How Ukraine voluntarily agreed to denuclearization, giving russia weapons for today’s war

How Ukraine voluntarily agreed to denuclearization, giving russia weapons for today's war

"It was high treason". How Ukraine voluntarily agreed to denuclearization, giving russia weapons for today's war. Olena Zvarych investigates for novynarnia.

1996. At the military airfield in Uzyn, Kyiv oblast, journalists are shown the heavy strategic bombers that will soon be handed over to Russia under nuclear disarmament agreements. The pilots are grieving. A young journalist poses on tiptoe under the wing of a Tu-95, pointing her finger at the suspension where a combat missile should be attached. A fellow photographer clicks his Nikon, and the journalist smiles. She doesn't know that 26 years later, on a clear April day, this very plane will probably rise over the Caspian Sea and fire missiles at the center of Kyiv, burying her friend Vira under the rubble of her apartment.

That journalist is me. The photo has not survived.

Today, Ukraine is being attacked by missile carriers that it gave to Russia voluntarily and for free in the late 1990s. The eight Tu-160s and three Tu-95MS were fairly new, so, according to Serhiy Zgurets, director of the Defense Express information and consulting company, Russia is using all of "our" strategic aircraft in this war. The expert notes that the Tu-160s received from Ukraine make up half of the enemy's fleet of bombers of this class - Russia currently has 16 of them.

Why did Ukraine get rid of all its heavy strategic aircraft in the 1990s, even though international obligations required the destruction of only 36%? How did the disarmament take place and why was the compensation ten times too low, and will anyone be held accountable?

Today is a special occasion to think about this. After all, on January 14, 1994, the presidents of the United States, Russia, and Ukraine signed an agreement in Moscow to remove all nuclear weapons from Ukraine.

Is nuclear disarmament a Russian special operation?

After the collapse of the USSR, its "nuclear shield" ended up on the territory of four new countries - Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Thus, in 1991, Ukraine suddenly became the third nuclear power in the world, after the United States and Russia.

"We have what we have," as Leonid Kravchuk would say, under whose presidency the disarmament process began.

And what we had was the following:

 About 4155 nuclear warheads, of which almost 3000 are for tactical nuclear weapons.

For comparison: France has 300, the UK - 215.

176 Separate Launch missile systems - silo-launchers for intercontinental ballistic missiles as part of the 43rd Missile Army.

These include 130 liquid-fueled RS-18 (SS-19 according to NATO classification), six warheads each, and 46 solid-fueled RS-18 (SS-19), 10 warheads each.

More than 100 strategic bombers - 18 Tu-160, 25 Tu-95MS and 60 Tu-22 of various modifications.

However, the "nuclear case" was in Moscow. Whether Ukraine was technically capable of recoding the control system and creating its own "case" was one of the fashionable non-public discourses in the early 1990s. The debate began with assurances that the specialists of Kharkiv's "Khartron", the largest developer of control systems for strategic missiles in the USSR, could handle this task, but invariably ended with a hard-hitting "why?" Neither economically, nor politically was Ukraine ready to take on the role of a new nuclear power. It could not and did not want to.

The United States became the driver of nuclear disarmament. The vector of development of the newly independent states was poorly predicted, even in medium-term forecasts: Washington did not know who would come to power in the post-Soviet countries, so it feared that nuclear materials would fall into the hands of unpredictable regimes.

First of all, the United States wanted to make sure that intercontinental missiles aimed at them would never be launched and that Tu-160s would never cross the Atlantic.

In agreement with Washington, Russia became the coordinator of the disarmament of the former "sister republics."

"The US logic is obvious - they wanted all the nuclear arsenals of the former USSR to be concentrated in "one hand". Russia, as the successor to the Soviet Union, was already a party to START I (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed between the USSR and the United States in 1991 - "H"), fulfilling its part of the obligations, and this inspired a certain amount of trust in the West. In general, Russia was at the center of the White House's Eastern European policy at that time," comments Mykhailo Gonchar, an expert on international security, President of the Center for Global Studies "Strategy XXI". 

In the early 1990s, against the backdrop of the Chornobyl disaster and the historic U.S.-Soviet agreement on the reduction of offensive nuclear weapons, denuclearization was a trend in international politics. Such sentiments were so strong that, according to recently declassified White House materials, in 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin proposed to his American counterpart George H.W. Bush the idea of eliminating all warheads in the Russian Federation and the United States. "Friend Boris" was generally trusted. Dialogue on Ukraine's disarmament took place mostly outside Kyiv, between Washington and Moscow.

"The Kremlin managed to persuade the Americans to accept this algorithm. I would call the whole process of nuclear disarmament a Russian special operation," says Yuriy Kostenko, author of the book "History of Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine," Minister of Environmental Protection and Nuclear Safety in 1992-1998, who headed the Ukrainian delegation in negotiations with Russia in 1992-1994. 

