Never-before-released archival files reveal Washington’s error in cudgeling Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons despite the risk of a Russian invasion.

by George E. Bogden

The National Interest

October 27, 2023


The House of Representatives, after three agonizing weeks, has a speaker in Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA). But the question remains: will Ukraine now get U.S. taxpayer dollars for its fight against Russia? A major contributor to the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the question remains at the heart of House Republican angst and is by no means settled, whatever President Joe Biden may say.

But while most in official Washington trumpet their support for Ukraine, never-before-released archival evidence dating back 30 years proves their forebears in office share blame for the current crisis. The documents show conclusively how two American administrations, senior Pentagon leadership, and NATO, all pressured Ukraine into giving up its only deterrent against Russian aggression—nuclear weapons—despite the credible risk of Russian invasion.

With this information coming to light as Putin himself threatens to deploy nuclear weapons on the battlefield, how willing might Ukraine skeptics in the House GOP be to listen to the foreign policy establishment urging more money and arms for ill-defined objectives?

In 1994, American officials browbeat Ukraine’s newly independent leaders into giving up the nuclear weapons they inherited from the Soviet Union—weapons which could have staved off future aggression from Moscow—in exchange for nebulous “security assurances,” declared as part of the so-called Budapest Memorandum.

These assurances ultimately proved meaningless, as Ukraine’s plight shows today. Yet, the Budapest Memorandum remains settled history for many in the foreign policy establishment: something that could not have unfolded any other way.

Drawn from archives in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United Nations, new never-before-published evidence flatly contradicts this idea. These documents are the grist of exhaustive searches and inquiries to the National Security Archive, two presidential libraries, and the Library of Congress.

These records cut sharply against the rationale for this historical resignation: that Ukraine was incapable of the technical means of operating nuclear weapons and that such weapons wouldn’t do much for its security even if it could. Moreover, their contents undermine the general belief that the effort—even if ultimately in error—was at least dedicated to the noble goal of reducing overall global stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

On the contrary, the evidence reveals President Bill Clinton’s future CIA director concluding that Ukraine did have the means to operate an arsenal. The unearthed papers show the USSR’s last foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, confirming that “just one nuclear missile” in Ukrainian hands would have been enough to safeguard its independence so far as Russian strategic planning was concerned. They also show top American officials—from both parties—fretting over Russia’s belligerent, irredentist behavior during the negotiations, including repeated concerns about a potential future Russian invasion of Ukraine even as they chided “whiners” in Kyiv for expressing the same anxieties.

The same “settled history” crowd contends the Budapest Agreement—even if ultimately in error—was at least dedicated to the noble goal of reducing overall global stockpiles of nuclear weapons. We now know it was nothing of the sort.

Historical materials also illuminate how American officials blocked serious attempts by Kyiv to trade its inherited arsenal for genuine security guarantees—even going so far as to lobby Europeans to keep Ukraine out of non-NATO security arrangements. Perhaps this was because, as the record now reveals, they were also backchanneling to Moscow respect for Russia’s “vital interests in its near abroad” and a willingness to “help in a variety of ways.”

Among the ways cited? The American-Russian-Ukrainian accord that preceded the high-level public declarations in the Budapest Memorandum.

Rather than a serious effort at global nuclear arms control, the actual imperative seems to have been a desire on the part of American officials to coax Russia into joining the Western democratic world. The Budapest Agreement, therefore, amounted to a diplomatic shell game—one where weapons were transferred from a weaker state to a stronger one with imperial pretensions, largely to soothe Russian insecurities about achieving “parity” in its nuclear stockpile vis-à-vis the United States.

That was an understandable and even laudable aim. Yet, it resulted in a doomed policy that required assuaging Russia at almost any cost, ignoring the Kremlin’s own words and actions, and ultimately leaving Ukraine to the perilous fate borne out today.

