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A console equipped to launch 10 nuclear missiles at a Soviet-era command centre near Pervomais’k, Ukraine, in what was a highly secretive facility before Ukraine denuclearized.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Nearly 40 metres below the black earth of Ukraine’s farmland, small teams of men once maintained a constant vigil before command consoles with the grey buttons that could launch nuclear missiles toward enemies of the Soviet Union.

Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, secretive military installations across Ukraine maintained 176 such missiles. After Ukrainian independence in 1991, those missiles briefly gave it the third-largest nuclear arsenal after the United States and Russia – until it agreed to remove them all in exchange for assurances that its borders would remain inviolate.

Now, with Russian troops once again entering the country, those who once had their hands on the nuclear arsenal are asking pointed questions about the wisdom of that decision.

“It was a huge mistake for Ukraine to completely get rid of nuclear weapons,” said Nikolay Filatov, the former commander of the 46th Rocket Division, which operated 86 intercontinental ballistic missile silos in the Pervomais’k area in central Ukraine. “Today, our people are dying in eastern Ukraine because of Russian troops, all because we unthinkingly gave up nuclear weapons.”

Modern-day Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky said recently, has “no security.”

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It wasn’t this way under the USSR, when Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, occupied a pivotal defence position. Roughly a third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal was positioned on Ukrainian soil, with roughly 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads and thousands of tactical nuclear weapons left in the country at independence.

Ukrainian engineers had conceived some of the Soviet Union’s deadliest weapons, too. The SS-18 missile, nicknamed “Satan” and built to strike targets up to 16,000 kilometres away, was designed and manufactured in Yuzhmash, at the time a closed city in Ukraine.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, both the new Russian Federation and the U.S. leaned heavily on Ukraine to give up its nuclear inheritance – Moscow because it wanted to eliminate a potential security threat on its borders, Washington out of concern about a proliferation of renegade post-Soviet states.

After years of negotiation, Ukraine ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1994, and in subsequent years returned warheads to Russia and destroyed missile silos, a process that took until 2001 to complete.

It did so with assurances secured in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that signatories, including Russia, the U.S. and Britain, would “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” and that none of those countries would ever use their weapons against Ukraine “except in self-defence.”

Then, in 2014, Russia seized Crimea, and Russian-backed groups took control of parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of those regions, secured authority from lawmakers to deploy military force outside Russia, and began what U.S. President Joe Biden called an “invasion” of Ukraine.

Russia has suggested the Budapest Memorandum was violated by the U.S. and Ukraine, after what the Kremlin calls a “coup d’état” following protests in Kyiv in 2014.

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For Ukraine, the Russian incursions amount to a complete violation of the pledges made in 1994.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

For Ukraine, the Russian incursions amount to a complete violation of the pledges made in 1994. Since 2014, Kyiv has on three occasions demanded meetings with the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum, Mr. Zelensky said on Feb. 19, when he made a fourth such demand. If that fails, he said, “Ukraine will have every right to believe that the Budapest Memorandum is not working and all the package decisions of 1994 are in doubt.”

That was seen in the Kremlin as a statement “that Ukraine intends to create its own nuclear weapons,” Mr. Putin said this week.

Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament was, from its earliest days, the subject of intense domestic debate. In 1993, the country’s parliament voted to maintain possession of some nuclear weapons. That vote was overruled by Ukraine’s then-president Leonid Kravchuk.

That decision, controversial at the time, has more recently been called a “capitulation” by Yuri Kostenko, a politician who was involved in the nuclear decommissioning. In a recent book about the disarmament, he called the consequences for the country “catastrophic,” lamenting Ukraine’s descent back toward “the status of a colony in a new Russian empire.”

Only one of Ukraine’s nuclear missile silos was partly preserved at Pervomais’k, kept open to visitors as a museum piece next to the underground command centre, where computer terminals and a red telephone to Moscow are a tangible reminder of the firepower once kept here. To fire missiles, two operators working in concert would turn a pair of keys and each push a grey button. Within 90 seconds, up to 10 missiles would launch.

Sufficient supplies were kept in place to allow operators to survive in underground isolation for 45 days, including carbon dioxide-scrubbing equipment sourced from submarines. Above ground, a radio antenna mast and radiation detector were pointed north, to orient emerging operators in case of nuclear apocalypse.

“We were proud of this,” said Victor, a retired major who spent his career in rocket divisions. The Globe and Mail is not using his full name because he was not authorized to comment amid current political tensions. “The purpose was not to attack, but to stop someone else from attacking. It was to maintain balance.”

Perhaps Ukraine should have followed the model of Britain, which has maintained four ballistic missile submarines and a modest number of warheads – not enough to turn earth to cinder, but “enough for the whole world to know that they have nuclear weapons,” said Elena Smerichevskaya, a guide at the Pervomais’k museum. Often, Ukrainian visitors have joked that “we need a few rockets to launch to Moscow,” she said.

There were practical reasons for Ukraine to rid itself of nuclear missiles. Not only was there the immense cost of maintaining nuclear readiness, but Ukraine itself did not have the capacity to make warheads, which have expiry dates. In addition, the SS-19 Stiletto and SS-24 Scalpel ballistic missiles kept in the Pervomais’k region were not designed to strike targets within 2,000 kilometres, retired officers said. Moscow is less than 1,000 kilometres from here.

Those once closest to the fearsome power of those missiles offer another argument in support of denuclearization.

At 67, retired lieutenant-colonel Vladimir Shatalov remains young enough that he worries about being called back into service. He is preparing to once again pick up a gun. “Everyone is ready to protect Ukraine, no matter what happens,” he said.

But if large-scale fighting breaks out, he is glad Ukraine will not be able to threaten a nuclear response.

“The more weapons in the world,” he said, “the more chances of a third world war.”

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Modern-day Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky said recently, has 'no security.'Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

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