Secret export of tactical nuclear weapons

By mid-1992, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan had dutifully transported their tactical nuclear warheads to Russia. Ukraine did so without specifying the conditions, terms, or amount of compensation.

The transfer of tactical nuclear weapons is the darkest stain in the history of Ukraine's nuclear undress. Between November 1991 and May 1992, railroad cars with warheads and carriers (missiles, bombs, torpedoes) were moving eastward.

Not only did the public not know about it, but even the parliamentary leadership and senior officials did not know about it.

It seems that even President Kravchuk did not have full information.

On May 6, 1992, when the last railroad car left for Russia, Leonid Kravchuk, who was on a visit to the United States, was asked about it by American journalists.

George H.W. Bush, who was present at the press conference, confirmed: "That's right. Yeltsin called this morning and told me."

A decade later, in 2002, a provisional investigative commission of the Verkhovna Rada, headed by Yuriy Kostenko, tried unsuccessfully to find an answer to the question of who made the decision to export tactical weapons and on the basis of what documents. "At the request of a deputy, the commission received a paper signed by the then Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine, which stated that "the decision was made by the 15th Department of the USSR Ministry of Defense in pursuance of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine of 1990," Kostenko recalls.

(It should be recalled here that the Declaration of State Sovereignty was the first document to testify (a year before the collapse of the USSR!) to Ukraine's desire for a non-nuclear and non-aligned status.

The subsequent parliamentary TSC, established in 2019, did not reveal the secret either. However, the commission found that 220 warheads were "lost" somewhere along the way. After all, according to the documents, 2883 were exported from Ukraine, and 2663 arrived in Russia.

Washington is "closing the gestalt"

Even after this bizarre deal, the Ukrainian government did not develop a clear plan to determine the timing and methods of nuclear weapons elimination, assess financial losses, guarantee control in the event of a transfer of weapons to Russia, or develop alternative options.

Of course, even then the most attractive option was considered - to "forge" rocket fuel into "peaceful atom" fuel for nuclear power plants. However, there were no plants for processing highly enriched uranium in Ukraine. Such plants were in Russia, and the shortest line led there. Favorable to the Russians, it also seemed simple and cheap to the Americans.

"I had a project by the American corporation General Atomics on my desk that involved the construction of a plant in Zhovti Vody to reprocess weapons-grade uranium into fuel rods for nuclear power plants," says Kostenko. However, this and other possible options were rejected.

In 1993, the administration of the newly elected US President Bill Clinton was in a hurry to "close the gestalt" before Kravchuk's term ended, as it was rather wary of the "second Leonid" - Kuchma, the likely favorite in the next presidential race in Ukraine and the nominee of the "red directors". The White House put pressure on Bankova Street.

This is how Leonid Kravchuk recalled it in an interview in 2018: "They (Bill Clinton and U.S. Vice President Al Gore - "H") demanded: "If you do not fulfill the task of removing the warheads from Ukraine, not just pressure will begin, but a blockade of Ukraine (...) not only from the United States. Europe supported them in this regard. Sanctions, blockade - it was explicitly stated."

It is worth recalling that at first, Moscow did not want to recognize Ukraine's ownership of the nuclear arsenals and, accordingly, talk about compensation. They claimed that the weapons ended up on your territory by accident, that their owner was the deceased USSR, and that Russia was the successor to the deceased.  The United States approved of this argument and used it rigorously during negotiations with Kravchuk.

So, in November 1993, the Verkhovna Rada ratified accession to START I, and Ukraine began deactivating its long-range missiles.

What Ukraine handed over to Russia under US pressure

In early January 1994, the US president's plane on its way to Moscow stopped in Boryspil, allegedly for refueling. The outcome of the negotiations that took place right there at the airport could be read on the faces of the presidents who came out for a press conference in the cold waiting room: a triumphant Clinton, who was cracking jokes, and a dejected Kravchuk.

Presidents: Clinton, Eltsyn and Kravchuk.

A few days later, on January 14, Clinton, Kravchuk, and Yeltsin would sign a so-called trilateral agreement in the Kremlin, according to which Ukraine would soon give away a significant part of its nuclear weapons to Russia for nothing, including

  • 11 new strategic bombers with minimal flight hours: eight heavy Tu-160s produced in 1989-1991 and three Tu-95MS in 1990-1991. This is comparable to a car that has run 1-1.5 thousand kilometers.
  • 12 additional turbojet and 12 turboprop engines for aircraft, spare parts and equipment, aviation weapons, electronics, etc. - 124 railcars in total.
  • 575 long-range air-launched cruise missiles (X-55), which, according to experts, were superior to the US Tomahawk precision subsonic cruise missile. In 2019, the Verkhovna Rada's PIC suggested that the design documentation for the missiles, which were once produced in Ukraine, was transferred along with the Kh-55.

