The Budapest Memorandum, a geopolitical cautionary tale for the ages.
01 Feb 2023
On May 10, Ukraine’s current president Volodymyr Zelenskyy paid homage to its first. Leonid Kravchuk “was the man who knew how to find wise words and say them so that all Ukrainians could hear them,” Zelensky said in tribute to his late predecessor. “This is especially important in difficult crisis moments when the future of an entire country may depend on the wisdom of one person.”
Here was a man, Zelensky continued, who “knew what freedom costs.”
But what about his Western allies?
Twenty-eight years ago, when Kravchuk was fighting a fierce reelection battle, it appears they did not. Then, Ukraine’s disarmament was a hotly debated campaign issue. Although Washington strongly favored Kravchuk in the 1994 presidential race, American officials shunned the president when he resisted giving up his country’s nuclear weapons, which at the time represented the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. His opponent, a “pragmatist” and native Russian speaker, prevailed on the second ballot.
As president, Kravchuk’s final gift to his nation was a peaceful transition of power. His ambivalence over, but eventual acceptance of disarmament remains an equally weighty legacy. As Zelensky told global leaders in Munich, just days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Ukraine was persuaded to exchange its nuclear weapons for security. It wound up with neither.
Vladimir Putin’s war does not necessarily prove that Kyiv made the wrong decision in 1994. But it does call for a thorough evaluation of why the Ukrainians disarmed and what Western officials should learn from their experience. For any such exercise, an examination of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances is key.
Memorandum of Misunderstanding
Once considered a mere historical footnote, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum is a geopolitical cautionary tale for the ages. Signed at the height of post–Cold War optimism, it was supposed to prevent Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and Central Asia while simultaneously advancing the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. In retrospect, these assumptions signaled a dangerous credulity about power and the true guarantors of peace.
Finalized in December 1994, the Budapest Memorandum obliged Ukraine, along with fellow post-Soviet states Belarus and Kazakhstan, to give up their nuclear weapons in return for security promises from Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Specifically, Moscow pledged to respect the three countries’ independence, sovereignty, and borders, and to refrain from using or even threatening force against them.
The agreement appears to have rested on several shocking slights of hand. For instance, translation issues muddled the checks on Russian aggression (Russian and Ukrainian both use “guarantee” for the English “assurance”). The checks themselves were essentially toothless: They simply invoked previous Russian commitments under the United Nations Charter and the Helsinki Final Act. In other words, the agreement sought to advance the goals of non-proliferation in return for reiterations of earlier Russian promises: Diplomacy would safeguard Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. Not surprisingly, given their fraught history with Russian aggression, Ukrainian leaders were skeptical.
Western officials pressed ahead anyway.
The failure of the Budapest Memorandum is now painfully obvious, but the roots of that failure have remained in dispute for more than a quarter century, with a lack of archival evidence concealing the thinking and actions that produced the agreement. Fortunately, that is changing: For two years, I have been examining newly available documents held by presidential libraries, the United Nations, the National Security Archive, private collections of personal papers, and the British National Archives. These documents provide a basis not only for scrutinizing the impetus behind the Budapest Memorandum, but also for identifying the blind spots and misgivings that preceded it.
Blinded by Their Might
President Bill Clinton’s effort to remove Ukraine’s missiles commenced on his sixth day in office.
On a call to President Kravchuk, Clinton urged ratification and implementation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and START I. Calling it “an issue that is critically important,” he offered upwards of $175 million to Ukraine for dismantlement, along with a pledge to “extend strong security assurances” upon ratification. This initial call, glossed over in accounts until now, demonstrates that Clinton did not wait for the full-scale review of disarmament policy recommended in 1993 by the Government Accountability Office. Nor did he wait for Strobe Talbott’s comprehensive evaluation of existing U.S. policies toward Ukraine and the New Independent States (to which Talbott was a roving ambassador).
Clinton’s call touched off a years-long effort by nervous governments in Kyiv to stave off the Americans with a steady stream of demands, delays, and calls for renegotiation.
For their part, Ukrainian apprehension can be traced back to 1992. That’s when Kravchuk’s foreign minister, Anatoliy Zlenko, initially resisted signing the Lisbon Protocol, which would formally commit his nation to disarmament. The Ukrainian government had proposed a true “guarantee” of its sovereignty, comparable to NATO’s Article Five. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker refused, fearing it would lead to similar demands by the other post-Soviet states. Baker’s senior advisor James Timbie told Kyiv that it would have to be satisfied instead with a “negative security assurance” from the United States, once Ukraine acceded to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state.
