Nuclear worries grow as Russia presses attacks in Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded Monday for Americans and other countries to do more to help stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

"If you understand how we feel like, how we fight against all the enemies for our freedom. Support us, support us and not only with words," said Zelenskyy.

Concerns over nuclear threats are growing as Russian President Vladimir Putin has allowed attacks that threaten Ukraine's nuclear facilities. There also is concern Putin might resort to using nuclear weapons if Ukrainian resistance proves to be too strong for Russia's military to overcome.

"If Ukraine had a nuclear weapon, I'm almost certain that Putin would not have chosen to engage, to invade Ukraine," said Daniel Sargent, Associate Professor of history and co-director of U.C. Berkeley's Institute of International Studies.

Sargent says Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet-era nuclear arms in 1994 under what was called the Budapest Memorandum.

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"What it did was to provide Ukraine with a military guarantee, in return for Ukraine renouncing the pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability," said Sargent, "The United States, the Russian Federation, and Britain agreed to sort of guaranteed Ukrainians security."

Sargent says the problem with the Budapest Memorandum, however, is that it is not legally binding and does not include any course of action if the agreement is violated.

"The Russian regime has broken its commitment to the Budapest Memorandum over and over again," said Bay Area Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Intelligence Committee. Rep. Speier says members have been receiving daily briefings.

Zelenskyy has asked NATO for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, but that risks a dramatic escalation according to Rep. Jackie Speier.

"I think we all need to understand what a no-fly zone means. A no-fly zone initiates World War Three," said Speier, "We're also trying to avoid the use of nuclear weapons."

Speier says while the U.S. and Russia have a similar number of large-scale nuclear weapons, there are other possible nuclear threats Russia could deploy.

"He is also probably looking at what are called tactical nuclear weapons which are smaller in nature and can be targeted to specific areas," said Speier, "It's estimated they have some 2,000, the U.S. has about 200."

"The sharp distinction between nuclear and conventional force that U.S. strategic doctrine makes is not made by Russian military doctrine," said Sargent, "The Russians see nuclear force as part of a continuum of escalatory options that could be deployed."

If Putin is successful in invading and occupying Ukraine, Sargent says that could not only threaten NATO countries along the border, but also threaten long-term efforts to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons by countries that might see it as a form of security against such aggression.

"Countries that are currently non-nuclear states protected by the American nuclear umbrella will have a powerful incentive to develop nuclear weapons of their own," said Sargent.

A discussion about the nuclear threat is scheduled for Wednesday, March 9th at UC Berkeley. Registration is free to participate online via Zoom. To register, click here.