The "daughters" of the X-55 are Russian X-555s, which the enemy is also firing at Ukraine today.

"The Russians tried to modernize the missile manufactured at Motor Sich to achieve a longer range by increasing the volume of tanks," explains expert Serhiy Zgurets.

By the way, half a thousand X-55s, given to Russia under a trilateral agreement to be processed into nuclear fuel, were used by the aggressor in 2022.

"The fuel was drained from them, and the Russians use these missiles with an empty warhead as dummies to distract our air defense forces. The X-55 was used during the first missile attacks by Kyiv," Zgurets says.

Indeed, if everything that doesn't kill us makes us stronger, then everything that does kill us can be made in Ukraine.

How missile silos were destroyed

It is said that during one of the "diplomatic excursions" to Ukrainian nuclear facilities, William Perry, the US Secretary of Defense, was invited to go down to the missile silo command post located on the minus-11th floor. Mr. Perry was kind enough to ask our missile specialists: "If you had been given an order in the Soviet Union, could you have pushed the button?" Apparently, the Pentagon chief expected a different answer. But the honest rocket scientists, who had not been trained by the PR people (because there were no PR people then), answered without hesitation that they would have carried out the order. "And what would have happened to the United States?" - "Now imagine what would have happened to the United States," the rocket scientists laughed.

Photo credits: Reuters

Allegedly, after this dialog, Perry vowed to get the silos eliminated as soon as possible.

If high-ranking officials in the world's most powerful country dream about something, their dreams tend to come true. On January 5, 1996, the heads of the defense ministries of Ukraine, the United States, and the Russian Federation-Valery Shmarov, William Perry, and Pavel Grachev-together pressed a button, activating the explosion of the first silo near Pervomaisk, Mykolaiv Oblast.

In a few years, all 176 subversive storage facilities in Mykolaiv, Kirovohrad, and Khmelnytskyi regions would be blown up.

However, not all of them. One, near the village of Pobuzke, Holovanivsky district, Kirovohrad region, not far from Pervomaisk, will remain and become the Museum of Missile Forces, where former missile operators who served there will be giving tours for decades to come.

Strategic Missile Forces Museum - the 11th compartment of the command post of the 309th Missile Regiment in the village of Pobuzke. Photo credits: novynarnia

All the main stages of further denuclearization and "desatanization of Satan" took place during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma (NATO called Soviet missiles of the RS-20 series, which were developed and manufactured at Pivdenmash, "Satan").

In particular, 111 RS-18 missiles were destroyed at the neutralization complex in the city of Dnipro. Another 19 RS-18 missiles were transferred to Russia.

By the way, Kuchma, having received the "mace", was not happy with the pace and scale of disarmament. He insisted that some of the solid-fuel missiles produced by his native Pivdenmash remain in Ukraine, as they have a longer shelf life than liquid-fuel missiles.

Photo credits: Reuters

So far, about 40 missiles, the remnants of the world's third nuclear power, dating back to 1991, have been stored at the special enterprise in Pavlohrad.

Missile carriers turned into scrap

From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, Ukraine scrapped 60 Tu-22 missile carriers of various modifications, as well as nine Tu-160 heavy bombers and 21 Tu-95MS.

The last one, a Tu-22M3, was solemnly destroyed in January 2006. The sad ceremony at the military airport in Poltava began with the cutting off of the nose of the aircraft. The 15-centimeter cone was immediately handed over to US Ambassador John Herbst as a souvenir. I wonder if Mr. Herbst has kept this memorabilia and what he thinks about when he looks at it?

In total, the United States allocated $27 million for contracts for the disposal of aircraft with the American firm Raytheon Technical Service Company, but a significant part of the work was carried out at the expense of the Ukrainian budget.

Disposal of the Tu-22M3 missile carrier aircraft. Photo credits: Reuters

It is unknown where the scrap went and what it was melted down for. It is also unknown who used the non-ferrous and precious metals from the missile carriers' equipment.

I don't know who kept track of them. It's easy to assume that everyone who could, from warrant officers to generals, stole this equipment. We're unlikely to find out," Mykhailo Honchar suggests.


Of course, our American partners played a significant role in this decision, promoting an ironclad logic: if you no longer have warheads, then why do you need carriers?

A line of Tu-160s of the Air Force of Ukraine at the Pryluky airfield in the Chernihiv region.
Photo credits: novynarnia

Strategic aircraft are an expensive luxury. For example, the most modern Tu-160 at the time was estimated at more than $250 million. Could Ukraine have sold the bombers instead of destroying them?

"No, it couldn't," Mykhailo Gonchar argues, "except to toxic and sanctioned Iraq or Libya.

