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President Biden announced that he will not send combat troops to fight in Ukraine.

That he does not want to have US armed men in the line of fire means that he also would not want to put US civilians in the line of fire.

Yet responding to a nuclear attack (of any kind) by Russia on Ukraine can be prevented with certainty only with a promise of a retaliatory attack that assures mutual destruction (where "mutual" here is Ukraine-Russia-US, perhaps in that order).

President Biden has, however, sent weapons. He didn't send the most sophisticated weapons in the US arsenal. He did not send Ukraine, for example, long range missiles that can reach Moscow.

What is the limit of the weapons that President Biden can authorize sending to Ukraine? Notably, does President Biden have the authority to send nuclear weapons to Ukraine, for those weapons to be under the control of President Zelenskyy?

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    Bold Q in body is pretty different from the title Q .
    – Fizz
    Sep 22 at 20:27
  • @Fizz The question in boldface cannot be answered. It's the sort of war game over which we can only speculate, and President Biden reportedly has an entire team dedicated to playing the scenarios and suggesting the mere announcements he can/should make. The ultimate decision (how to react if Putin goes insane and sends in the nukes) is one that no one will envy President Biden for needing to solve, if it comes to that. Briefly, the question in the title surely does have an answer in established US rules.
    – Sam
    Sep 22 at 20:34
  • @Fizz (Re-)supplying Ukraine with nuclear weapons is also the simplest way to achieve the objective—tell the Russian high command: don't even think about it.
    – Sam
    Sep 22 at 20:36
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    "send nuclear weapons to Ukraine" Just a comment but that is not strictly necessary. Nuclear missiles can fly on their own. Any nuclear arms power with intercontinental missiles could theoretically threaten anyone else. But I understand why you want to gift nuclear weapons to Ukraine. Basically the question boils down to if the US president can gift nuclear weapons by himself and I'm pretty sure he cannot (but he could start them, that's why e.g. I was surprised in 2016 that US citizens elected Trump and trusted him with so much responsibility).
    – Trilarion
    Sep 22 at 20:59
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    It would violate article 1 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Is the NPT incorporated into US domestic law anywhere? Sep 22 at 21:14

4 Answers 4

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Nuclear weapons cannot be sent.

Both USA and Russia are signatories of non proliferation treaty of nuclear weapons (NPT):

Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapon

So no, USA cannot supply nuclear weapons for Ukraine unless they leave the treaty first. Also Ukraine, being a signatory as well, should not accept them.

Here is the map where all NPT parties do owning nuclear weapons are highlighted in blue (image credit):

enter image description here

Even China is not an option. Nuclear weapons could only be available from India, Israel and Pakistan. North Korea maybe. None of these seem very much into extreme Ukraine support.

There are no obvious reasons why any modern non nuclear weapons could not be provided apart from that they are very expensive and may be needed for the own defence.

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  • America is also a signatory of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, where Ukraine voluntarily surrendered it's nuclear arsenal and joined the NPT. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Sep 23 at 5:47
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    @GeoffAtkins The Budapest memorandum has been violated by Russia already (and additionally is non-binding). Just a memorandum.
    – Trilarion
    Sep 23 at 5:52
  • Shouldn't North Korea technically be on that last list? (Even if the prospect of NK giving nukes to Ukraine is probably more remote than it would be for the other three countries.) Sep 23 at 11:47
  • 1
    Also, note that Article II of the NPT also prohibits Ukraine from accepting such weapons, even if a country outside the NPT offered them. Sep 23 at 11:48
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Possibly, although probably not immediately. As Stančikas points out, the USA is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Article I of this states,

Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly

which seems to rule out the possibility of the US president authorising the transfer of nuclear weapons to Ukraine. However, there are two important caveats:

  1. For all of the time that the USA has been party to the treaty, it has also been sharing nuclear weapons with other NATO member states (who are also treaty signatories), currently: Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey. The justification for this is that the weapons haven't really been transferred to those countries, because they are under the control of US forces, but it has raised criticism from other NPT signatories. Nevertheless, this nuclear sharing framework gives some indication of the how the US president could circumvent the NPT if they wished.

  2. Article X of the treaty provides a mechanism for states to exit the treaty.

Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance.

Although the USA ratified the treaty with the consent of congress, it is possible that the US president could withdraw from the treaty without congressional approval. The case of president Carter and the Sino-American Mutual Defence Treaty is an example of this happening in the past. In that instance, some senators opposed Carter's decision and brought the case to the Supreme Court (Goldwater v. Carter) but the court declined to rule on the matter, on the basis that it had no jurisdiction. It is possible that the court would do the same again, if a US president decided to withdraw from the NPT, meaning that three months later the president would probably have the authority to supply Ukraine with nuclear weapons.

