The Failure of the “Budapest Memorandum" Is a Betrayal of World Peace
If the free world fails in our efforts to support Ukraine’s self-defense & enforce this agreement signed by the United States, future prospects for peace in the world will be significantly diminished
While countries around the world are trying to create and build nuclear weapons stockpiles (particularly China, Iran, and North Korea) only one country in the history of the world has ever given up their nuclear hoard and unilaterally denuclearized their military: Ukraine.
And former President Bill Clinton — who brokered the deal during the fourth year of his presidency — feels terrible about it.
“I feel a personal stake because I got them [Ukraine] to agree to give up their nuclear weapons,” Clinton said in an interview this week with the Irish media company RTÉ. “And none of them believe that Russia would have pulled this stunt if Ukraine still had their weapons.”
Clinton can be forgiven his naivete: in 1994 Russia had not yet been turned into a fascist dictatorship. Boris Yeltsin was president and Russians — and the world — were giddy about the possibility of the country becoming a western-style democracy.
The deal Clinton brokered is known as the “Budapest Memorandum of 1994,” an agreement worked out just three years after the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine had again become an independent nation.
Through much of that year the UK, US, and Russia met repeatedly with Ukraine at 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, the largest country in Europe (about the size of Texas), 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), in silos scattered from border to border. Between 1991 and 1994, Ukraine owned the world’s third largest nuclear weapons arsenal.
Every one 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 those missiles — and the long-range jets and nuclear bombs Ukraine had as well — could just as easily have been re-positioned 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.
And Ukraine was reluctant to let go of their nukes. As Clinton told the Irish broadcaster:
“They were afraid to give them up because they thought that's the only thing that protected them from an expansionist Russia.”
But 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 ultimately willing to give them up to advance world peace — particularly after being so traumatized by the meltdown of their Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986 — so they entered the Budapest negotiations with Yeltsin and Clinton 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.
— 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, 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, starting with the Obama administration’s failure to defend Ukraine when Russia invaded and took Crimea in 2014.
So can children in Ukraine who are literally dying from Russian missiles and bombs as you read these words.
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 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.
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.
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.
As Clinton noted in his interview:
“When it became convenient to him, President Putin broke it and first took Crimea. And I feel terrible about it because Ukraine is a very important country.”
The United States and Europe, not wanting to piss off Putin over what seemed like a small slice of Ukrainian land, passed on doing anything militarily and let Russia get away with the land grab.
It was a fateful betrayal, as Bill Clinton pointed out this week. And the Ukrainians know it and are asking the world to acknowledge it.
In the past years, President Zelenskyy 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.
On February 19th, 2022 as Russia was massing troops along the Ukrainian border, President Zelenskyy told the Munich Security Conference:
“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 again on March 4th, 2022 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.”
The consequences of that betrayal are now echoing across the planet. Our failure to act in 2014 has literally made the world less safe.
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 on February 22 of last year:
“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.”
On top of that, China is watching how this plays out and must be considering what might be the results of a similar effort to seize Taiwan.
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. It has shaken the world order.
As Putin’s campaign of murder, rape, and destruction has turned into an attempted genocide, America has both a moral and a legal obligation to defend Ukraine and honor the Budapest Memorandum.
If the free world fails in our efforts to support Ukraine’s self-defense and honor this agreement signed by the United States, future prospects for peace in the world will be significantly diminished.
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.
Thank you Thom for this very pertinent information . No wonder Putins lie about Ukraine attacking Russia first has been put forth .
Vladimir Putin is a treacherously manipulative individual, who appears to have no conscience at all .
No wonder he and trump have been so easily familiar .
Im disappointed that no action was taken in 2014 by President Obama. It may have been different if the line was drawn then . So for all Russias posturing as victim ...everyone knows otherwise.
As far as authoritarian moves go , it applies across the board even with the budding authoritarian Trump,
He too is a victim. Allegedly.
Thanks for reminding us of the Budapest Accords. We saw the liberation of Eastern Europe countries 1992=94 coming years earlier when working with the Russians on joint environmental science projects...internal signs that the Wall would come down, and it did. Yet chronically short-term memory seems to be common to nations and people. History really matters and has to be continually remembered, restated, honored and enlarged with truth, not lies.