HURI Symposium: Twenty Years After Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament

nuclear disarmement

The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 was breached when Russia annexed Crimea and started a covert invasion of eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014. The Memorandum signatories failed to deter Russia aggression and to uphold Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity, as had been promised in return for the country’s surrender of its nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On December 12, 2014, HURI held a symposium entitled Twenty Years after Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament: Success or Setback for International Security? It was an opportunity to revisit the events around the signing of the Budapest Memorandum and to discuss the lessons of its breach for Ukraine and the rest of the world as well as the implications for international nonproliferation efforts and global security.

Carol Saivetz, a research affiliate at the Security Studies Program and a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, both at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), chaired the first session of the symposium. She reminded the audience that by signing the Budapest Memorandum, Russia, the US, and the UK pledged 1) to respect the independence of Ukraine and its sovereignty in existing borders, and 2) to refrain from the use of force in the case of a potential conflict. However, she pointed out, the document signed in Budapest was not a treaty, but rather a nonbinding memorandum of understanding, which has created ambiguity around this issue.

The first speaker was John Herbst, a distinguished career diplomat, who served as the US Ambassador to Ukraine (2003–2006) and, previously, to Uzbekistan (2000–2003). He also held diplomatic posts in Israel, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. He is currently the director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. In 1994 Ambassador Herbst served in Moscow, and in his presentation he gave some insights into the position of American negotiators at the time. According to Ambassador Herbst, both Russia and Ukraine welcomed the US as their negotiating partner. However, the US State Department instructed its negotiators to make no new commitments or obligations to Ukraine, Belarus, or Kazakhstan, on whose territories the Soviet nuclear arsenal was stationed, but instead, to persuade them to discard their nuclear weapons.

Thus the text of the Budapest Memorandum was taken verbatim from the UN Charter, the Helsinki Accord and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Charter. The bone of contention was the use of the nonbinding term “assurances” (favored by then-Secretary of State James Baker) instead of “guarantees,” for which the Ukrainian government had lobbied. In the end, as we know, the term “assurances” was used, rendering Ukraine helpless twenty years after it had relinquished remnants of the Soviet nuclear deterrent.

“We, the US,” concluded Ambassador Herbst, “understood, that we were not giving Ukraine the guarantees to stop or prevent the aggression, but we were giving Ukraine a right to expect a very serious reaction if, in fact, its territory was infringed upon or faced an aggression of some kind. It was, rather, a declaration of support and ‘“moral commitment.’ But the nature of that commitment is subject to dispute.”

Leonid Polyakov, the former first deputy minister of defense (2005–2008, 2014), discussed the essence and the exact wording of the Budapest Memorandum. He pointed out that the title of the memorandum is “On Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” Thus, it was neither conditional on Ukraine’s agreement to relocate the nuclear arsenal from Ukraine to Russia, nor was it a bilateral agreement between Ukraine and the four nuclear powers (US, Russia, Great Britain, and France). In fact, it is a document that concerns the whole world. Thus, Russia’s actions are a blatant violation of international laws and an affront to the whole international community. Its warmongering has dealt a heavy blow to any hope of nuclear non-proliferation and is bound to have grave global repercussions.

Mark Kramer, the director of the Cold War Studies program at Harvard University and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, gave a detailed account of the types of nuclear warheads that were stationed on Ukrainian soil at the time of the signing of the memorandum. He also stressed that Ukraine was never a nuclear state, and that although Ukrainian scientists who worked in the Soviet military had the expertise to produce nuclear weapons, a project of that type would have required enormous effort, leading to economic hardship and even greater political risks. That is why Ukrainian presidents at the time considered the Budapest Memorandum to be “no more than a political document” (Leonid Kuchma) and “a pure illusion” (Leonid Kravchuk).

Kramer remarked that he was surprised to see that the Ukrainian government and public pay so much attention to the Budapest Memorandum, while, instead, they should focus on the May 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Ukraine and Russia. It is, after all, a binding treaty and the only place where Russia affirmed its “respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and existing borders.”