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  • Nice facts and arguments. Here's hoping the Biden administration is contemplating this option. Sending nuclear weapons to Ukraine and putting them under the control of the Ukrainian military seems at this time to be THE ONLY way to convince the Russians to not even think about nuking Ukrainian towns, no matter how many more losses they incur on the battlefield. All the other options seem to lead to an unbearable risk of WW3, and its beginning would be mushroom clouds.
    – Sam
    Sep 24 at 20:39
  • From your argumentation looks like Russia is now "giving weapons to Ukraine" just because Russian forces, armed with these weapons, cross the border. Weapons are not under Ukraine control but really, why this should matter
    – Stančikas
    Sep 25 at 7:08
  • @Stančikas I don't understand your comment. It seems to refer to the idea of nuclear sharing discussed in "1", which is the "argumentation" of the US government, not me, but I can't work out what point you are trying to make. Sep 25 at 11:04
  • If I command an army with weapons and soldiers, and order this army to step into another country (as a friend, as an enemy, who cares), I do not "give weapons" or also troops to that country. The army remains under my command. If USA sails submarine with nuclear missiles into waters of another country, it is still USA submarine. If builds underground missile launcher managed by own troops and engineers, no difference. Missile will not fire under command from the government of the country where it stands.
    – Stančikas
    Sep 25 at 11:33
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    @Stančikas Indeed, that is more or less the US government's argument. Other countries disagree, pointing out that non-American personnel do handle and train in the deployment of those nuclear weapons. From the perspective of deterrence, there probably isn't much difference between having your own nuclear weapons and having American weapons in your country which will be put under your control in the event of a nuclear attack. I'm not really interested in a semantic discussion over whether or not this constitutes "supplying" nuclear weapons. Sep 25 at 12:34
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The limits are going to be around weapons that Ukraine can use for self defense and nothing more. This would exclude weapons such as a long range missile that could be used to strike at Moscow. The goal is to help them defend themselves from the Russian invasion and not to help them attack Russia.

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  • The issue at this point is that a country that is not nuclear-armed (such as Ukraine) can be cowed into surrendering by annihilating two (recalling August 1945) cities. I'm trying to understand the options that the West has in responding to President Putin's threat to "use all weapons at his disposal" on Sep 21, 2022, when Russia is facing a country that does not have(no longer has) nuclear weapons.
    – Sam
    Sep 22 at 19:34
  • @Sam I don't see the reason to think that using nuclear weapons is really an option for anyone at this point. Or that Biden saying "use all weapons at his disposal" means every possible weapon that the US has. In cases like this when the goal is for Ukraine to defend itself that is the type of weapon that will be looked at. All a nuclear weapon will do is lead to more destruction as if Ukraine uses them you can be certain that Russia will respond in kind and they have more then enough to wipe Ukraine off the map.
    – Joe W
    Sep 22 at 19:39
  • The idea of possessing nuclear weapons is, of course, as a deterrent. No (sane) person is saying they should be used, not even in retaliation. Yet President Putin's back is against the wall. If he loses the war, the rest of the russian leadership would finally conspire to oust him. If he wins the war by using unconventional weapons, the West would oust him.
    – Sam
    Sep 22 at 20:15
  • @Sam They won't do Ukraine much good as they won't get enough to make much of a difference and Russia has enough to destroy Ukraine without much effort.
    – Joe W
    Sep 22 at 21:05
  • While I do remember reading similar statements, I am not certain I will remember them 5 years from now. Please, links to support this answer.
    – wrod
    Sep 23 at 5:36
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Immediate retaliation

The general principle that convinces countries "not to go nuclear" throughout the last 70 years is mutually assured destruction, and an expectation or even promise that any nuclear attack will result in immediate retaliation no matter what.

The main idea is that the primary way to prevent escalation is to make credible promise that any such escalation will be met with an opposite escalation.

With respect to Ukraine, it might also be an option if USA chooses to; however, it seems that the current scenario implies threats of retaliation that is not nuclear but significantly powerful and harmful to act as a deterrent - e.g. significant strikes by USA on military infrastructure on Russian soil using non-nuclear missiles or USA aircraft.

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  • Can President Biden supply Ukraine with nuclear weapons in such a way that it is President Zelenskyy who "pushes the button", and not the US president?
    – Sam
    Sep 22 at 19:31
  • "mutually assured destruction" Does MAD apply here? Ukraine cannot destroy Russia but Russia could destroy Ukraine. It's unclear how the US would react.
    – Trilarion
    Sep 22 at 21:01
  • Russian Federation hasn't existed for 70 years. Equating RF to the USSR is becoming more and more absurd as events evolve. Despite having some similar institutions, it's an entirely different animal. For example, a very credible argument can be made the RF is a rogue state which, unlike the USSR, cannot be trusted to abide by any of the agreements it enters into. It's also unclear if the people in charge of the country are actually psychologically stable or whether there are any mechanisms to remove them from power if they are not. So we are dealing with an unstable rogue regime.
    – wrod
    Sep 23 at 5:32

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