Failure of Budapest Memorandum. IPN debate

This year it will be 30 years since the signing of an important international document called the Budapest Memorandum, based on which Ukraine ceded to the future aggressor its entire nuclear arsenal, but also a large part of its nonnuclear military weapons and equipment. Why did the neighboring country agree to transform itself from the world’s third biggest nuclear power into a nonnuclear country? Who and what promised it in return for its security and independence? Who and why broke these promises formalized at the highest international level? What does this violation of the oath have to do with the start of the Russian Federation’s war of aggression against Ukraine and also with the chances of stopping this war. These were among the issues discussed by the experts invited to IPN’s public debate “Failure of the Budapest Memorandum”.

Igor Boțan, the permanent expert of IPN’s project, said that the Budapest Memorandum is an interstate document on security assurances in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. It was signed on December 5, 1994 by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, the UK and the United States.

According to him, the Budapest Memorandum ended long international negotiations on Soviet nuclear weapons left at Ukraine’s disposal after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This arsenal was one of the largest in the world, but the Ukrainian government could not use it since the functions of control over strategic nuclear forces and the codes for launching missiles remained with Russia.

“The negotiations were held with the aim of persuading Ukraine to transfer nuclear weapons inherited from the USSR to Russia. In 1991-1994, Ukraine successively signed the Alma-Ata Declaration, the Lisbon Protocol and acceded to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a nuclear-free state. So, things were prepared so that Ukraine, giving up its nuclear weapon, would have guarantees. The security guarantees, as I said, were offered by Russia, the UK and the United States. The guarantees referred to the avoidance of the threat of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence, but also to the refraining from economic constraints that could violate Ukraine’s rights,” explained Igor Botan.

The expert noted that similar memoranda were signed in the same period with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Historian Ion Negrei, vice-president of “Alexandru Mosanu” Association of Historians of the Republic of Moldova, noted that the discussed topic is important from several points of view, including because of the war waged by the Russian Federation on Ukraine. In 1994, when the Budapest Memorandum was signed, the world was in a new formula that was configured after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a result of which a number of independent states, the former union republics, emerged.

“In this context, three new nuclear states emerged because there were nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union on the territory of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, in addition to what was there on the territory of the Russian state. Under these circumstances, the club of states with nuclear weapons expanded since 1991 until 1994. Thus, although the Cold War had been abandoned, a new danger was coming – the territorial expansion of nuclear weapons, with fewer control mechanisms,” said the historian.

Ion Negrei also said that the new states that emerged in the space of the former Soviet Union were weak countries from organizational, political point of view, in terms of the guarantees they could offer in managing the nuclear weapons, etc. Respectively, the need to solve this problem appeared and, in his opinion, it is also the merit of Ukraine that it agreed to accept the status of nonnuclear country, acceding to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and ceding all the arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation for the purpose of destruction.

“In this regard, a situation was created to greatly reduce the nuclear weapons worldwide. And in this process of signing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, thousands of nuclear warheads or intercontinental ballistic missiles were destroyed – a very important arsenal. The world breathed easier. And Ukraine positioned itself from the start as a nonnuclear force because the Ukrainian state pursued other goals – to join the civilized world, to develop economically, to become a modern and civilized state. That’s why it agreed to yield up the warheads. Moreover, these were also technically outdated, posing a great danger,” said the vice-president of “Alexandru Moșanu” Association.

According to him, at the OSCE Summit held in Budapest in 1994, Ukraine showed this gesture of goodwill to hand over its arsenal to the Russian Federation for liquidation. This step was welcomed by other signatories, including the United States, because most of the warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles on Ukrainian territory were aimed at the U.S. The UK also welcomed this gesture, and France and China joined this agreement later.

“Thus, the Memorandum was welcomed by all the nuclear states. Ukraine demanded, in exchange for giving up the status of nuclear state, to be offered particular guarantees, normal development conditions,” stated Ion Negrei.

Radu Burduja, director of the Euro-Atlantic Institute for Building Resilience, argued that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Belarus were among the closest republics to Moscow. Ukraine was also one of the largest republics, with several military units with various capabilities, including nuclear ones, located on its territory.

“Specifically, the 43rd Army, which had these nuclear weapons prepared, was located on the territory of Ukraine. According to various sources, there were about 3,000 nuclear warheads and, respectively, launch equipment and platforms. In addition to these nuclear capabilities, there was an enormous number of conventional weapons. Like Moldova at those times, Ukraine inherited military units, aviation, infantry, naval regiments, etc.” said the former secretary of state of the Ministry of Defense.

That’s why, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was a fearsome military force. Under the circumstances, it was decided that at least the nuclear weapons would be handed back to Russia for various reasons. Each state had its own reasons. Ukraine realized that it was expensive to maintain them and this burden somehow had to be taken away from Ukraine’s budget. “At the same time, it must be clear that Ukraine did not give them up voluntarily. There has been enormous pressure from Russia and also from the United States and other powers, for Ukraine to accede to this non-proliferation treaty and surrender the nuclear arsenal. Ukraine also asked to be compensated financially and to be assisted for the destruction and transportation of nuclear warheads and its nuclear arsenal,” said Radu Burduja.

He stated that in financial terms, the U.S offered about half a billion dollars for dismantling the nuclear equipment and transferring it to Russian territory. Russia also agreed to settle some of Ukraine’s debts for Russian gas. Thus, at that time the situation was beneficial for all the participants in the Memorandum.

“Now we are discussing the ambiguous text of that memorandum that had adverse consequences for Ukraine later. But at the time of the collapse of the USSR it was a solution beneficial to all. There are heated discussions about the consequences. Experts fall into two camps. Those close to the military say Ukraine ceded an enormous element of military deterrence. Those closest to politics and diplomacy bring counterarguments because, they say, even if Ukraine hadn’t agreed to surrender the nuclear weapons, pressure would have been exerted to force Ukraine to give up,” noted the former secretary of state of the Ministry of Defense.

The public debate entitled “Failure of the Budapest Memorandum” was the 27th installment of IPN’s project “Impact of the Past on Confidence and Peace Building Processes” which is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation of Germany.

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