Can the World Learn from the Failure of the Budapest Accords?
The US & our allies must push the UN to convene a new round of negotiations leading to solid and unambiguous treaties that will prevent rogue nations from invading nearby states they covet
Nuclear non-proliferation and preventing war — stopping or even reversing the spread of nuclear weapons across the world and preventing the invasion of one country by another — is right up there with doing something about climate change in terms of guaranteeing a future that includes safety and security for the people of our planet.
Right now we’re engaged in negotiations with Iran, for example.
Since Trump stupidly and single-handedly pulled the US out of the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal, we and the other countries negotiating the deal (Britain, France, China, Germany, Russia, and the US) are trying to assure Iran that we’ll protect them in the event, say, Saudi Arabia or Israel decide to try to take them out.
It’s not going so well, and part of the reason is the failure of the “Budapest Memorandum” of 1994, an agreement worked out just three years after the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine again became an independent nation.
Through much of that year the UK, US, and Russia met repeatedly with Ukraine through a venue in Budapest provided and blessed by the UN to try to secure and remove from Ukraine the world’s third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Ukraine had inherited from the old Soviet Union a massive collection of nukes, including almost two thousand SS-19 and SS-24 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Between 1991 and 1994, Ukraine had the world’s third largest nuclear weapons arsenal.
Each of those thousands of missiles had warheads containing nuclear bombs in the 400-550 kiloton range: each missile’s warhead was 27 to 37 times more powerful than the weapons we used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This Ukrainian stash of nuclear weapons was six times the size of what China has today, capable of destroying — both because of the missiles’ ranges and the size of the warheads — every town and city in the United States with more than 50,000 people, as The Brookings Institution notes, “three times over, with warheads left to spare.”
Most were pre-targeted at the United States, but these missiles — and the long-range jets and nuclear bombs Ukraine had as well — could just as easily been repositioned to take out Moscow and every major population center in Russia, or every consequential city in Britain and continental Europe, with plenty of firepower left over.
The US, UK, and Russia — on behalf of the United Nations and the world — really, really wanted those nuclear weapons to be secured.
Ukraine was more than willing to give them up — particularly after being so traumatized by the meltdown of their Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986 — so they entered the Budapest negotiations in good faith with only three simple demands.
First, they wanted an absolute assurance from, at least, the US, UK, and Russia that their territorial integrity would be both respected by those three nations and defended in the event of an invasion by a third party.
Second, Ukraine wanted some financial help to safely dig the missiles out of their bunkers and transport them to Russia for decommissioning and destruction. The job would cost more than Ukraine’s economy could bear at the time.
Third, they still had 15 functioning nuclear reactors operating in Ukraine, a legacy of the Soviet nuclear power program (which also provided some of the materials for those 1900 nukes), and the nuclear material in the warheads could be reprocessed into high-quality fuel for Ukraine’s power stations. They wanted an equivalent amount of nuclear fuel from the US, UK, and Russia so they could provide themselves with low-cost electricity for a few decades.
The three nations negotiating with Ukraine agreed to all the terms:
Russia took most of the responsibility for relocating and decommissioning the ICBMs and their nuclear warheads, and providing Ukraine with nuclear power-station fuel.
The US and the UK kicked in around $3 billion cash to cover the costs.
And all three nations kicked in to an additional $3 billion fund to pay for a modern Ukrainian military and promised to never attack Ukraine and to defend its borders if anybody else did.
Ukraine, trusting our word that their borders would never be violated, gave up their nuclear weapons. All of them.
We can all see how poorly that memorandum, signed in Budapest on December 5, 1994, has worked out. So can Iran. And Pakistan. And North Korea.
And so can any other “small” country thinking that possessing nukes may let it punch above its weight when it comes to defending itself against hostile land-grabs from neighbors. Like Taiwan.
The memorandum doesn’t have specific language about exactly how the US, UK, and Russia would protect Ukraine and its borders in the event of an attack, but it was backed up by at least the appearance of the moral force of the United Nations.
(I’ve appended the entire text of the Budapest Memorandum at the end of this article: it’s short and really worth taking 2 minutes to read.)
It does, however, contain language that the Ukrainians were convinced would protect them. In it, the US, UK and Russia “reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”
The three nations and, by proxy, the UN, additionally promised to “refrain from economic coercion” against Ukraine and, should things break down, to “seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine” if any nation were to initiate an “act of aggression” against Ukraine.
