A Russian tank participates in military exercises in 2013. Photo via kremlin.ru
“We can talk about the economy, we can talk about social security—the biggest problem this world has is nuclear proliferation.” Donald Trump, “Meet the Press,” October 1999.
Speaking on February 2, 2017, at the Security Council meeting called by Ukraine in the wake of the renewed escalation of fighting in the Donbas, newly-appointed US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said: “The United States stands with the people of Ukraine who have suffered for nearly three years under Russian occupation and military interventions.” She also reassured the world that sanctions imposed on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea will remain in place until the peninsula is returned to Ukraine.
This, no doubt, came as relief to all those concerned that the desire of President Trump and some in his entourage to partner with Russia might spell tacit acceptance of President Putin’s designs on Ukraine. It is too early for complacency, however, as Trump has earlier changed his stance on a variety of issues. In addition, it is unclear how much attention he pays to what was said at the United Nations. His broader Russia policy remains a mystery. If he does move to set in motion a US-Russian rapprochement, sanctions against Russia will be increasingly difficult to sustain. In the final tally, the Trump administration might judge Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity a bothersome yet insufficient impediment to mending fences with Putin.
The Trump administration should be reminded that international politics is less of a billiard table of bilateral transactions and more of a spider web, where a tug at one end will rattle its farthest corners. The web in which Ukraine’s territorial integrity is entangled is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)—one of the most widely adhered international treaties, designed to curb the spread of nuclear weapons around the world.
In 1994, Ukraine joined the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state, a decision that entailed relinquishing world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. This constructive move came at a price: the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom pledged to Ukraine security assurances in a Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed in Budapest on December 5, 1994.
The Budapest Memorandum, as the document became known, aimed at addressing precisely what happened in Crimea in 2014. The breach of the Memorandum by one of its signatories has been damaging enough. The removal of the sanctions for this breach by other signatories would render it utterly worthless and deal a devastating blow to the international nonproliferation regime, of which the Memorandum has become a constitutive part.
Ukraine’s Conditional Denuclearization
In 1991, when the Soviet Union crumbled, Ukraine came into a formidable nuclear inheritance: 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and 44 strategic bombers armed with some 2,000 nuclear warheads, as well as over 2,600 tactical nuclear weapons, constituting 15 percent of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal. In addition, Ukraine inherited a vast military-industrial infrastructure, including nuclear research reactors, the world’s largest ICBM factory, missile targeting and guidance capacities, and some uranium mining. Even though operational control over the use of the strategic weapons systems remained in Moscow, Ukraine possessed an enviable starter package for any aspiring proliferator, as well as enough technological and intellectual capacity to acquire control over some of these weapons within a couple of years.
Despite, or perhaps because of this proximity to a nuclear status, Kyiv’s initial intention was to relinquish all nuclear weapons on its territory and become a neutral state. These weapons were associated with the worst exigencies of a totalitarian superpower in which Ukraine had been trapped, including the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. However, it soon became painfully apparent to Ukraine’s leaders that the new “democratic” Russia emerging out of the Soviet rubble contained more than a dash of the old empire.
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After the USSR’s break-up in 1991, Moscow’s military establishment staunchly impeded the establishment of independent Ukrainian armed forces—a quintessential sovereign function which Kyiv viewed as essential for securing the nation’s newly-found independence. Senior Russian politicians and the Russian parliament kept advancing territorial claims over Crimea. All the while, Moscow militarily supported irredentist movements in Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia republics, and Moldova’s Transnistria. This convinced Ukrainian leaders soon that Russia was prepared to revise post-Soviet borders, by force if needed.
As a result, Kyiv’s initial pledge to disarm unconditionally became more nuanced and led to demands that Western powers provide security guarantees against future Russian military, political, and economic coercion. In response to these demands, a series of US-Ukrainian negotiations over future security guarantees to Kyiv commenced in 1992. Originally, Ukraine’s negotiators envisioned an international treaty between Ukraine and the five permanent UN Security Council members. This agreement would have been legally binding, guaranteed Ukraine’s borders, and specified concrete costs for breaching them. Still, at the time Ukraine did not seek an alliance with the West but rather a guaranteed neutrality, not unlike that of post-war Austria.
However, neither the outgoing Bush Sr. administration nor the incoming Clinton administration were willing to take on legally binding obligations to the young Ukrainian state. Instead, they pinned all hopes on a reforming and democratizing Russia as a keystone of regional stability. The White House also wanted to avoid a lengthy ratification process that would necessarily follow a signature of an international treaty. Finally, any Western concessions to, and even mere engagement with, Ukraine encountered hostile reactions in Moscow, which considered Ukraine and its nuclear predicament something of a family affair.
Ukrainian negotiators knew that Washington’s assurances fell far short of the guarantees they had been seeking.
