Twenty years ago in Budapest, Hungary, leaders of the United States, Russia, Britain and Ukraine signed a memorandum on nuclear weapons and Ukrainian security. It committed Ukraine to remove nuclear arms from its territory and join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a nonnuclear-weapon state — the last former Soviet republic to make that pledge. In exchange, the other three signatories — still nuclear armed — would respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and existing borders and not threaten or use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.
Two decades later, Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting separatists throughout eastern Ukraine, including with materiel and men from Russia — a clear violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Understandably, many Ukrainians now believe that agreement was a calamity for their country: They got rid of their nuclear arsenal and got a security and humanitarian disaster in return. Polling suggests that a sizable chunk of the Ukrainian public would support Ukraine’s reacquisition of nuclear weapons. Are they correct?
The answer is no. To think otherwise is to perpetuate myths regarding nuclear weapons and Ukrainian security in 1994 and today.
It is indisputable that when the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine was left with hundreds of nuclear launchers and missiles and thousands of nuclear warheads. What is less clear is whether Ukraine ever had operational control over this arsenal — and if it did, whether it could have realistically hoped to retain such control. In other words, it is misleading to suggest that Ukraine gave up weapons that it could have credibly threatened to use, then or later.
And even if one assumes that 20 years after the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine did have operational control over some portion of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal on its territory, it is questionable whether the possession of these weapons or the threat of their use by Kiev would have deterred Moscow from intervening in Crimea in 2014.
As former secretaries of State and Defense George P. Shultz, Henry Kissinger and William J. Perry, along with former Sen. Sam Nunn, have written, nuclear deterrence “is importantly psychological, depending on calculations for which there is no historical experience. It is therefore precarious.” Crimea, where Russia has deployed a large fleet and ground force since well before and after the Soviet breakup, could never have fit easily under any Ukrainian nuclear umbrella. Its protection from Moscow would have been by no means guaranteed through precarious deterrence.
And what about now? It must be made clear to Ukrainians and their supporters everywhere: Nuclear weapons make no sense for Ukraine’s future. Even if it had the ability to produce, deploy and use nuclear weapons, going down that road would almost certainly trigger a security and economic disaster for Ukraine. The costs of achieving and maintaining nuclear capability are huge and would come at the expense of other investments and relationships — including the loss of support from the West — that are vital for the nation’s future.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, President Clinton was determined to ratify and implement the languishing Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START. The key to START was for Ukraine to agree to give up its nuclear holdings. Until it did, the whole effort was in doubt. The high-stakes diplomacy that resulted in the Budapest Memorandum also provided the framework for eliminating thousands of strategic nuclear launchers, missiles and warheads not just in Ukraine, but in the United States, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. A massive and dangerous Cold War nuclear overhang that posed unique and horrific risks to humanity was successfully removed. The world would not be a safer place without the agreements reached in Budapest.
None of this diminishes the tragedy still unfolding in Ukraine. It does not absolve Russia for its violation of the Budapest Memorandum or free the West from doing more to assist Ukraine. Nor does it undo the damage Putin’s violation of Ukrainian independence, sovereignty and territory has caused to the use of “security assurances” as a tool in disarmament diplomacy.
But seeing Ukraine’s nuclear past clearly, and remembering how it fits into reducing Cold War nuclear arsenals, is a prerequisite for honestly appraising the crisis in Europe today and constructing a viable path out of the Ukraine morass.
Steven Andreasen, as director for defense policy and arms control on the White House National Security Council staff from 1993 to 2001, participated in the 1993 START policy review leading to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. He is a consultant to the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington, and teaches at the University of Minnesota.