The fact is that Tu aircraft and their engines were developed and manufactured at Russian aircraft factories, and their repair base is located there, and the arms market conditions are such that the seller must offer sophisticated equipment in a package with service, replacement of components and parts, and the possibility of repair. Otherwise, it doesn't work."

At the same time, missile carriers are not bars of gold that can be put in the vaults of the National Bank and not looked at for decades. An airplane needs maintenance, even when it's just parked at the airport.

"It is necessary to regularly carry out a number of routine maintenance activities, to maintain technical staff and flight crew capable of taking the machine into the air at least for check flights, and such flights should be carried out more than once a year, spending hundreds of tons of fuel to refuel one aircraft," explains Honchar, who served as an officer in the Air Force during the Soviet era. - "Keeping strategic aviation "just in case", especially in the absence of understanding of their possible use, because at that time the sentiment "will someone attack us?!" prevailed, seemed wasteful.

According to the expert, in the 1990s, the decision to cut down bombers was not dictated by malice, but by desperation.

The price of disarmament. Deception in calculations

What did Ukraine get from its "hybrid friends" for voluntarily giving up nuclear weapons, besides the paper airplane of the Budapest Memorandum?

The compensation from the United States was $350 million, allocated under the so-called Nunn-Lugar program mainly for the construction of housing for missile specialists no longer needed by Ukraine. In addition, the United States provided about $170 million in technical assistance for the elimination of the Shunting Center and technology to deactivate the part of the warheads that was disposed of in Ukraine, organization of accounting and safe storage of radioactive materials, supply of engineering equipment, etc.

However, not all of this project was fully funded by the partners. For example, according to Yurii Kostenko, even the TNT used to blow up missile silos was supplied by Ukrainians.

According to rough estimates by the 2019 parliamentary provisional investigatory commission, the estimated cost of the launcher system, along with the entire infrastructure of the 43rd Missile Army, is estimated at at least $100 billion.

The compensation from Russia was not in the form of real money, but in the form of offsetting old, and dubious, debts for oil and gas. The Russian Federation also provided fuel assemblies - fuel for nuclear power plants - as compensation for the highly enriched uranium contained in Ukrainian missiles.

The debts included aircraft and X-55 missiles (all of which were valued at $275 million), as well as tactical nuclear weapons ($450 million), which the governments agreed to reimburse in 1997, five years after they were secretly exported to Russia.

The fact that the amount was underestimated by a factor of ten was obvious at the start, as the media and politicians were constantly talking about it, and government officials admitted as much, but threw up their hands in despair: what can you do if a young, fragile state is so dependent on the gas pipe of its "big brother."

At the same time, the planes and missiles were not given away as part of the national debt, but as payment for the arrears of a separate business entity, Naftogaz of Ukraine, to Russian Gazprom.

An even more intricate scam is hidden in compensation for tactical nuclear weapons. Of the above-mentioned 450 million, almost 200 million were written off by the Russians for loans taken by the Ukrainian government in 1993-1995[, and the rest, 250.71 million, for oil and oil products supplied to Ukraine in 1993-1994 by Roskontract and a number of unidentified (!) Russian production companies.

Whether such an oil debt existed, whether oil worth this amount actually arrived in Ukraine and on the balance sheet of which company, no one was able to find out either in the 1990s or later.

In 2002, at the request of the parliamentary provisional investigatory commission, the Ministry of Finance reported that it had not offset or written off the debt and did not have documents confirming the actual delivery of oil, oil products and other material and technical resources to the Russian Federation in 1993-1994 for the amount mentioned.

Recalling this response letter from the Ministry of Finance, Kostenko adds that the institutions that were supposed to receive the mysterious Russian oil were soon reorganized or liquidated.

As for the fuel rods for nuclear power plants provided by Russia, their price was also woefully inadequate to the cost of the fuel contained in the nuclear warheads.

Ukraine received 1,800 fuel elements (100 tons of low-enriched uranium) for about $70 million.  In 2019, the parliamentary provisional investigatory commission estimated that Ukraine's tactical and strategic weapons contained 66.49 tons of highly enriched nuclear materials, which, based on international documents and data, can be valued at $68.7 billion.

"The terms of the agreements with the Russian Federation were contrary to the national interests of Ukraine, but met the economic and political interests of the Russian Federation, and the fact of concluding and implementing such agreements (...) led to the infliction of particularly large losses on Ukraine," the Verkhovna Rada TSC summarized.

From the height of today, a more radical conclusion can be drawn, as Yuriy Kostenko says in his commentary to Novynarnya: "I'll call a spade a spade:


For almost 30 years, Ukrainian politicians have been trying in vain to find out the hidden agreements that led to this very mechanism of nuclear disarmament, which was fatal for the country. There are too many white spots and black swans in this story.

Perhaps the next generation of politicians and SBU specialists, hardened by the new circumstances, will dare to find out the whole truth.

Ukraine Front Lines


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