After all, the only reason Ukraine agreed to surrender its weapons is because Western powers linked that decision to “security assurances” that proved hollow. According to Yuri Kostenko, Kyiv’s former head envoy for disarmament, the outcome deprived his country of “the most powerful method of protecting the state.” It received nothing in return—except, perhaps, its worst fears fulfilled. Now, with forfeited Ukrainian missiles raining down on Ukrainian cities, it is time for Western policymakers to confront the past—their past—with the seriousness it deserves.

START-ing the Firing Gun

As the Soviet Union began to collapse, the George H.W. Bush Administration sought to preserve the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which promised to decrease the world’s strategic nuclear weapons stockpiles by 80 percent. After nearly a decade of negotiations, it was signed by

the United States and the Soviet Union in 1991. But with the USSR about to shatter into five sovereign countries, how would this two-party deal endure?

A few weeks before the union formally dissolved, President Bush met with Mikhail Gorbachev’s advisor, Alexander Yakovlev, and asked about the 30-odd percent of the Soviet arsenal that would soon fall outside Russian territory—in Kazakhstan, Belarus, and, most notably, Ukraine. “How do you see that working out[?],” Bush asked. “Control? Ratification? Safe dismantling[?]”

“They’ll look to the West [for direction],” Yakovlev said of the soon-to-be independent republics.

“Of course,” he added. “We won’t give up our weapons.”

It was an ignominious start to a years-long dance between the United States, Ukraine, and Russia—one in which leaders in Moscow would hardly be coy about their aims. In this case, they dictated that reductions be counted by first removing weapons from soon-to-be former Soviet subjects. Otherwise, the cuts START envisioned would place Russia’s own nuclear arsenal behind that of the United States—a nonstarter for Moscow.

This approach would also remove the only real lever of deterrence from a nervous and newly sovereign republic governed by Kyiv, a state that had been subjugated many times already by its supposedly amiable neighbor. Secretary of State James Baker was present and quickly intuited the strategic issue at stake. Could this pave the way, he asked, for a future war with Ukraine?

Yakovlev deflected before retorting blithely, “What sort of war could it be?”

“A normal war,” Baker responded.

During this period, Ukraine had linked its position on nuclear weapons to its prospects for an adequate conventional military. In 1991, it aspired to spend three percent of GDP on an independent army as large as 450,000 men. As months passed, however, Ukraine’s military ambitions drifted out of reach. The country lacked the immediate economic capacity and supply chains to equip its forces. Vladimir Lukin, a future Russian ambassador to the United States, intimated to American officials that Kyiv’s leadership “may now perceive that Ukraine’s future status as a great power could depend on nuclear weapons.”

Later that month, America’s first ambassador to the Russian Federation, Robert Strauss, wrote to Washington about the hysteria caused by reports of Yeltsin considering a nuclear strike on Ukraine. The situation was “made worse,” the emissary wrote, by the new president “acknowledging he had discussed the possibility with military experts.”

In his memoirs and later interviews, Brent Scowcroft noted that then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney vigorously opposed the removal of nuclear weapons from the newly independent states at Russia’s periphery. Though most of their personal papers on the subject remain classified, a memo to the National Security Advisor from March 1992 demonstrated that these disputes did not disappear. National Security Council staffer David Gompert titled it “Why We Must be Adamant about De-nuclearizing Ukraine.” He noted three major counterarguments:

Ukrainian nuclear weapons will not threaten the U.S. as Russian nuclear weapons do, for the simple reason that Ukraine, unlike Russia, is not a serious potential adversary. It might even prove advantageous to us to see Russian power checked—and Russian nuclear weapons deterred—by a Ukraine with a minimal deterrent. In any case, we hurt ourselves with the Ukrainians by insisting that they be stripped of nuclear weapons while we legitimize those of their powerful neighbor.

Gompert dismissed these objections, and the Bush administration continued on its path. The document, however, bears witness to the persistent debate that unfolded within the administration.

While Ukraine preferred to develop its own conventional military means to deter Moscow, it simply lacked the resources to do so. Its inherited nuclear weapons became a chit to trade for an ironclad security guarantee from the West—ideally something commensurate to NATO’s Article V umbrella.