This response perhaps motivated Zlenko to object to the protocol’s preferential treatment toward Russia over its former satellites. But he was brought back to heel after receiving an angry call from Baker. Still unpersuaded, Kyiv’s negotiators sowed the seeds of a claim to proprietary control over the weapons. In the text of the Protocol, they required Ukraine to be named a “successor” to the Soviet Union, a premise acceded to by Russia only this once. Legally, this became one of many factors muddying the ownership of Ukraine’s nukes. After all, Ukrainian parliamentary deputies would later argue, if the weapons were not theirs to keep, how could they ever have been theirs to give away?
Political and legal dilemmas like these were not the only reasons for the evasive attitude of Kravchuk and his ministers during the Clinton presidency. History loomed just as large in their thinking.
Kravchuk, born in a Polish town in 1934 that was later incorporated into Ukraine, never forgot how his father had been killed resisting Nazi occupation in the 1940s. A half century later, Kravchuk tried to relay his concerns directly to a new and untested negotiation partner in Washington. “The fear,” he explained to Clinton, then six months into his presidency, “is political explosion and the dividing up of Ukraine—autonomy for Donetsk, and Krivoi Rog, and Galicia, and finally the dismemberment of the country not unlike the situation in Yugoslavia.”
These warnings seem prescient today, but they carried no weight at the time. As Ambassador Steven Pifer noted in 2017, “No one in the U.S. government questioned the basic nuclear approach. Ukraine could not keep nuclear weapons.” A sign on the desk of an intelligence advisor at the Office of the New Independent States encouraged this overweening emphasis on disarmament, evoking that most Clintonian of campaign slogans: “It’s the nukes, stupid.”
That perception led the United States to transform a fledgling bilateral Ukrainian-Russian negotiation into a trilateral process with Washington at the center. The Clinton administration plied Ukraine with development aid that soared to $700 million by 1994. Agreements on economic, agricultural, and trade assistance were railroaded through.
Yet these measures failed to meet Ukraine’s desire for most-favored-nation trading status, which remained blocked by the Jackson-Vanik Amendment until 2006. More importantly, they failed to address Kyiv’s security concerns.
The Misgivings of Great Powers
The Budapest Memorandum partially fulfilled what had been initially conceived as a statement from each permanent member of the UN Security Council—nuclear powers all—including China and France. But the plan swiftly faltered. In the end, the memorandum framework was provided and signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia alone.
Without a clear paper trail, it’s hard to say much about China’s objections. The opposition of U.S. ally and fellow NATO member France is more revealing. Not only did French President François Mitterrand ultimately refuse to sign the Budapest Memorandum, but he also remarked to his Ukrainian counterpart: “Young man, you will be tricked, one way or the other. Don’t believe them, they will cheat you.” Even the United Kingdom, an otherwise steadfast supporter of the agreement, had its own misgivings: Recently released cabinet deliberations from 1991 indicate that London shared many of the concerns raised by Kyiv’s first local advocates for independence.
The only country that appeared to have zero qualms whatsoever was Russia. The archival record confirms that Russian leaders saw long-term opportunity in the post-Soviet disarmament push. Indeed, non-proliferation itself became a bargaining chip for Moscow.
Clinton had to contend with numerous Russian efforts to sell missile systems to governments that sought to advance their nuclear arms programs by acquiring Soviet high technology at bargain-basement prices. Under the guise of transferring hardware for “peaceful” space launch programs, President Yeltsin nearly thwarted the international Missile Technology Control Regime while simultaneously bartering for better deals on the export of highly enriched uranium. The Clinton administration preferred to imagine economic need—rather than reckless disregard for global norms—as the impetus for these efforts. It rebuffed congressional skepticism about Russia’s commitment to the Biological Weapons Convention, despite repeated failures by Moscow to meet its basic compliance obligations. The administration chose to certify compliance based on Moscow’s professed commitment to arms control. During these negotiations, Russian leaders gained concessions on a broad range of issues, including U.S. submarine operations.
