Paul Niland: Living up to Budapest

The failure of the Budapest Memorandum is a very serious matter that the incoming administration of Donald Trump and his team, notably Rex Tillerson, top pick for the Secretary of State position, and others like future White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, should pay heed to.

The commitments the United States and United Kingdom gave to Ukraine required action following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and fomenting of a war in eastern Ukraine. But the Obama Administration, in imposing sanctions on Russia in response, did the very minimum that the United States was duty bound to do.

Ukraine signed an agreement to rid itself of nuclear weapons 22 years ago. The signing ceremony of the agreement took place in the Hungarian capital Budapest on Dec. 5, 1994, three years and a few days after Ukrainian citizens voted overwhelmingly to affirm the Ukrainian parliament’s declaration of independence, as the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant the birth, or rebirth, of many independent countries. Amid reasonable fears that some infant states might not be mature enough to handle weapons of mass destruction, not only Ukraine but also Belarus and Kazakhstan were cajoled, pressured, persuaded, and otherwise motivated to join the non-nuclear club. In Ukraine’s case this meant relinquishing the third largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world.

I’ll confess, the “logic” of nuclear weapons has always escaped me. I grew up in times when an understanding of the real possibility of nuclear war was accompanied by the equally real possibility that the use of nuclear weapons by one party would lead to what was termed Mutually Assured Destruction – never has an acronym been more apt. While some crazed psychopath could start a nuclear war, the resulting exchange of warheads would obviously lead to the death of millions, and possibly the destruction of civilization, so surely nobody would actually be that stupid?

Within that framework of nuclear “logic” it was only rational that in exchange for giving up nuclear capabilities, Ukraine (and Belarus and Kazakhstan) would receive security guarantees from, who else but the nuclear superpowers. The deal that was three years in the making took the name of the place where it was signed. It is known as the Budapest Memorandum.

What does it say?

The deal is fairly simple: in exchange for giving up their inherited nuclear capabilities, the new members of the nuclear non-proliferation club were told that their countries would be safe. The commitments to Ukraine (and, for the last time for ease of reading, Belarus and Kazakhstan, but don’t forget about them, because it may become important…) were that the borders of the country that were settled at the breakup of the Soviet Union were sacrosanct, and that Ukraine could live in peace within those borders, which of course Ukraine managed to do quite well.

The language of the Budapest Memorandum is pretty blunt: Point One calls for respect for Ukrainian “independence and sovereignty and existing borders.” That doesn’t seem like too much to ask. In Point Two, the signatories agreed to “refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine.” And Point Three (of six in total) is a guarantee to “refrain from using economic pressure on Ukraine in order to influence its politics.”

Who were guarantors?

As well as Ukraine’s President of the time, Lenoid Kuchma, who signed in acceptance of the terms of the agreement, the other signatures on the document came from Russian President Boris Yeltsin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, and UK Prime Minister John Major.

Such was the fear of what the three new nuclear nations could do if they went rogue, the heads of state of the United States and Russia, as well as the head of the British Government, all indicated the seriousness of this matter by personally coming together to sign this globally important document.

There was no time limit on the guarantees set out in the deal, the obligations were taken not by the signatories, but by the countries they represented, and the obligation of support to Ukraine is incumbent on the incoming Trump Administration – abandoning the guarantees in the Budapest Memorandum would be a colossal mistake for the United States, in terms of reputation, credibility, and moral authority – it effectively sends the message to non-nuclear states that to guarantee their security, they should acquire nuclear weapons, as the nuclear powers cannot be trusted.

I say “powers,” but to be clear, there is only one party to the Budapest that has very clearly violated the their Budapest Memorandum commitments, and that party is Russia. While it has become clearer and clearerand clearer to Ukraine in recent years that Russia’s agreements are not worth the paper they are written on, it is may be time to look at the question of whether the United States and the United could and should be doing more to uphold the Budapest Memorandum commitments that they made, but have not, yet, fully lived up to.

What further measures may be taken by the United States and The United Kingdom are, of course, a matter for debate, but what is not a matter for debate is that those two parties have both a mandate to act, and a moral obligation to act, in support of Ukraine.

Proof of violations

Despite Russia’s initial denials that the “little green men” that appeared in Crimea in late February 2014 were their forces, and the insistence from people refusing to give their surnames that those men were part of the “Crimean People’s Brigade” (a group never heard of before or since) it was obvious from the first that they were Russian military.

And we also know that the forces involved in the annexation of Crimea were Russian troops because, eventually, Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted it. However while Putin claimed that his forces were there to help the Crimean people, in fact his forces were seizing all of the key infrastructure points like the airports of Simferopol and Sevastopol and the Crimean parliament building.

What is undeniable is that the present occupation of Crimea by Russia represents a clear Russian violation of the Budapest Memorandum, as this terminology has recently been deemed appropriate by an authority no less than the International Criminal Court in the Hague, there are now new grounds for triggering further responsive actions from the United States and the United Kingdom.

While the Hague has yet to rule on the muddier situation in the occupied areas of eastern Ukraine, once again we can look to the admissions by Vladimir Putin himself for all the confirmation we need. Putin suggested that Russia was “forced to defend the Russian speaking population in Donbas.” What is missing, absolutely missing, is any evidence at all of what those people might have needed defending from, prior to the artificial creation of war there the region was at peace, and all settlements under the control of Ukraine’s legitimate authorities are today at peace.

As extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, we can add on top of this list Lavrov’s own repeated statements about Russian citizens fighting in Ukraine being “volunteers” and the OSCE having recorded over 30,000 people crossing the Russian controlled Ukrainian border. And we can also show that the OSCE acknowledge that the forces fighting against Ukraine have a “sustained supply of ammunition” which must be coming from outside of Ukraine, diplomatic code (though none is appropriate) for saying that Russia is supplying the weapons and ammunition of this war.

Of course it is possible that the Russian government may have a rational explanation for where some 6,312 corpses buried in just three regions of Russia came from, but in reality the only rational explanation is that they are Putin’s denied war dead.


One of the most pointed pieces written about Russia’s obvious violations of the Budapest Memorandum comes from former U.S. Ambassador Steven Pifer, who is also one of the people who was responsible for negotiating the agreement. In his article for the Brookings Institute, Ambassador Pifer lists some of the most absurd Russian deflections from their agreement-breaking actions, one of which is where Foreign Minister Lavrov falsely suggests that Russia had only one commitment, and that was not to use their own nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Thank you, Mr. Lavrov, for this small mercy.

The question, now, is what are the UK and the U.S. going to do to live up to the promises made to Ukraine 22 years ago? This is a matter of obligation, and on the other side there is a danger of losing credibility for failing to act on those obligations. Ukraine deserves support, all necessary support, to return control over all parts of Ukrainian territory, as it says unambiguously in the Budapest Memorandum.

The only consideration that can be allowed to enter into U.S. thinking about whether to relax sanctions is whether Russia is still in breach of the Budapset Memorandum. As long as there is occupation of Crimea as well as daily Russian directed and supported violence in eastern Ukraine, there can be no doubt that Russia is breaching the Budapest Memorandum.


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