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Mary Sarotte, James Timbie and Steven Pifer at the Dec. 6, 2019 conference

Ukraine Illuminated: Insiders Parse the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Then and Now

December 19, 2019
RM Staff

In today’s U.S. media landscape, stories about Ukraine abound, crammed into a merciless 24-hour news cycle: in connection with impeachment hearings, of course, but also about local farmers and obscure lawsuits and side by side with recipes for gingery chocolate cookies. Amid the din, it came as a relief this month to see a unique conference zoom out with historical perspective to consider a foundational event for modern Ukraine: the signing, 25 years ago, of the so-called Budapest Memorandum—formally, the Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection With Ukraine's Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons—which cemented the country’s status as a non-nuclear-weapons state and pledged a series of security assurances in return, including commitments to “respect … the existing borders of Ukraine,” “refrain from the threat or use of force against [its] territorial integrity” and “seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance … 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.” 

These assurances have often been invoked since Russia—one of the memorandum’s four signatories, along with the U.S., U.K. and Ukraine itself—annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and began supporting insurgents in Ukraine’s east, where the ensuing war has taken thousands of lives. Indeed, some of the most interesting perspectives at the conference—attended by people who designed, negotiated and implemented policies related to the memorandum and other post-Soviet nuclear disarmament efforts—had to do with the language of the assurances in the Dec. 5, 1994, memorandum and the central question of their strength: How binding were they? And, if they were not as binding as Ukraine had hoped, what does this mean for nuclear nonproliferation worldwide?

A full broadcast of the event, organized by the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, can be watched here. Below we’ve summarized some highlights.

Enormous Stakes

The scale of the nuclear threat in the years before the Budapest Memorandum was immense and several speakers reminded those assembled of the numbers involved: Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, its three nuclear-armed successor states other than Russia—Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan—had more nuclear weapons on their territory than France, the U.K. and China combined, said Susan Koch, who held senior positions with the National Security Council, secretary of defense’s office and other agencies, and is now a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University. Harvard professor Graham Allison, who has served in the Defense Department under Democratic and Republican administrations, recalled a comment made in 1991 by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney that even if the Soviet Union were 99 percent successful with nuclear security it would still lose 250 weapons. The challenge we faced then was managing “the first-ever, first [and] only disintegration of a nuclear power,” former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter pointed out, and the wise policies and good execution that helped achieve this should get their due, he said, especially praising the “Russian and Ukrainian custodians” of the deadly arms in question—people who made “a 30,000-nuclear-weapons-in-the-midst-of-a-revolution situation work out ok.”

Mariana Budjeryn, William Tobey, Thomas Graham and Susan Koch.
Mariana Budjeryn, William Tobey, Thomas Graham and Susan Koch at the conference.

Personal Anecdotes

Throughout the conference, speakers shared personal stories connecting the historical events in question with their subjective experiences—implicitly reminding listeners that every policy process and faceless-seeming document rests on the actions, arguments and decisions of individual human beings. Allison, for example, recalled being in Moscow in August 1991 during the hardliner putsch that nearly unseated Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and writing to Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about his dread that “rapid Soviet disunion” would lead to an equally “rapid disintegration of the Soviet military forces, including the nuclear arsenal.” (This private memo, headed “Sounding the Alarm” and recommending extensive cooperation with Moscow, was shared with other key figures in the administration, one of Allison’s major contributions to nuclear disarmament and security.) Carter—who, also in 1991, helped conceive and oversee what became known as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program—showed photos from his visits to Ukrainian weapons sites, including one in which senior U.S., Ukrainian and Russian military officials planted sunflowers in place of a destroyed ICBM silo. (That crucial program was initiated by Sens. Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar through the passage of the Soviet Threat Reduction Act in November 1991. It was designed to cut and safeguarded Soviet nuclear weapons.) Rose Gottemoeller, who stepped down this fall as NATO’s deputy general secretary, was reminded by a fellow speaker of a harrying episode, early in her career as a U.S. diplomat, when she had to ambush then-President Bill Clinton en route to his mother’s funeral in order to secure his consent for a crucial step on the road to the Budapest Memorandum.

Memorandum Language and Assurances: Binding or Not?