At a June 1993 meeting in the German resort town of Garmisch, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev insisted that Ukraine’s nuclear weapons be placed under Russian control. U.S. Defense Secretary Les Aspin and Talbott lamented his “counterproductive” refusal to consider international control or U.S. monitoring instead. Such ideas were unnecessary and unacceptable, Grachev replied, because a nuclear-armed Russia was in “no way an adversary to Ukraine.”
Roughly a month before the Budapest Memorandum was signed, Talbott warned about the already threatening and cynical new outlook of Russia’s government. With regard to America’s Nuclear Posture Review, he wrote to U.S. National Security Advisor Anthony Lake: “The Russians are interpreting the American backgrounding as highly invidious to them: we’re keeping our powder dry for another arms race if necessary; we don’t believe they’re reducing their strategic forces fast enough.”
The Clinton administration carried on anyway, trusting—or fantasizing—that a denuclearized Ukraine would find common cause with a peaceable and democratic Russia.
Not a Fait Accompli
Since Russia invaded Ukraine’s eastern provinces in 2014, discussions of the Budapest Memorandum have risen to the fore, but have been skewed by dubious assumptions. Most troublesome is the assumption that Ukraine’s possession of nuclear weapons didn’t matter because its government lacked “operational control” over them. Supposedly, only Moscow had the launch codes and the know-how for upkeep.
However, no less than Ambassador Pifer, a longtime defender of the Budapest Memorandum, recently told me that “I believe that Ukraine had the technical expertise to overcome the operational-control issue, had it so decided.” Moreover, there were many options possible between full possession and full disarmament. For example, the Ukrainians proposed keeping only the most technologically advanced nuclear weapons on their territory. They were flatly refused. The possibility of delayed disarmament was also ignored.
In 1993, Rose Gottemoeller, then serving as director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia Affairs at the National Security Council, observed that the U.S. government’s “overwhelming stress on [disarmament] has had the paradoxical effect of convincing some Ukrainians of the value of nuclear weapons not only as a source of security, but also as an attention-getter.” She deserves credit for her prophetic candor. It’s a point that has been proven since by the regimes in North Korea and Iran, which persist in their nuclear pursuits and survive—and by the Qaddafi regime in Libya, which relented and swiftly fell. An unpredictably maintained stockpile might have proven just as threatening as a cutting-edge silo, filled with precision-guided missiles.
Yet others insist Ukraine had no choice but to forfeit the weapons because it was too poor to pass up the aid it was promised. These same analysts argue that Ukraine would have been isolated to the point of indigence if it did not comply with Western demands. But if Ukraine had kept its nukes, the West might eventually have deemed it “too nuclear to fail,” and thus provided Kyiv with whatever support was needed to ensure economic and political stability. Such narratives, so it seems, seek to coopt would-be nuclear powers, having lost all prospects of persuading them.
Nonetheless, there are some who claim that the nuclear question is irrelevant because it does not prove Russian incursions would have been avoided in later decades. Mutually assured destruction’s acronym—“MAD”—remains a felicitous reminder that its benefits have never been definitively proven. Indeed, hostile nuclear neighbors like India and Pakistan occasionally engage in tit-for-tat skirmishes. What makes Russia’s current war unique is that it remains one of absolute conquest—not a mere border spat. Just over seventy years ago, General Maxwell Taylor reflected on the limits of deterrence by noting “massive retaliatory strategy may have prevented the Great War—a World War III—it has not maintained the Little Peace.” Perhaps the most profound disagreements among Putin and his detractors pertain to which of these two categories the recent round of annexation belongs.
As Western nations respond to Moscow’s most recent aggression, the lessons of the Budapest Memorandum should be top of mind. When reviewing the mistakes and miscalculations that brought us to this point, U.S. and European officials have tended to focus on the impact of NATO expansion. This fixation is as inherently naïve as their assumptions in 1994. It takes Vladimir Putin’s propaganda at face value and ignores the impact of Ukrainian disarmament, as if the enlargement of a defensive alliance was more provocative than the removal of Kyiv’s means of protection against Russian revanchism—nuclear or otherwise.
The moment has come to dispel these illusions and confront certain geopolitical realities—the same realities that Leonid Kravchuk understood, but which too many Western leaders ignored, in 1994.
George Bogden is a senior visiting researcher at Bard College, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., visiting fellow at the Eccles Centre, and a law clerk at the U.S. Court of International Trade. His research is supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation.