As Russia commenced military operations against Ukraine early on Thursday, media reports said Moscow was using bombers and air-launched cruise missiles to hit major military targets. Russia uses three types of bombers, all designed by the Tupolev bureau—the Tu-95, the Tu-22M and the Tu-160.
The irony is that some of the bombers firing missiles at Ukraine may have been, briefly, part of Kyiv's military.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia was considered the 'designated' successor with respect to the erstwhile Communist nation's nuclear weapons. However, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine were left in custody of nuclear weapons. Of these nations, Ukraine had the largest arsenal. Both Belarus and Kazakhstan transferred their nuclear arsenals to Russia.
According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had approximately 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons—which are meant to hit large military facilities, naval fleets and armoured formations—and 2,000 strategic nuclear weapons, meant to destroy cities.
The strategic weapons were mounted on 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles such as the SS-19 and SS-24. Ukraine also had around 1,000 air-launched cruise missiles that could be fired from a fleet of around 25 Tu-95 MS and 19 Tu-160 bombers, both of which have intercontinental range. It also had at least 20 Tu-22M and 60 older Tu-22 bombers, which were medium-range aircraft.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. It had more Tu-160 bombers than Russia at the time.
However, Ukraine's dire economic situation made it hard to maintain such a large arsenal. Moreover, Ukraine's capability to use most of the nuclear bombs was doubtful as the authority over the centralised firing controls of these weapons remained in Moscow.
To complicate matters, there was concern in the West and the US of the presence of another economically weak state with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
After extensive negotiations, Ukraine signed an agreement called the Budapest Memorandum with Russia, the UK and the US in 1994. Ukraine agreed to dismantle its arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery systems (bombers and missiles), with the West providing financial assistance. The agreement assured Ukraine that Russia, US and UK would refrain from threatening it and respect its “independence and sovereignty and the existing borders”.
Many of the warheads and delivery systems were dismantled, with the nuclear material being reprocessed. Several bombers, including eight Tu-160s, were transferred to Russia, after years of negotiations.
In the mid-1990s, the transfer of the nuclear material and bombers to Russia was seen as a 'barter' mechanism to pay for supply of Russian oil and gas.
The last of Ukraine's bomber aircraft was dismantled in May 2001. At the time, Arms Control Association had reported, “Kiev has destroyed 11 Tu-160 strategic bombers, 27 strategic Tu-95 bombers, and 483 Kh-55 air-launched cruise missiles. Another 11 heavy bombers and 582 strategic cruise missiles were transferred to Russia under a 1999 agreement as payment for natural gas debts.”
By July 1996, Ukraine had transferred to Russia the last of the nuclear warheads on its territory. The US is estimated to have paid Ukraine around half-billion US dollars to dispose off its nuclear arsenal.
Since Russia-Ukraine ties began deteriorating following the invasion of Crimea in 2014, the issue of Ukraine's nuclear weapons has come up for debate occasionally. The Russian takeover of Crimea was considered a blatant violation of the Budapest Memorandum. Interestingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin had said in 2014 that the Budapest Memorandum was invalid as it had been signed with a previous Ukrainian government.
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Alexey Goncharenko, a Ukrainian politician, said on Thursday “Ukraine is the only nation in the human history which gave up the nuclear arsenal, the third biggest in the world in 1994, with guarantees of the US, UK and Russian Federation. Where are these guarantees? Now we are bombed and killed.”
During a speech earlier this week, Putin had claimed “We know that there have already been reports that Ukraine wants to make its own nuclear weapons. This is no empty boast. Ukraine in fact still has Soviet nuclear technology and delivery systems for such weapons.” Last year, Ukraine's ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk hinted his country would reconsider its nuclear weapons status if it was unable to join NATO.
However, the Ukrainian government has repeatedly maintained it would not pursue nuclear weapons. And Thursday's developments mean any change in that policy would be too late.