One of the valuable insights about the Budapest Memorandum’s security assurances that we gleaned from the event was that, as former U.S. diplomats explained, Washington was simply not prepared in the early 1990s to accept a legally binding document with provisions akin to NATO’s Article 5. In contrast, Ukrainian officials had hoped for security guarantees, rather than mere assurances, and many of them have been deeply disappointed that the memorandum’s Western signatories have not done more to protect Ukraine, especially in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, according to the Ukrainian diplomats in attendance.

James Timbie, part of the State Department negotiating team who readied the memorandum for signing, remembers “vividly” that then-Secretary of State James Baker was “adamant” that the U.S. would not provide Ukraine with security guarantees—one of the three things Kyiv had wanted, along with assistance in dismantling its nuclear-weapons complex and compensation for the enriched uranium and plutonium on its territory. For the U.S., a top priority after the Soviet break-up was to have only one nuclear state succeed the USSR; Washington wouldn’t agree to a legally binding document on Ukraine’s security, Timbie said. What Baker did agree to eventually was to reaffirm earlier U.S. commitments made in documents like the Helsinki Final Act, the U.N. Charter and the Charter of Paris. This is why, Timbie explained, the Budapest Memorandum says its signatories “reaffirm” various commitments and obligations, rather than agreeing to new ones. There was a lot of checking with lawyers on language, he added.

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who also took part in the memorandum negotiations, expanded on Timbie’s point, highlighting that the document offers “assurances” not “guarantees”—a meaningful distinction in American legalese.

Ukrainian diplomat Borys Tarasyuk, who at the time the memorandum was being crafted was Ukraine’s representative to NATO and also Ukraine’s ambassador to the Benelux countries (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), claimed that the Ukrainian language does not have an analogous distinction: Ukraine had been seeking security guarantees and a legally binding document providing them. He sees the “forgetting” of the Budapest Memorandum after Russia’s actions against Ukraine as a huge failure of the international legal system, undercutting faith in international agreements signed by the U.S. Many Ukrainian officials, including Gen. Ihor Smeshko, a former military attaché to Washington who spoke at the conference via video link, viewed the memorandum as “international law,” in accord with the Vienna Convention. Tarasyuk, for his part, acknowledged that it may not have been a legal document in the formal sense, but was politically very important—bearing the U.S. president’s signature after all. Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. had kept up their side of the bargain, he feels, adding, however, that their “non-commitment” was incomparable to the outright violations by Russia.

Several other speakers said the conflict between Ukraine and Russia points to a failure across the body of international law: Gottemoeller was one, noting that Moscow’s actions violated the legally binding 1997 Ukrainian Russian Friendship Treaty; Nikolai Sokov—a former Russian diplomat who now holds a U.S. passport—did not speak of violations explicitly but argued that the weakness or lack of guarantees poses a danger to nuclear nonproliferation more broadly.


Unsurprisingly, the topic of NATO arose a few times. While Carter reiterated his view that international security would have benefitted from sticking for longer with the Partnership for Peace, and not rushing into NATO expansion, Gottemoeller and Tarasyuk engaged in a somewhat dramatic exchange on Ukraine’s relationship with the alliance. Tarasyuk said Ukraine had found itself vulnerable in 2014 because it was not a member of a military bloc and asked Gottemoeller point-blank: “Can we be a major non-NATO ally?” (or MNNA). He was referring to a special designation given to close allies by the U.S. government and held, according to Tarasyuk, by 18 other countries. He also recalled NATO’s promise at its 2008 summit to grant Ukraine a Membership Action Plan (MAP), which has not happened yet, and stated frankly that he believed the bloc’s major members were afraid of Russia’s reaction. Gottemoeller responded diplomatically, saying the 2008 decision (which says “MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership,” but doesn’t set a deadline for taking that step) still stands, however long implementation may take, and that form is less important than substance—e.g., “pragmatic” cooperation like military aid.

Difficulty of Negotiations

All those involved with the Budapest Memorandum noted how arduous the negotiations leading to it had been, lasting nearly three years, from January 1992 to December 1994. Pifer, for example, recalled talks freezing in January 1994: Russia wanted a deadline for Ukraine to transfer all its nuclear warheads to Russia; Ukraine was fine with that, but didn’t want it public due to domestic political concerns; Ukraine also wanted compensation for the enriched uranium in its tactical warheads; Russia was amenable, but didn’t want it public, so that other former republics wouldn’t come running. The negotiators managed to get out of the impasse by organizing a private exchange of cables between presidents. Sokov, in turn, noted that officials in Moscow were unsure until the very last minute about signing the 1992 Lisbon Protocol, worried that Ukraine’s, Belarus’ and Kazakhstan’s obligations to join the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons as non-nuclear states were contained only in the respective leaders’ letters to the U.S. president.

