While the world watches as negotiations between NATO and Russia seem relentlessly gridlocked, many might find themselves asking the question: Does the West actually have an obligation to provide Ukraine protection?
In a scenario that turns back the clock 30-plus years, NATO and its partners have an ideological interest in maintaining a democratic nation’s sovereignty as it stands against Moscow. But in a move that suggests a less interventionist philosophy than years past, U.S. and coalition forces just withdrew from Afghanistan several months ago as it faced a similarly grim fate. What is it that prevents the U.S. (and Britain) from stepping away from this conflict as well? While that is a complicated question, and at least part of the answer is the Budapest Memorandum.
To better understand the Budapest Memorandum, we have to go back to the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the Berlin Wall fell, as iconic and triumphant as the moment was for the Western World, it wasn’t just a decisive victory for freedom and democracy. Within the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, a cascade of nations saw it as their opportunity to break free from the USSR, leaving some serious questions that needed to be answered. One of the most pressing of those questions was: What will become of Soviet nuclear weapons positioned outside of Russia’s new borders?
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When the Soviet Union officially dissolved on Christmas Day, 1991, there were nuclear weapons in four former-Soviet republics: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. The fall of an empire is an inevitably chaotic time. The structural integrity of the latter three nations’ governments was in doubt. Fears of power struggles and corruption potentially putting the weapons into the wrong hands were very real.
While Belarus returning its nuclear weapons to Russia came with relative ease, Kazakhstan and Ukraine (understandably) saw their nukes as “bargaining chips” to assert themselves as legitimate independent nations. Allowing them to keep the weapons—therefore allowing the number of “nuclear weapon states” to grow—would call into question the legitimacy of the massive Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that had been in effect since 1970 with both American and Soviet support.
Ukraine and Kazakhstan not actually having control of the nuclear weapons put their status in a legal gray area as far as the NPT goes, but in the event that either country did gain control of the weapons, they would represent the third and fourth-largest nuclear arsenals in the world. The idea of these fledgling nations possessing that much firepower was unacceptable to both Moscow and Washington.
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In a spirit of cooperation that strikes as fairly unusual today (and certainly had to have then), the U.S. worked with Russia to get Kazakhstan and Ukraine to agree to cede all of their weapons by the end of the decade. Kazakhstan and Ukraine both knew that playing ball with the U.S. and Russia was in their best interests to not only be seen as credible and responsible in the international community, but to benefit economically. Ukraine would see their negotiations bear fruit in the following years. Russia compensated the Ukrainian government for the enriched uranium in the warheads; the U.S. provided financial assistance with eliminating silos, missiles and bombers; and finally, the Budapest Memorandum of December 5, 1994, was ratified.
The Budapest Memorandum was an agreement entered into by the U.S., Britain and Russia, providing Ukraine assurances of security, sovereignty and respect for their borders on the condition of Ukraine’s commitment to being a non-nuclear state.
The Memorandum became very relevant nearly 20 years later during Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin was widely criticized for breaking the agreement that was foundational to post-Cold War peace in Eastern Europe. Putin justified the invasion as being in response to a revolution against what he called an illegitimate government in Crimea, spinning Russian involvement as a “humanitarian mission” and supporting Russian separatists in “determination of their own country.”
Of course, only a few weeks after this, Russia officially annexed Crimea–revealing Russia’s true intentions—and months down the road, Putin himself admitted to the use of Russian troops (who wore no insignia to distinguish themselves as such) to fan the flames of civil unrest in Crimea and begin the bloody conflict that has claimed 14,000 lives.
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This manipulation of the narrative was a mere whisper on the wind in a long line of Russian treachery and deceit. An invasion of Ukraine and further violation of the Budapest Memorandum today would do little to damage the increasingly non-existent credibility of the Kremlin in international relations.
On the other side of the coin, however, is the U.S. (and in terms of the Memorandum, Britain), who made assurances to Ukraine, as well. When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the U.S. hit Russia with economic sanctions, cut off trade talks and ended any military cooperation with Russia. The U.S. has also provided $2.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine since Crimea. In recent months, of course, the U.S. supplied Ukraine with weapons and equipment and prepared to commit 8,500 troops to the NATO Response Force as Russia appears primed to invade.