But looping, cursive marginalia on Gompert’s memo captured an impasse. “The dilemma we face,” wrote Nicholas Burns, then on staff at the National Security Council, “is that many Ukrainian leaders are concerned about a threat from Russia and will be looking for some sort of security guarantee from the West.” He added, “We cannot give them what they want but is there a way to somewhat allay their concerns?”

It was a critical question and one that never received a definitive answer.

Three months later, when Senator Richard Lugar raised these very same Ukrainian concerns to Secretary Baker in a public hearing, America’s chief diplomat demurred.

“As a part of the package from Ukraine,” said the Senate’s disarmament champion, there was “a very strong invitation to the United States to provide security to Ukraine.” “Clearly,” he added, “with some frequency,” and “very overtly,” leaders in Kyiv had expressed dismay “about giving up nuclear weapons and not knowing of their disposition by Russia and looking to us for some security.” He asked directly, “How are we responding to that?”

With regard to “formal security guarantees,” Baker replied, “We did not think it appropriate to provide” them.

For his part, then-Senator Joe Biden chimed in to suggest that Kyiv accept legal obligations to disarm or “be faced with a three-to-one superiority of nuclear weapons from Russia.” In one breath, he contemplated Ukraine becoming an independent nuclear power left beholden to Russia due to its nuclear dominance. A coercive double bind became a feature, not a glitch of disarmament.

Despite these inklings, Baker hectored Ukraine to confirm its renunciation of nuclear weapons by fully accepting various treaty obligations, including START. The full-court press to remove nuclear weapons from Ukrainian soil would soon transform from a key objective under the Bush Administration into an urgent and overriding imperative for its successor.

A Rodney Dangerfield Problem

Six days after President Clinton raised his hand from the Bible, he was on the phone with then-Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk, insisting on ratification of START and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. While Clinton told Kravchuk that he intended to “extend strong security assurances upon your ratification,” the menu of options to hasten Ukraine’s denuclearization actually remained largely set from the beginning. Kyiv needed to ratify these treaties (and related addenda) and agree to transfer all the nuclear warheads on its territory to Russia.

In return, Ukraine would receive “security assurances,” restatements of existing commitments under the United Nations and similar institutions where Russia pledged it would not violate Ukrainian borders. In essence, nice words that lacked real teeth. Limited sweeteners were available: Moscow could be persuaded to compensate Kyiv fully for highly enriched uranium, for instance, and Washington could provide technical assistance and other aid. But the issue of defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity was never truly up for debate.

Nevertheless, a version of these terms ultimately made up what became known as the Trilateral Agreement between the United States, Russia, and Ukraine, which prefigured the Budapest Memorandum.

A few months later, in April 1993, Kravchuk confided to then-Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze his “main headache” that “Moscow and the U.S. together have been twisting my arms painfully” in “demanding [the] transfer [of Ukraine’s nuclear weapons] to the Russian Federation.”

“I would understand Russia’s nastiness,” Kravchuk lamented, “But Americans are even worse—they do not listen to our arguments.”

Shevardnadze remarked to his fellow post-Soviet leader:

[The Americans] do not know about our terrible, rough relations with the Russian empire [and] the USSR. Without that knowledge, building predictable and trustworthy relations with ‘democratic Yeltsin and Russia’ would be very difficult, whom [the Americans] currently call ‘Russian democrats’…I know many of them, talked to them a lot. They are still sick with imperial infection.

He went on, referring to his previous job—as Soviet foreign minister:

Being a member of the Politburo I had access to many confidential and top-secret documents—secret reports, notes, different non-papers elaborated in different Soviet structures—the Central Committee offices, KGB, Military Intelligence, think tanks and so forth. Maybe you too know about them. But my access was much deeper and wider…I can say that the documents I have read were just horrible and frightening: about the different scenarios of relations of the Center [Moscow] with the Soviet republics directed toward ‘different kinds of emergencies.’ They included the partition of those republics, expelling their populations to different parts of Siberia and the Soviet Far East—indeed some remote places. To accomplish those goals, they will use military force.

