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Through Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine gave up their nuclear weapons between 1994 and 1996. According to the same source:

Before that, Ukraine had the world's third largest nuclear weapons stockpile, of which Ukraine had physical if not operational control.

The signatories offered Ukraine "security assurances" in exchange for its adherence to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

According to this article, this decision was not a wise one:

"As soon as it declared independence, Ukraine should have been quietly encouraged to fashion its own nuclear deterrent," the University of Chicago scholar wrote in a 1993 Foreign Policy piece. "A nuclear Ukraine ... is imperative to maintain peace between Ukraine and Russia. ... Ukraine cannot defend itself against a nuclear-armed Russia with conventional weapons, and no state, including the United States, is going to extend to it a meaningful security guarantee."

Question: why did Ukraine apparently give up the nuclear weapons so easily? What did it gain to counterbalance giving up to such a strategic advantage?

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  • Operational control is pretty important. I would guess the Russians would take a dim view of the Ukrainians trying to re-work the weapons to threaten Russia. – user9389 May 3 '17 at 21:18
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    I think we actually had a very similar question a few years back. – Relaxed May 3 '17 at 21:21
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Because it was a mutual effort of the West and the Ukrainian people.

It is undeniable that the West levied formidable pressure on Ukraine to dissuade it from holding onto its nuclear weapons. It is also undeniable that the nuclear disarmament of the post-Soviet successor states came at a low cost for the West […]
Yet it must be acknowledged that, ultimately, Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons not because of Western pressure or of the things it thought it got in exchange, but because of the country it wanted to be: part of Europe and of the community of nations that are bound by common rules and values."Was Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament a blunder?" by EuroMaidan Press

(emphasis mine)

Here are some outstanding reasons:

  • As of 1991, the nuclear disarmament of Ukraine was considered a part of the nuclear disarmament of the falling Russia's "USSR". Having a nuclear Ukraine on the world map would undermine the post-Yalta security order, as I mentioned in another answer;
  • Ukraine used to have weak control over its Armed forces. Virtually all control and commandment was Russian; acting FSB/KGB generals took the key positions in Ukraine's Ministry of Defense and Security Service. This was the case till the moment of Revolution of Dignity in 2014;
  • Weak control over the Strategic Nuclear Forces: the security codes, wires, and communications were Russian-designed and Russia-controlled:

    While Ukraine had physical control of the weapons, it did not have operational control, as they were dependent on Russian-controlled electronic Permissive Action Links and the Russian command and control system.Wikipedia and its relevant links

    (emphasis mine)

  • Sky-high organized crime with the Russian origins made nuclear Ukraine a threat, because a relatively small group of corrupted officials jointly with criminals could capture the nuclear weapons or, most dangerously, the radioactive materials;

    The fears above are expressed well in George H. W. Bush Chicken Kiev speech (1991), three years before the Budapest Memorandum has been signed. The Bush speech was criticized by Ukrainians for its fear of Ukraine's liberation, and the very reason why Bush cautioned against "suicidal nationalism" is that the U.S. government did not believe that Ukraine can control its sovereignty, in general, and it nuclear arsenal, in particular.

  • "Some 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads that had been designed to attack the United States". Arguably, it was seen too difficult to re-configure the weapons against another enemy, hence, reducing its capability to help the national security of Ukraine;
  • Maintenance of 1,900 warheads is expensive. The cost of maintenance the nuclear arsenal of Ukraine was estimated to $5 billion per year, in prices of 1993. Note that Ukraine did have trained staff, factories, equipment, and infrastructure. Even having the expendable materials manufactured in Ukraine, the factories were tightly linked with the Russian ones;

"Kiev did this on the condition that it receive security guarantees or assurances."Steven Pifer

Ukraine chose security guarantees over posing a threat. It could be seen a wise action before it appeared that the "guarantees" do not guarantee the Ukraine's territorial integrity.

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4

Some version of this analysis comes up from time to time. It's mostly based on a misunderstanding of the situation. Yes, there were stockpiles of (Soviet) nuclear weapons left on Ukrainian soil in the early 1990s. But the country didn't have an autonomous capacity to maintain, modernise and operate them. Apart from technology, R&D, manufacturing, etc. even maintaining the level of readiness to deliver them effectively and have a credible deterrence isn't trivial.

In fact, your quote doesn't really imply that Ukraine could have decided not to “give up” nuclear weapons on its own. What it suggests is that foreign powers (presumably the US) should have propped it up, if need be through covert channels. That's disputable for a number of other reasons but it wasn't the Ukraine's decision to make. Even though it had other problems to deal with around that time, Russia obviously wouldn't have liked this.

So the weapons were going one way or the other and the Ukraine did the logical thing by trying to parlay this situation into some international guarantees, which are themselves quite weak and reflect the lack of leverage the country had.

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Question: why did Ukraine apparently give up the nuclear weapons so easily?

Legal answer: Russia is the only country that accepted all obligations of Soviet Union, including the obligation to not transfer nuclear weapons to other countries. So it was mandatory to return Soviet-era nuclear weapons from all other countries of ex-USSR.

Technical answer: Missiles deployed at Ukrainian sites were nevertheless controlled from Moscow, continuously. Control means that if a missile is tampered without authorization from Moscow then it can destroy itself, "big bada-bum". Continuous control means that if the link is interrupted then the missile can destroy itself, "big bada-bum" again. In both cases, hacking a someone else's missile is not a good idea and returning it to the owner is a good idea.

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