Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Could Ukraine have kept its nuclear weapons?

Anatolii MATVIEIEV: “We did the right thing in the early 1990s, but we needed to bargain harder and obtain better terms and security guarantees”
5 September, 2017 - 11:28
Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

Recently, US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker stated in an interview with the Priamyi TV channel that despite Russia’s aggression in the Donbas, Ukrainian government’s 1994 decision to relinquish its nuclear arsenal was the “right thing to do” for the Ukrainian authorities. “I do not think that nuclear weapons were something positive for Ukraine,” he said, adding that he would not want Ukraine to revive its nuclear program. This issue resurfaces from time to time in Ukraine, especially after the start of Russian aggression against this country. In particular, some people say that we did not need to give up nuclear weapons, or that we can reacquire them today if we so desire. We dealt with this issue in our conversation with Anatolii Matvieiev, who is a member of the All-Ukrainian Association “Union of Veterans of the Strategic Missile Troops of Ukraine,” and former head of the military counterintelligence of the Security Service of Ukraine (1994-99).


Do you agree that it was the “right thing to do”?

“It was the right decision for Ukraine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine possessed the world’s third largest nuclear potential in its territory, in particular, the 43rd Missile Army of the USSR. But those who make fierce speeches that we could keep nuclear weapons, they must understand the following.

“Firstly, command and control facilities, i.e., the means of centralized command and control over the nuclear missile arsenal, were located outside Ukraine. This meant that we could not launch these missiles independently as regards command and control.

“Secondly, those nuclear munitions that were in service required periodic maintenance. Without Russia, we could not do this, except for some specific types of maintenance work.

“Thirdly, even if we tried to maintain these weapons, it would be very costly for us. It was, in fact, unrealistic given the then economic and financial situation of Ukraine.

“Fourthly, the flight trajectories and ranges of our missiles were more than 10,000 km, that is, they targeted the US. Worsening our international relationship with the US and Britain, with whom we needed to be friends, would have been wrong.

“By the way, when US Secretary of Defense William Perry visited one of the missile divisions and descended into a silo which was as deep as a fourteen-story building, when he looked at how the combat team was working, in particular when he was told that a regiment (armed with 10 missiles) might launch in a few minutes and they would reach the States as soon as in 20 minutes, he said that they would support us in everything that was needed to decommission and destroy these weapons.

“On the whole, we received 350 million dollars in aid, but this was obviously not enough, because the process of disarmament is very complicated and expensive: decommissioning, transportation, destroying missiles, destroying silo equipment, and also the social aspect (some veterans of the Strategic Missile Troops remained in Ukraine and became jobless, while others went to serve out their contracts in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan). That is, we miscalculated our needs. Speaking of the technology of destroying them, there were alternatives, for example, we could repurpose silos for storage of the radioactive waste instead of blowing them up, etc. Thus, the issue was not thoroughly worked out, and the pace of destruction was not always justified.

“In general, nuclear disarmament had to be approached more rationally and carefully. Yes, both the West and Russia put pressure on us, but we did not need to decommission these weapons in the near term, so we could negotiate and bargain, that is, try and obtain better security guarantees in exchange for disarmament. Also, we could demand more financial assistance to flow into our economy. Plus, we could bargain for some other benefits as well. For example, we could ask for examples of high-precision non-nuclear weapons, missiles that did not fall under international treaties, in particular missiles with a range of up to 500 km. We need such missiles.”

As recently as the spring of this year, Ukraine carried out a successful test of a domestically-produced tactical missile. How do you rate our capabilities?

“Without violating international agreements, we have to produce what we need and can make. For example, as I said, missiles with a range of up to 500 km. We have production facilities as well as specialists, it all depends on funding and organizing the process. Yes, there are some problems, because some components of missile propellant are supplied from Russia, but we need to look for a way out. And the fact that a successful test has been carried out shows that we are moving forward.”


What could be the consequences of Ukraine deciding against nuclear disarmament from the international law, geostrategic, military-political, scientific-technical, economic, and environmental perspectives?

“The question is very broad, but let us address the environmental aspect for starters. As of 1991, we had 130 liquid-propellant SS-19 missiles (with six warheads each) and 46 solid-propellant SS-24 missiles (with ten warheads each) in the silos of the 43rd Missile Army. Components of nuclear missile fuel should be kept under certain temperature and humidity conditions. If the nuclear warhead is not properly maintained, if the components of nuclear missile fuel are not kept under certain conditions, then the radiation level increases, that is, the environmental situation worsens. As for solid-propellant missiles, over time, their propellant’s storage life expires, and, accordingly, it becomes necessary to dispose of this propellant. That is, sooner or later we would reach a limit where they would become unfit for combat duty and then they would have to be disposed of.”

Plus, many forget that in the case of possessing nuclear weapons, we automatically become a target for other nuclear powers.