“All those plans are not archival ones!” he continued. “They are fully intact to be used if Moscow makes that decision.”

Shevardnadze implored Kravchuk to “negotiate so as not to undermine your independence and your security.” After all, he observed, “if Ukraine succeeds in keeping at least one nuclear missile as a deterrent to defend itself, it will succeed in safeguarding its independence and sovereignty from those mad men in the Kremlin.”

“Just one nuclear missile.” It was a prophetic observation from a man who understood the inner workings of the Kremlin better than almost anyone else. Shevardnadze told Kravchuk that Russia’s new leaders “understand only power, they are afraid of it.” Nonetheless, forces beyond Kyiv’s control would continue to agitate fiercely against its primary means of deterrence. Moreover, it wasn’t as if they did not have a sense of the Russian threat themselves—of the throughline of deceit that Shevardnadze had so artfully drawn between the Soviet leadership and its Russian successors.

Later that year, in November 1993, Ambassador-at-Large Strobe Talbott wrote to then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher that he had “reached Henry Kissinger over the weekend” about “his skepticism about whether ‘the bear can change his spots.’” Kissinger, too, was questioning “both our NATO policy and our Ukraine policy.”

Documents from the same period suggest Talbott may have been entertaining similar misgivings. In September, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Graham Allison and associate B. G. Riley had written to him with their “concern about Russian unilateralism and increasing Russian pressure upon other states of the former Soviet Union.” They noted Moscow’s “unilateral abolition of unified control of strategic nuclear weapons,” as had been agreed under previous arrangements, “and assumption of direct Russian command.” They noted that while negotiating joint control of the Black Sea fleet the month before, “Russia blackmailed Kravchuk with oil and gas.” The ensuing circumstances were dire: “If Russia cuts off oil and gas, Kravchuk…will be forced out.”

Senior administration officials also appeared confident that Ukraine did, in fact, possess the means to become a fully nuclear-capable state. Clinton’s CIA Director-in-waiting, James Woolsey, wrote a memo during the campaign that concluded “Ukraine, unlike Byelarus [sic] and Kazakhstan, has a very substantial military-industrial complex capable of supporting a nuclear-armed state.” The paper, written based on Woolsey’s vantage as the chief negotiator for another arms treaty at the time, further emphasized that Ukraine “has not only ICBMs, but nuclear-armed bombers.”

President Clinton’s National Security Advisor, Tony Lake, ridiculed Ukraine’s trepidation in giving up these capabilities. After receiving a Congressional delegation led by Dick Gephardt that had visited Ukraine, he summarized their request for security assurances in American legislation as “a Rodney Dangerfield problem.” Years of Ukrainian appeals in this regard sounded, to American ears, like the comedian’s bumptious assertion, “I get no respect.”

As negotiations wore on, the Clinton Administration increasingly viewed Ukrainian disarmament as a political prize. A few months after receiving input from U.S. Representatives, in October 1993, Talbott thanked Vice President Al Gore for dropping in on the Ukrainian Foreign Minister at the White House. Clinton did the same.

“If we succeed in getting those nuclear weapons out of Ukraine,” Talbott quipped to Gore, “I’ll try to arrange for one to be mounted on your wall as a trophy.”

What if Russia invades Ukraine?

The administration would score a significant prize with the signing of the Trilateral Agreement on January 14, 1994. Yet, on the way to Russia, Clinton’s delegation stopped in Kyiv, where Talbott admitted his superiors shut down eleventh-hour pleas regarding its terms by “roughing [Kravchuk] up.” Then, when Clinton’s delegation arrived in Moscow, they encountered strong Russian hostility based on the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative. This new category of affiliation was actually proposed to cool down the discussion of NATO enlargement by succoring prospective applicants with no real chance of full membership in the alliance.