But nowhere does it say exactly what that “assistance” would look like.
By 1996 Ukraine was completely denuclearized, weapons-wise, and until 2014 thought they were safe as the country blossomed into a western-Europe-like vibrant regulated capitalist economy, having twice rejected attempts by political elites to corrupt the government as they built a sturdy middle class and a technologically modern nation.
That legal-language ambiguity, however, provided both the US and the UK with wiggle room when Russia annexed Crimea back in 2014. Ukraine went before the UN and, citing the Budapest Memorandum, demanded the world act to protect its territory from Russian aggression.
The world, not wanting to piss off Putin and having only the weakest of assurance language in the memorandum, passed on doing anything and let Russia get away with the land grab.
In the past months President Zelensky has repeatedly referenced the Budapest Memorandum when demanding the world — or at least the US and United Kingdom — keep their agreement to guarantee the integrity of Ukraine’s borders.
“Since 2014, Ukraine has tried three times to convene consultations with the guarantor states of the Budapest Memorandum. Three times without success. Today Ukraine will do it for the fourth time.
“I, as President, will do this for the first time. But both Ukraine and I are doing this for the last time. I am initiating consultations in the framework of the Budapest Memorandum. The Minister of Foreign Affairs was commissioned to convene them.
“If they do not happen again or their results do not guarantee security for our country, Ukraine will have every right to believe that the Budapest Memorandum is not working and all the package decisions of 1994 are in doubt.”
President Zelensky mentioned it most recently last Friday, March 4th, as the Russian invasion turned into an orgy of slaughter, when he said to the world:
“All the alliance has managed to do so far is to carry 50 tons of diesel fuel for Ukraine through its procurement system probably so that we can burn the Budapest Memorandum.”
As the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, a Murdoch-owned publication that had previously supported Trump in his repeated sucking up to Putin, noted in an opinion piece published two weeks ago (Feb. 22, 2022):
“Don’t be surprised if Japan or South Korea seek their own nuclear deterrent. If Americans want to know why they should care about Ukraine, nuclear proliferation is one reason. Betrayal has consequences, as the world seems destined to learn again the hard way.”
The crisis caused by the failure of the Budapest Memorandum today and in 2014 has been terrible for Ukraine and has now damaged Russia by its own hand, both militarily, economically and in their standing among the nations of the world.
But that failure has not been ignored by other nations of the world, and is, at this moment, almost certainly at the heart of conversations being held in the highest levels of dozens of wannabee nuclear nations around the world.
As the Russian rape of Ukraine continues, the world’s nations and their body, the United Nations, must take the lesson of the failure of the Budapest Memorandum to heart.
We need new and stronger agreements — cemented into law as treaties with explicit language about trigger points and consequences — around the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons and respecting the territorial integrity of nations.
World War I metastasized across the continent of Europe because, in part, of the ambiguity and varying interpretations of mutual-defense agreements among nations in the region following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo.
The United States and our allies must push the United Nations to convene a new round of negotiations leading to solid and unambiguous treaties that will prevent — or quickly and severely bring the world together to punish — any other rogue nation from invading a nearby state whose land and resources it covets.
Memorandum on Security Assurances in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (aka The Budapest Memorandum)
Budapest, 5 December 1994
The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,
Welcoming the accession of Ukraine to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-nuclear-weapon State,
Taking into account the commitment of Ukraine to eliminate all nuclear weapons from its territory within a specified period of time,
Noting the changes in the world-wide security situation, including the end of the Cold War, which have brought about conditions for deep reductions in nuclear forces.
Confirm the following:
1. The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the CSCE Final Act, to respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.
2. The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self- defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
3. The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the CSCE Final Act, to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind.
4. The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non- nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.
5. The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm, in the case of the Ukraine, their commitment not to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, except in the case of an attack on themselves, their territories or dependent territories, their armed forces, or their allies, by such a state in association or alliance with a nuclear weapon state.
6. The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will consult in the event a situation arises which raises a question concerning these commitments.
This Memorandum will become applicable upon signature. Signed [in Budapest] in four copies having equal validity in the English, Russian and Ukrainian languages.