“Absolutely. Countries that possess nuclear-armed missiles understand that they are in the sights of their opponents. There is no doubt that missiles in US service targeted our administrative and other strategic facilities.”

Therefore, we needed to have an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system of our own or join somebody else’s system?

“We did have ABM facilities on our soil, and even during independence, some of them continued to be used in the ABM system of Russia (Mukachevo, Mykolaiv, Sevastopol). However, the deployment of an ABM system is the deployment of the missiles that would intercept attacking missiles that are likely to hit our territory. An ABM system would be relevant provided that we have strategic missile divisions, but otherwise there is no need for this.”


As you know, the Budapest Memorandum was signed in 1994, but it did not work as intended. Having committed repeated provocations, Russia eventually attacked Ukraine anyway. What is the issue with it?

“We see that the guarantees given to us by the signatory nations in exchange for relinquishing nuclear weapons could be more substantial and clear. Russia did commit repeated provocations, one only needs to recall the beginning of the 1990s and the situation around Crimea, and then the Tuzla crisis in 2003, while in 2014, the Kremlin brazenly violated the Budapest Memorandum and attacked Ukraine. By the way, before signing the memorandum in 1994, we prepared proposals from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) which outlined the mechanisms of implementation of the Budapest Memorandum, but then-Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Volodymyr Horbulin rejected these proposals.

“Yes, the US and Britain do assist Ukraine today, and for that we should be grateful, but they still could not stop Russian aggression: in essence, the signatory nations proved unable to guarantee Ukraine’s security. And what we see today, I mean trying to solve the problem through the Normandy format where neither the US nor the UK participates, is not a very effective mechanism. Incidentally, our union of strategic missile troops’ veterans asked the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum and members of the ‘nuclear club’ to influence Russia through the implementation of international agreements, starting with the Yalta Conference decisions and ending with the Budapest Memorandum.

“But we see that this is not just a war between Ukraine and Russia, but also a wider geopolitical conflict. Russia provokes the West all over the world. Effectively, there is a confrontation between NATO and Russia. And Ukraine here serves as a pawn to some extent. Of course, the threat of destabilization in the region comes from Russia. Its attacks on Ukraine, and earlier on Georgia, testify to that. In addition, there are constant provocations in the air and at sea committed against NATO countries on the part of the Kremlin. Testing weapons in Syria is also a test of the Alliance’s equivalent response. They systematically study NATO’s behavior.”


Under such conditions it is important to have a strong military. How were the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) being destroyed before, and how have they changed by now?

“For many years, our military was terribly underfunded, so we were not ready to respond to Russian aggression in Crimea. Although even in that state, we could try and defend our positions on the peninsula, but for this to happen we needed competent decisions of the military-political leadership that were not there. While our Western partners may have advised us not to provoke Russia, nobody told us that we should not defend ourselves. Even if there were no orders, soldiers had to act according to the statute.”

Why was it terribly underfunded, then?

“Because the leaders of this country were not true statesmen and did not understand what defense and the Armed Forces were. For example, a ministry meeting was being prepared, whole military elite was gathered, they were waiting for the president. After two to three hours of wait, the minister came forward and said: ‘The president will not come.’ You can assess their attitude to the military even from such an example. Personnel policy is another issue. Over years, almost all professionals had been squeezed out. If, for example, a person has served in the police all their life, they are unqualified to serve as minister of defense.

“Russian aggression, of course, forced the authorities to give much more money to the military. Plus, the UAF have been involved in real fighting which has entered its fourth year. So, we have a completely different military today. Still, there is a lot of work to be done.”


What can you say about the military counterintelligence?

“There were some nuanced issues and difficulties, but overall, the military counterintelligence grew into a proper agency in the 1990s. However, with Leonid Derkach coming to lead the SBU in 1998, it was decided to transfer units of military counterintelligence to regional SBU offices, thus breaking the vertical structure. In his opinion, it was to allow the information to be obtained more efficiently, but as a result, the command’s access to information had decreased instead. If, for example, a military counterintelligence office was located in Lviv, while its ground-level operatives were stationed in 10 regions that were part of the Western Operational Command, then I, the then head of the department, had no problems with obtaining information and transferring it to the command of the military district. But when the units were transferred to regional offices, the information reached the chief of the regional office first, which, in fact, slowed down the process. As the Crimean situation showed later, this ramified structure had become a problem. I would like to remind you that the Crimean SBU office defected to the side of the aggressor en masse during the seizure of the peninsula.”

So, it may well be that the collapse of the SBU began not during Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency, as many today claim, but much earlier?

“Yes, it began earlier, and it was a long and consistent effort.”

How does the military counterintelligence work today?

“They reformatted themselves and reestablished the vertical structure. And, of course, today, the military counterintelligence has reached a qualitatively different level. They do their job well.”

By Ivan KAPSAMUN, The Day