American officials prepared the talking point that it would provide “security underpinnings for countries—Ukraine, Kazakhstan—that otherwise might not be willing to give up nuclear weapons.”

But this was not enough to satisfy the Russians.

Following further spats, Clinton officials like Talbott began to accept privately that Russia would exert special influence in Central and Eastern Europe. In March 1994, he noted the necessity of responding to PfP opponents like Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev with respect for “Russia’s vital interests in the ‘near abroad.’” “It has such interests; we recognize that,” he told Christopher. “In fact,” he added, “we’re prepared to help in a variety of ways.”

Among the examples he provided was the “Trilateral Accord with Ukraine.”

Later that month, Polish Defense Minister Piotr Kołodziejczyk “emphasize[d] strongly” to Talbott that “the independence of Ukraine is of strategic importance for Poland, and not just Poland.” Noting that his own nation’s president had helped persuade Kravchuk to relent on the nuclear question—and given that Belarus, another post-Soviet republic with inherited nuclear weapons, “had already come almost totally under Russia’s control”— Kołodziejczyk emphasized that “Poland was watching to see whether the same thing would happen to Ukraine bit by bit: first Crimea, then eastern Ukraine, then the remainder.”

Apparently, doubt crept in six days later when Talbott asked Christopher rhetorically: “Do we have good answers to questions about what we’ll do if reality refuses to follow the script we’re writing for it?”

“What if,” he wondered, “Russia invades Ukraine?”

This was another important question, but one that apparently did not stop the administration from speeding ahead with the removal of a potentially formidable means of deterring Russian

aggression. Indeed, after the Trilateral Agreement was signed, American officials resisted allowing serious guarantees of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. They stymied Kyiv’s overtures to regional organizations beyond NATO.

Before the Western European Union (WEU) became defunct, its Secretary-General Willem Van Eekelen explained to Talbott in June 1994 that Ukraine “was quite unhappy about being left out” of the continental military alliance. Jim Steinberg, director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, rationalized American opposition to Kyiv’s aspiration to join. “The WEU could not” accept Ukraine, he said, “without implicitly creating new obligations on the part of the alliance.” While acknowledging the WEU was separate from NATO, as “the European pillar of NATO, it would be anomalous for it to have full members not in NATO.”

This baffling explanation likely sounded presumptuous to an exclusively European institution.

Yet, as Talbott asserted, “the U.S. has sought to avoid an abstract, theological debate on the extent to which Russia and Ukraine were part of Europe.” As a result, Ukraine’s attempt at a concrete security guarantee—even a much less potent one—remained out of the question.

Rather, Ukraine would instead have to settle for the high-level public restatements of the assurances it received in the Trilateral Agreement and, later, via the Budapest Memorandum.

A month later, Talbott addressed the North Atlantic Council regarding his efforts on India and Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, which he analogized to the “Moscow-Kiev shuttle.” Ambassador Leif Mevik of Norway asked if Talbott had read Charles Krauthammer’s op-ed published two weeks before, in which the author “posited two categories of new nuclear states.”

“First,” the Ambassador explained, “there were the ‘good guys,’ which are not outlaws”; second, “there were the outlaws, North Korea, Iraq, and Libya, which should be kept at bay as long as possible.” Mevik asked whether Talbott made “the same distinction between non-threatening and outlaw-nuclear-weapon states.” He responded, “The U.S. opposes proliferation in general.”

Perhaps the American stance towards Ukraine’s security concerns is best summarized by Rose Gottemoeller, who would serve on the White House National Security Council as Director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. She recently attributed the following joke to one of the American negotiators on the nuclear question:

Kyiv’s airport has long runways made for bombers, and the wheels whined upon our long landings for what seemed like ten minutes. When we were arriving at the airport, John Gordon, then Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, said[,] ‘Ukraine is the only country where the whining never ends.’

“Though we accorded them respect and they played their difficult hand well,” Gottemoeller recalled in an interview, “they were seen as whiners.”