After listing a number of mistakes and missed opportunities that plagued independent Ukraine, Kramer concluded that “instead of raising red herrings, the Ukrainian leadership should rethink how they pursue their security, given the fact that they themselves have been unable to hold Russia accountable for its obvious violation of the 1997 Treaty.”

The second session focused on the implications of the Budapest Memorandum, and in particular, on the effect it had on international and regional security. This session was chaired by Nadiya Kravets, a specialist in international relations and security studies, and a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Postdoctoral Research Fellow at HURI. In her introduction she spoke about the rationale behind Ukraine’s decision to pursue the path of nuclear nonproliferation. She singled out three factors that influenced that decision.

First, Ukraine did not really feel any immediate, existential threat from Russia. Second, due to the dire economic situation in Ukraine, it did not have the facilities to build, test, and maintain nuclear weapons. And third, the international community, and the US in particular, was adamant that Ukraine should not pursue any nuclear options. In fact, the US conditioned its recognition of Ukraine’s independence on its renunciation of all the nuclear weapons stationed on its territory.

Mariana Budjeryn, a Ph.D. candidate at the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations at the Central European University in Budapest, gave a talk on the breach of the Budapest Memorandum and its repercussions for the international nonproliferation regime. She stated that Ukraine found itself in its current situation because security assurances had never been formalized in the regime and were not a part of the body of the text. Traditionally, nuclear states have made security assurances to non-nuclear states. This time around, however, Russia chose to ignore tradition and no legal mechanism prevented her from doing so. While Ukraine bears the brunt of Russia’s noncompliance, Russia’s actions have global repercussions, particularly in their effect on international nonproliferation and disarmament efforts. Despite its shortcomings, the Budapest Memorandum politically bound Ukraine’s denuclearization to respect by nuclear powers for its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Continued, unsanctioned violation of this commitment will provide ample rhetorical ammunition to proliferators in favor of a nuclear deterrent as a remedy for both nuclear and conventional military threats. To dissuade them, the international community will have to invent a more convincing incentive than a security assurance. And it will be much harder to persuade four non-member nuclear states (Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) to join the nonproliferation club. A nuclear-free world will now come at a dearer price.

During the roundtable discussion Ambassador Herbst noted that what we are witnessing now “is not a Ukrainian crisis, nor a Ukrainian-Russian crisis, but rather a crisis of Russian revanchism. It may go well beyond Ukraine. In fact, it could extend to any place where there are Russian speakers.”

Leonid Polyakov, while speaking about the lessons of the past year, focused on the dangers of the information war that Russia unleashed so successfully not only at home, but also in Europe. One of Ukraine’s top priorities should be debunking the myths and downright lies (concerning the number of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, or the nature of the Revolution of Dignity, for example) generated and perpetuated by the Russian disinformation campaign.

Roman Solchanyk of RAND Corporation, an expert on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, made the point that, despite all the pronouncements, Western Europe has never really recognized the former Soviet republics as independent states (with the exception of the Baltic states). He also said that at the heart of the present crisis lies the identity issue. Apparently, the majority of Russians believe that their country is somehow incomplete without Ukraine. After the breakup of the Soviet Union the Russian leadership became preoccupied with the notion of “a national idea,” and in the absence of one, eventually resorted to “gathering all Russian lands” by force.

Ukrainians, according to Mr. Solchanyk, are, or at least were, rather vague about their separateness from their northern neighbors. Reliable polls of the past twenty-five years have shown ambivalence consistently when it comes to issues like language, cultural and political orientation, or joining NATO or the European Union. This indecision gave rise to the legitimate question “Is Ukraine really a political nation?” and served as an invitation for Russian aggression. Now, at least, there is hope that the time of ambiguity and sitting on the fence is over.

Mark Kramer reiterated this idea in his concluding remarks, saying that Ukraine had now to build up its armed forces and seek NATO membership. Postponing the implementation of these tasks is no longer an option. Too much is at stake.


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