Many would argue that the U.S. response, both post-Crimea and now, have met their obligations to Ukraine. Some might even postulate that by simply not invading Ukraine, they kept their end of the bargain (even though that clearly wasn’t the spirit of the agreement). That’s the thing: The language of the Budapest Memorandum is a bit tricky and could have all but the most knowledgeable foreign policy enthusiasts seeking a dictionary for clarification.
The Memorandum is unquestionably an off-shoot of the NPT and other nuclear disarmament deals like the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). That said, the Memorandum itself is not a treaty at all. It is not legally binding. The full title of the Memorandum is “On Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” and uses the word “commitment” six times. However, as noted by Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution:
“Washington did not promise unlimited support. The Budapest Memorandum contains security ‘assurances,’ not ‘guarantees.’ Guarantees would have implied a commitment of American military force, which NATO members have. U.S. officials made clear that was not on offer. Hence, assurances.”
The U.S. was, in all likelihood, intentionally nebulous when it came to what was expected from them in the event that exactly what is unfolding came to pass. It has provided the current administration some flexibility in handling the crisis. That said, there are wider-reaching ramifications than Ukraine’s sovereignty or even stemming Russian aggression in Europe. America’s NATO allies are watching how they respond to a commitment to protect another country, regardless of the language used in an accord.
It’s certainly not just NATO with an eye on the situation. China undoubtedly is looking for a gap in the West’s armor or a stance that is too weak to stop a Russian advance, and might extrapolate the Ukraine conflict to their own in the South China Sea. Russia-Ukraine is far from a perfect comparison to China-Taiwan, but U.S. relations with Taiwan and the potential response to Chinese aggression there are both fairly ambiguous, just like its backing of Ukraine. That being said, the U.S. is well aware that backing down from Russia will only embolden China, as well. Standing by Ukraine is not just a matter of morality, but of the very survival of the global institutions that have prevented large-scale war for nearly 80 years.
Read more from Sandboxx News:
- Front-line report: Modern trench warfare in Eastern Ukraine
- Russia threatens war in Ukraine as US forces prepare for the worst
- Assessing Russian use of social media as a means to influence US policy
- Kaliningrad: Russia’s political island and key strategic exclave
- Nord Stream 2: Russia’s attempt to divide the US and Europe
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Michael Wilson says
This is sad 😔 I just wish it would end right now no more killing it’s 2022 we should never be at WAR 😭😭😭😭
judy mcpherson says
No one wants a war…..except the USA. Biden was shaking Ukraine AND America down for $$$ Big Bucks. Now he needs cover for his lawlessness and is willing to provide the blood of America’s sons and daughters as that cover….America, what have we devolved into?
Alex Sydnes says
The US was behind color revolutions in Crimea and Ukraine. Hunter Biden heavily involved in corrupting Ukraine figures. The US has consistently provoked Russia with crazy Victoria Nuland’s anti-Russian obsessions promoting gay/feminist dominance. That’s the only explanation for all of this: Gay Pride uber alles.
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Roger Jackson says
My wife is Ukrainian, her sister (my sister in law) lives in Moscow, Ukraine is the motherland of everything Russian, neither side will support a large scale war that kills thousands of their fellow “Slavic” relatives. This whole crisis has been invented by an irresponsible news media looking for a sensational story. If I were the President of Ukraine I would summon the US Ambassador and tell him they have 24 hours to get their media off Ukrainian soil !
S Tamburin says
Yet my Ukrainian friends and relatives (through marriage) who were born in the Ukraine are very worried. Putin keeps taking pieces of their country and the Ukrainians and Russians have been killing each other since forever and started again when Putin took the Crimea and tried taking parts of their eastern border. Don’t you know there has been a war going on their Eastern border Ukrainians vs Russians for years now and many Ukrainians have died. Just look it up.
People fail to realize that Ukraine and Russia tensions are like civil war. Many Russians have family in Ukraine and vice versa. Russia is no longer Soviet, and Ukraine was a part of Russia forever until recently.
After Desert Storm they started rapidly Down Sizing (I’m sorry “Right Sizing) the military. The motto of the Down Size was “No More Task Force Smith’s”. Ukraine is a Task Force Smith waiting to happen.