In a long speech prior to ordering a military invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a series of false or misleading accusations against Ukraine’s government.
While most involved Putin’s unconventional ideas about history and sovereignty, one claim stood out as more surprising than the rest – an assertion that Ukraine was preparing to develop nuclear weapons.
“As we know, it has already been stated today that Ukraine intends to create its own nuclear weapons, and this is not just bragging,” Putin said.
“Ukraine has the nuclear technologies created back in the Soviet times and delivery vehicles for such weapons, including aircraft, as well as the Soviet-designed Tochka-U precision tactical missiles with a range of over 100 kilometers.”
But the idea that Ukraine wants such weapons is false.
Putin’s claims are based on a distortion of statements some Ukrainian officials made regarding the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.
That agreement, signed between Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom, promised to guarantee Ukraine’s security in exchange for Ukraine giving up its remaining Soviet-era nuclear arsenal – some 1,700 warheads. Notably, the security features built into the devices meant that only Moscow had actual control of them.
With its 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, Russia has violated Ukraine’s borders and effectively nullified the Budapest agreement. As such, Ukrainian officials such as Ambassador to Germany Andrii Melnyk have speculated that Ukraine might have to rethink its non-nuclear status. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has suggested the Budapest agreement is obsolete, The Moscow Times reported.
As the BBC noted in a fact check of Putin’s speech, however, Ukraine’s government has not announced that it plans to build nuclear weapons, nor does the country’s national defense strategy mention nuclear weapons.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence that Ukraine has diverted nuclear energy resources to make weapons.
Nuclear weapons are very hard to manufacture and deploy, which is one reason so few nations possess them. Nations like North Korea that acquired nuclear weapons in contravention of non-proliferation treaties took decades to develop warheads.
Moreover, the United States has never suggested deploying nuclear warheads in Ukraine. A day ahead of Russia's February 24 invasion of Ukraine, The New York Times reported:
"Ukraine gave up a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons left over by the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and used the fuel from its blended-down warheads to drive its nuclear power plants. Today Ukraine does not even have the basic infrastructure to produce nuclear fuel, though Mr. Putin made the dubious claim that it could pick that talent up quickly.
"For their part, American officials have said repeatedly that they have no plans to place nuclear weapons in the country — and never have, especially since Ukraine is not a member of NATO."