it would definitely raise concerns in other countries that western powers have promised aid to.

Taiwan, for example, once had a nuclear program. The United States government didn’t want to go to war to defend that program, nor did it want to see a cross-strait nuclear exchange, so it pressured Taiwan to give up on developing nuclear weapons. Japan doesn’t possess nuclear weapons, but is widely known to be able to produce one within a year if they chose to. South Koreans have debated developing their own nuclear weapons to counter North Korea’s nukes. It’s unknown how many other countries could technically create a nuclear program if they felt the need (nuclear latency).

If countries that presently depend on the United States and allies for security suddenly thought Team America: World Police isn’t going to show up, they’re going to want their own assurances of their continued existence.

Environmental Effects If Expanded Nuclear Proliferation Were To Occur

Nuclear latent states (ones that could quickly develop them) generally are already using nuclear materials for peaceful purposes. Nuclear power is the big one, but there are also other uses, like medicine. So, a nuclear program probably wouldn’t result in an increase in mining and enrichment impacts. The environmental problems would mostly come from additional enrichment steps needed to go from power-grade uranium to weapons-grade materials (assuming that’s needed).

The larger concern is that the risk of nuclear war would go up. The world already has enough to worry about with 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 draw the United States into a nuclear war) on top of that is nearly unimaginable in terms of both human and environmental destruction.

Featured image: An image of the world’s first nuclear test, Trinity, in New Mexico, the beginning of nuclear proliferation. Public Domain, US Government image.


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