Still, Ukrainian negotiators knew that Washington’s assurances fell far short of the guarantees they had been seeking. They were thus keen to have Western commitments formally connected to its accession to the NPT—a regime that appeared as being of great importance to the West—and thereby have Ukraine’s security embedded in broader international structures. This was the purpose of the Budapest Memorandum, signed by the three nuclear-armed depositary states of the NPT—Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom—with similar pledges extended in separate statements by China and France, the other two nuclear powers recognized by the NPT.
The Budapest Memorandum, to be sure, is imperfect. This is not surprising given that it emerged from negotiations between parties with great power differentials and disparate interests. The Memorandum simply reiterates existing multilateral commitments to respect borders and refrain from coercion, as found in the UN Charter and the OSCE Helsinki Final Act, as well as the general negative and positive nuclear assurances customarily extended by the NPT’s nuclear states to the treaty’s non-nuclear members. It is a diplomatic memorandum of understanding recording political pledges and not a legally binding treaty, although Ukraine was reassured that Washington takes such pledges seriously. Nor does the Memorandum contain any punitive provisions for the event of its breach. The parties merely agreed to consult, if a situation arises that raises a question concerning the stated commitments of the signatories.
The significance of the Memorandum thus was not in providing any novel or particularly robust security guarantees. Rather, its significance was in linking the fulfillment of these security commitments to Ukraine’s nuclear renunciation and accession to the NPT, making them an integral part of the international nonproliferation regime. Indeed, Ukraine’s instrument of ratification of the NPT specifically states that any threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and revision of its borders by a nuclear-armed state would be treated as “extraordinary circumstances that jeopardize its supreme interests.” This clause was taken verbatim from the NPT’s Article X, which provides for the withdrawal from the Treaty, and was thus meant to retain for Ukraine a legal pretext to renew its nuclear arsenal if need be.
Russian Aggression and the NPT
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its direct military intervention in Eastern Ukraine in August 2014 and again in January-February 2015 constituted just such extraordinary circumstances. Not surprisingly, they led to a motion in the Ukrainian parliament to withdraw from the NPT. Also, unsurprisingly, Ukraine’s public support for nuclear rearmament swelled in 2014 to 43 percent, with even stronger approval amongst the younger generation. Despite the motion, which was not sustained, and the growing sense that Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament had been a blunder, the likelihood of Ukraine going nuclear is low.
The concern rather is that Russia’s breach of the Budapest Memorandum undermines the very logic of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The NPT is inherently discriminatory: it legitimizes nuclear possession for only five states, which also happen to be the UN Security Council’s P5, yet demands nuclear abstinence from the remainder of the parties. The recognition of this exceptional status for the official nuclear five puts them under a special onus not to abuse this status for their own gain, lest the legitimacy of the bargain at the core of the NPT be eroded. The nuclear five have already been coming under fire from a growing number of non-nuclear NPT signatory states for their inadequate efforts to conduct nuclear disarmament, to which the nuclear five had committed under the treaty. This frustration has, over the past decade, snowballed into a movement to ban nuclear weapons in their entirety.
That a recognized NPT nuclear state should use military force to annex a part of the territory of a neighboring non-nuclear state, all the while staving off Western assistance by brandishing its nuclear status, bodes ill for the international effort to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction around the world. Such actions make a mockery of the international regime, to which Ukraine acceded on conditions that such violations would not take place, a decision that involved not a hypothetical right to develop nuclear arms, but a physical surrender of a formidable stash of nuclear weapons by transferring them, of all places, to Russia.
US officials responsible for negotiating the Budapest Memorandum came out as vocal proponents for providing more robust military support to Ukraine, including lethal defensive arms, at which the Obama administration bulked.
The new administration’s attitude toward international institutions like the NPT remains to be seen. But if its attitude toward domestic institutions is any indication, things are not looking promising. In the worst case, the NPT may take a hit not only from Putin’s contempt for Russia’s commitments within the regime, but also from Trump’s indifference toward it. Above all, the United States’ abandonment of its security commitments to Ukraine would send an ominous message to potential proliferators worldwide—whether American friends or foes.
The United States would effectively announce that great power assurances stand for nothing. Its lesson to the world’s current and future statesmen and -women would be: “If you got nukes, then keep them! If you don’t have nukes, yet have a powerful and unfriendly neighbor, you need to get some. Don’t be so naïve to rely on pieces of paper such as the NPT or other international agreements, because if push comes to shove, the guarantors of such declarations—even the most powerful ones like the United States—will not honor them.”
The new Trump administration must keep in mind that one way to make America great (again) is to have it honor its commitments and get on the right side in the ongoing struggle to prevent nuclear proliferation.
Mariana Budjeryn is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. Her research concerns international nuclear nonproliferation regimes and the politics of nuclear disarmament of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Views expressed in this article are author’s own.