Carter pointed out that practical and political complications plagued the whole process of mustering U.S. support for early post-Soviet nuclear cuts and security efforts. No one at the Defense Department, for instance, had ever cooperated with the Soviets (negotiated—yes, studied—yes, but not cooperated), so it was a huge managerial challenge to find people capable of doing something so different. He also described the “mental jujitsu” required of U.S. officials to turn overnight from enemies of the Soviets to cooperators, including in terms of Ukraine’s new bread-and-butter problems: Nuclear-capable SS-24 missiles were built in Ukraine, meaning that hundreds if not thousands of people—not just those building the intercontinental ballistic missiles but the officers and troops overseeing them—would not only lose livelihoods but were being asked to get rid of their own jobs, and they would need a new path forward in life. This included the state’s obligation to provide retired military officers with housing. In practice, after Ukraine’s denuclearization amid the post-Soviet upheaval, this would mean that the U.S. would have to fund the construction. “Now you’re in a really long explanation to Congress,” Carter said: “‘We’ve spent 50 years trying to make these people go broke. Why would we ever pay them?’ … But we had no choice.”

Tensions Between Russia and Ukraine

Much of the effort surrounding the Budapest Memorandum was steeped in mistrust between Kyiv and Moscow—a harbinger, in some sense, of today’s tensions. Timbie described a period, for instance, when negotiations were mostly bilateral, U.S.-Ukrainian or U.S.-Russian. Tarasyuk, the ex-foreign minister, recalled the Ukrainians’ sense that “getting what we want bilaterally” with Moscow was “nearly impossible” and so Kyiv welcomed U.S. participation. Both he and Ukraine’s former ambassador to the U.N. Yuriy Sergeyev, another conference speaker, emphasized their lasting takeaway: Russia cannot be trusted. Moscow, for its part, also saw reasons for caution, according to Sokov, the former Russian diplomat. Russia became very wary, for example, in 1992 when Ukraine’s then-President Leonid Kravchuk asked the U.S. for assistance in building a facility that could dismantle nuclear weapons—the same kind that would be needed to assemble them. This led to “a few very tense months,” according to Sokov, who outlined Moscow’s then-position on the issue. (No participants based in Russia or the U.K. spoke at the event.) Sokov agreed that there had been “zero trust” between Moscow and Kyiv and “no meaningful bilateral discussion,” with any attempt at communication by either side resulting immediately in “small crises.” Back then, the U.S. was successful as a go-between in Russian-Ukrainian talks; today, “we don’t talk to the Russians at all,” Carter lamented, adding that breaking contact this way is “not safe,” but for now the situation will be difficult if not impossible to fix. One anecdote suggested that relief can sometimes come from the most unexpected quarters: Pifer recalled that in October 1993 Ukraine’s nuclear weapons were under sole Ukrainian custody and when he later asked Russian military officials how they’d felt about that, he was shocked to hear their calm answer: “‘We’d served with these officers for 10-20 years; we knew them; we trusted them.’”

Whither Nonproliferation

Many of the speakers agreed that the denuclearization of Ukraine, along with Kazakhstan and Belarus, was an immense achievement for global security and should not be regretted. As Matthew Bunn, one of the conference organizers pointed out, the nonproliferation regime in general has been “remarkably successful”: Thirty years ago there were nine nuclear-weapons states and there’s the same number now (although South Africa for North Korea was “not a good trade”).

But a few people expressed deep worry about nonproliferation’s future. Kovalenko, the Ukrainian general, saw it being endangered by Russia’s violation of the Budapest Memorandum with minimal consequences. Sokov, the Russian arms control expert, sees a much broader problem, where the whole system of security assurances—linked not just to Ukraine but to the entire international nuclear-control framework—is breaking down. Rebuilding a system of reliable guarantees in this sphere is a “vital task for the international community,” he said, and if we do not start thinking about this, “maybe in five to seven years, … then international security will really fall apart, much more completely than what we see today.”

This is a joint publication of Russia Matters and the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism

Photo: Mary Sarotte, James Timbie and Steven Pifer at the Dec. 6, 2019 conference. Photo by Benn Craig.