The Club of Civilization

A month before the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the final step in its legal commitment to disarm, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin met. The question of nuclear parity once again entered the picture.

Russia’s Defense Minister, Pavel Grachev, who was present, stated: “We are cutting back strategic nuclear weapons in accordance with START I, but the Treaty is not ratified. Now START II is pressing us, with a date of 2003 to complete reductions.” The sequel to START would extend its cuts. He added, “If you do not press Ukraine, then we will not be able to proceed with START II.”

Yeltsin chimed in, “So we have to press Ukraine with all our might.” President Clinton added, “So we need to press them to accede to the Non-Proliferation Treaty by the time of the [upcoming] Summit in Budapest.” Yeltsin thundered, “we should bring all the pressure we have to bear. We signed the Trilateral accord, we three, so then what?” Though Russia would postpone ratifying START II until it became obsolete, Yeltsin assured Clinton at the time, “I’m going to press [Ukraine’s newly-elected President Leonid] Kuchma to the wall. NPT or they get no gas or oil!”

Other concerns plagued the Clinton team. The NPT, which came into effect in 1970, approached a precipice. It initially had a twenty-five-year lifespan. In 1995, a conference would decide its fate. Thomas Graham, Jr., Clinton’s diplomat in charge of ensuring the document survived, attested that “delegates had the power on a one-time basis to bind their governments to an extension.” He added, “any further extension could only be by treaty amendment, a practical impossibility.”

In short, the NPT had aged into a legal Humpty Dumpty. A failure in 1995—even in the form of a fixed extension—would have been a great fall. Putting the NPT back together again would have entailed lengthy negotiations and re-ratification, presuming a quorum existed to reconstitute it.

Graham observed that “indefinite extension appeared in 1992 and 1993 to be a long shot.” Although France and China had joined in 1992, when Ambassador Errera asked his counterpart, Ambassador Ho, about Beijing’s intentions, he said, “Indefinite? That is a good word but we do not have that word in the Chinese language.” Amid this dissent, Graham memorialized that the “majority remained uncertain” to favor making the NPT permanent.

Many of the treaty’s signatories remained on the fence. Some—like Indonesia, Egypt, Mexico, and Malaysia—looked forward to lucrative political wrangling. Ukraine’s status outside the NPT would have been their most valuable bargaining chip. Skeptical governments could point both to Kyiv’s nonadherence and its grievances about adequate guaranties to justify holding out for concessions.

According to Graham, Belarus and Kazakhstan’s earlier NPT accessions “focused all attention on Ukraine.” When discussing the NPT’s fate with NATO allies in the summer of 1994, Talbott stressed “acute worry about Ukraine.”

Graham’s address to the Rada in 1994 called the treaty a “Club of Civilization,” which he implored the deputies to join. Had the body’s vote reflected the will of the people, his appeal would likely have failed. Just over a year before, a poll by the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences found that under 50 percent of the population favored becoming “non-nuclear.” Another independent research center, “Democratic Initiatives,” found three months later that 45.3 percent preferred “nuclear-weapon status” for Ukraine, whereas 35 percent preferred disarmament.

Ukraine’s farmers, shopkeepers, schoolteachers, and laborers likely saw the club they were asked to join as premised on the exclusive position of five great powers, who jealously guarded their station. When citizens were consulted on the issue in 1994 by the Advisory Council to the Ukrainian Parliament, Ian Brzezinski summarized input from Bohdan Horyn, a human rights activist and dissident: “The West has failed to adequately respond to the resurgence of Russian hegemony.” Struggling to speak in English, one participant asked, “why did not America help us in 1933?” The unnamed citizen stated, “Ukraine must rely only on its own forces for its defenses.”

As Kuchma deposited the treaty in Budapest weeks later, as the memorandum required, French President Francois Mitterrand remarked to him, “young man, you will be tricked, one way or the other.” “Don’t believe them,” he admonished, “they will cheat you.”

