Could a Breached 1994 Accord Provide Diplomatic Cover for Ukraine Talks?
Russia’s war violated the Budapest Memorandum, but it hasn’t formally repudiated it. The document’s consultations clause may still be useful.
By ROBERT DOWNES | DECEMBER 18, 2022
It was one the greatest diplomatic successes of the late 20th century. In 1994, the United States and Britain persuaded Ukraine, newly independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union less than three years earlier, to give up more than 1,700 nuclear weapons. In exchange, Washington and London, joined by Russia, the Soviet Union’s successor state where the weapons went, provided “security assurances” and commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
On the day Russia invaded Ukraine in February, it became clear that the 1994 agreement, known as the Budapest Memorandum, hadn’t been as good a deal for Ukraine as it had for the other parties to the accord. It also became apparent that Russia had broken at least three of the written commitments it had made in the document, including its “obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” It had also promised that none of its weapons “will ever be used against Ukraine, except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”
A revelation made by the Ukrainian military last week added an even darker nuance to Russia’s aggression. In the aftermath of recent attacks, the Ukrainians discovered in the rubble missiles that had been part of a cache of weapons Ukraine handed over to Russia when it agreed to surrender the nuclear warheads. There was a further twist. “Russia was using Ukraine’s own armaments as decoys against it. They served a strategic goal: Sending up the missiles would force Ukraine to mobilize its air-defense system against them,” the New York Times reported. “After the Ukrainian air defenses are engaged, Russian bombers launch the more modern missiles, with destructive warheads,” Gen. Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy intelligence chief, told the Times.
The 28th anniversary of the signing of the Budapest Memorandum this month has prompted questions about its value, and about what its violation means for future security assurances in international relations, as well as the global non-proliferation regime. The memorandum wasn’t signed in a vacuum. It capped extensive efforts by the West to secure the Soviet Union’s large nuclear arsenal, borne out of fear that having three new nuclear-armed states — Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan — would pose significant danger. No one could predict at the time how well those new governments would safeguard the weapons, and in whose hands they might end up.
The Budapest document’s formal title is Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine’s Ascension to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Similar agreements were signed with Belarus and Kazakhstan. In other words, the assurances led not only to Ukraine’s decision to give up its nuclear weapons, but also to join the NPT. In addition, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan committed to adhere to both the NPT and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union, in a 1992 document known as the Lisbon Protocol. At the time, the Ukrainian government had strong reservations about signing on to both the NPT and START and relinquishing the nuclear weapons. It did so under pressure from the United States, after a promise of future security guarantees, which later came in the form of the Budapest Memorandum.
There were three main disadvantages in the agreement for Ukraine. First, the actions it was required to take — joining the NPT and giving up the weapons — had to happen as soon as possible, while the other parties’ “security assurances” applied to some uncertain time in the future. Second, the assurances were not specific enough, and it wasn’t clear how exactly the United States, Britain and Russia would guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, if need be. Third, the Budapest document wasn’t a legally binding treaty, but a statement of intentions and commitments with no enforcement mechanism. It only called for the parties to “consult in the event a situation arises, which raises a question concerning these commitments.” No one planned for the eventuality that one of the parties would invade Ukraine one day. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Kyiv called for consultations, but Moscow dismissed it.
There is little doubt that the Budapest Memorandum had a positive impact on regional and global security by helping to defuse a potentially destabilizing situation and reduce the number of nuclear-armed countries. It contributed to Ukraine’s emergence as an independent democratic state, which was also peaceful until 2014. Since then, however, the agreement hasn’t prevented Russian attacks, and even a full-blown war this year. Although Russia hasn’t explicitly repudiated the memorandum, it’s glaringly obvious that it has broken its main commitments in it.
What about the United States and Britain? The question about what exactly their security assurances meant has been answered. It’s clear they never intended to fight alongside the Ukrainians to repel an attack — things would be different if Ukraine were a member of NATO, because of the alliance’s common-defense policy. Instead, they have provided weapons and other military assistance and trained Ukrainian forces.
The British government’s support was about $2.7 billion in 2022, and it has committed to match it next year. According to the State Department, “since January 2021, the United States has invested approximately $20 billion in security assistance to demonstrate our enduring and steadfast commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This includes approximately $19.3 billion since Russia launched its premeditated, unprovoked and brutal war against Ukraine on February 24. Since 2014, the United States has provided approximately $22.1 billion in security assistance for training and equipment to help Ukraine preserve its territorial integrity, secure its borders and improve interoperability with NATO.”
Russia’s violation of the Budapest Memorandum holds lessons for countries known to have nuclear weapons without being signatories to the NPT, such as India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. The conclusions they are likely to draw — that they shouldn’t give up their arsenals — wouldn’t be good for regional and global stability, but it’s not difficult to understand such a perspective, given Ukraine’s experience. Some have argued that, had Ukraine kept its nuclear arms, Russia would have been much less likely to attack it. However, no one knows what might have happened in the 1990s had Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan retained their weapons. Others have suggested that Kyiv should have insisted on a legally binding agreement in 1994, but that is unlikely to have stopped Russian President Vladamir Putin, judging by his behavior.
Since Moscow hasn’t formally withdrawn from the Budapest Memorandum, perhaps its clause about consultations could provide diplomatic cover for Russia to start exploring paths to negotiations to end its war in Ukraine.
Robert Downes is a retired senior Foreign Service officer whose foreign tours included Nicaragua, Venezuela, Mexico, Thailand, Germany and Australia.
The views and characterizations in this article belong to the author and don’t necessarily represent those of the U.S. government.