As tension mounts over Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s border, and Western leaders work out how to respond, it should not be forgotten that Russia itself – as well as the United Kingdom and the United States – signed an agreement to respect Ukraine’s borders, not threaten or use force against Ukraine, and refrain from using economic coercion against Ukraine.
When the Soviet Union was dissolved on 25 December 1991, Ukraine found itself as the custodian of the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world.
Russia – the official successor state to the Soviet Union – was in possession of by far the largest portion of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, but Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine all retained significant elements, including complete weapons systems – even though the command control infrastructure was all dependent upon Moscow.
Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine all agreed to renounce their nuclear arsenals and to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as non-nuclear weapons states.
And to facilitate the transfer to Russia of all their nuclear warheads and fissile material, the West provided substantial financial incentives.
The denuclearization of Belarus and Kazakhstan was relatively straightforward, but it became complicated in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s nuclear inheritance consisted of between 2,650 and 4,200 tactical nuclear weapons, and almost 2,000 nuclear warheads on a variety of strategic systems: intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), strategic bombers, and air-launched cruise missiles.
The tactical systems were all transferred to Russia by the end of May 1992, although the process was interrupted when Ukraine’s then President Leonid Kravchuk sought guarantees that those systems would be destroyed and not transferred into Russia’s arsenal.
Also, during 1992, Ukraine established “administrative control” over the nuclear weapons systems remaining on its territory, placing them under the stewardship of Ukrainian military personnel and claiming to be able to block any Russian launch commands.
Ukraine’s leaders also began to question the wisdom of renouncing its nuclear weapons.
There was concern that Ukraine was not getting its fair share of assistance for disposing of its nuclear weapons and infrastructure, and some wondered whether Ukraine should reverse its policy and seek to build the infrastructure necessary to maintain a small nuclear deterrent capability.
Matters came to a head in the middle of 1993 when the Verkhovna Rada – Ukraine’s parliament – voted to declare sole ownership of the nuclear weapons remaining on its territory.
Shortly afterwards, Ukraine’s denuclearization was put back on track through the provision of additional United States financial assistance for the dismantlement of ICBMs based in Ukraine, agreements between Russia and Ukraine on the Black Sea Fleet and the use of the port of Sevastopol, and on security assurances to Ukraine given by Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
To cut a long story short, those initial security assurances were subsequently refined, clarified, and formalized in the “Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances” signed by Ukraine, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States on 5 December 1994.
In addition to nuclear assurances, the Memorandum’s provisions included undertakings to respect Ukraine’s borders, refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine, and to refrain even from economic coercion against Ukraine.
Those undertakings were instrumental in persuading Ukraine to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, formally committing itself to a future as a non-nuclear weapons state.
Skip ahead to 2014, and the Budapest Memorandum is, perhaps, the most obvious among the international commitments that Russia violated when it occupied Crimea. Russia, however, has sought to misrepresent the Memorandum as being solely an agreement not to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine.
The reality is that in the Budapest Memorandum, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States agreed to:
- respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.
- refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations;
- refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind;
- seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used
- refrain from using nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, except in the case of an attack on themselves, their territories or dependent territories, their armed forces, or their allies, by such a State in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State;
Legal scholars can point out – rightly – that the Budapest Agreement does not have the force of a treaty, but it is nevertheless a clear political declaration signed by the then leaders of the four signatory countries.
As efforts are made to resolve an artificial crisis entirely of Russia’s own making, when Russian negotiators launch their customary remarks about the duplicitous West, it might be worth reminding of them of the agreement their predecessors signed in 1994.
Although Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, should need no reminding. As Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, he was one of the signatories of the letter requesting that the Budapest Memorandum be brought to the attention of the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council.