Two weeks after Yeltsin left the stage in Budapest, where he declared a “cold peace,” the celebrated reformer tested the Topol-M, a missile lavishly redesigned in 1992, capable of striking American soil—later wielded as evidence Russia could overcome Western defenses. On New Year’s Eve, he launched an invasion in Chechnya that killed tens of thousands, justifying delays in Russia’s domestic elections.

Rarely does a commander-in-chief openly disavow a prior foreign policy decision. But Bill Clinton repeatedly did so last spring. Referring to the Budapest Memorandum, Clinton stated his regret for insisting Ukraine “agree to give up [its] nuclear weapons.” He also admitted that the story of the agreement was hardly the open-and-shut case of win-win nonproliferation that advocates have presented. “None of them believe that Russia would have pulled this stunt if Ukraine still had their weapons,” Clinton said, referring to the ongoing full-scale invasion.

Shell Games and Security Guarantees

The satellite images are eerie and unequivocal: President Putin has delivered on his threat to install weapons of mass destruction in Belarus, his ally adjacent to Ukraine.

No one should be surprised. Since launching his invasion, Mr. Putin and his acolytes have often touted their willingness to use nuclear arms. Earlier this month, Moscow orchestrated national drills to prepare for nuclear retaliation.

A few days later, Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko opined, “[The] Americans are pushing Russians toward using the most terrifying weapon,” referencing Washington’s sending long-range missiles to Ukraine. Russia, Lukashenko insisted, “will take out the red button and put it on the table.”

The same Western commentators who argue these provocations amount to mere bluffing tend to defend the removal of Kyiv’s nuclear arsenal thirty years ago. Their camp reflexively rejects claims that history could have taken a different course. As Clinton’s comments make clear, however, the story of the Budapest Memorandum is anything but settled history. And, as a new wave of historical revelations shows, the time has come to overturn such simplifications.

Ukraine may very well have had the means to operate a nuclear arsenal.

Maintaining those weapons would have potentially deterred Russia, and there are now very few reasons to doubt the Kremlin’s long-term plans to invade its neighbor date back to the 1990s. This outcome was also something top American officials worried about at the time themselves.

Documents unearthed in the last two years similarly undermine the presumption that moral arguments about global nonproliferation played a predominant role in Ukraine’s renunciation of nuclear arms. Rather than embarking on an idealistic crusade to reduce the number of nuclear weapons worldwide, it was more of a shell game carried out with the grittiest and most realpolitik of aims: calming Russian insecurities about the size of its nuclear stockpile compared to the United States and shoring up a legal regime that would soon become a dead letter.

And while the archival record also reveals key moments of self-awareness about the threat Russia posed, American officials pushed ahead regardless—seemingly reassured in the misapprehension that Russian aggression could be negotiated or theorized away in the future.

These officials wanted to bring Yeltsin and company into the democratic fold and were willing to pay almost any price to see that happen. It was a gamble—a well-meaning and perhaps even worthwhile one—but the chips they were gambling belonged to someone else.

And what did Ukraine get? With over 100,000 Ukrainian souls lost since 2014 and a trillion dollars of wreckage piled high by Mr. Putin’s war, the country’s brief interregnum of peaceful independence offers little solace.

The only thing Ukraine didn’t get was what it wanted all along: Not nuclear weapons, but the security those weapons provide. Ukrainians would have gladly traded every warhead for serious means by which they could have quashed its neighbor’s imperial impulses. But that was denied to Kyiv as well.

The tale of Ukraine’s disarmament is really one of great powers haggling over a vulnerable nation’s fate despite its protests and legitimate concerns about regional security. That is the true story of the Budapest Memorandum. Then, as now, close-minded determinism bears grave dangers. It’s time policymakers came to full grips with that reality.


George E. Bogden is a Krauthammer Fellow and an Olin Fellow at Columbia Law School. The Smith Richardson Foundation, the German Marshall Fund, the British Library, and the Kennan Institute funded his research for this article.