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When Ukraine Traded Nuclear Weapons for Security Assurances: An Interview with Mariana Budjeryn

April 2022

Since Russia launched its war on Ukraine many have wondered why Ukraine relinquished control of the nuclear weapons it inherited after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and whether, in retrospect, that decision was a mistake. After all, in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States promised “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders” of Ukraine and “refrain from the threat or use of force.” Carol Giacomo, the chief editor of Arms Control Today, put those questions to Mariana Budjeryn, a research associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, whose book Inheriting the Bomb: Soviet Collapse and Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine will be published this year. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Arms Control Today: Help us understand why Ukraine gave up its nuclear stockpile and the implications.

Mariana Budjeryn: When the Soviet Union broke up, there were four former republics that inherited chunks of the Soviet strategic arms arsenal and production complex: the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Only Russia had a full nuclear fuel cycle, including warhead design and production facilities, and the ability to produce all the launch vehicles, such as bombers and missiles.

None of the three non-Russian successor states possessed a full fuel cycle, so they would have had to invest in these facilities to complete the missing links. Kazakhstan was the most endowed in terms of fuel; it was a supplier of uranium to the Soviet nuclear program and had fuel fabrication facilities. Ukraine did not have that, but it did have launch vehicle production. In addition, there were actual nuclear weapons on the ground, the so-called tactical nuclear weapons and the strategic missile force and strategic bombers, all armed with nuclear warheads.

When Ukraine began deliberating these choices after its independence, it had to contend with several things. One was that it was a part of the nuclear force that was designed by a different country—the Soviet Union—for the strategic purposes of that country. It would have had to do quite a bit of work to reshape the nuclear force into something that would have suited Ukraine. Even if Ukraine decided to establish control over these armaments, which, technically, it could with some effort, Ukraine would still not be able to use whatever it had to deter Russia because of the ranges. The intercontinental ballistic missiles that Ukraine inherited had ranges of 10,000 and more kilometers, so what kind of targets could you really hold at risk in Russia? Vladivostok? That wasn't very credible. Trying to maintain and then replace nuclear warheads would have required investment and would have, most importantly, put Ukraine at odds with the international community and its nonproliferation consensus.

An old Soviet SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile on display at the Ukraine Strategic Missile Forces Museum outside of Kyiv. (Photo: Stefan Krasowski via Wikimedia)With all that said, we often forget that Ukraine started its path toward independent statehood with a preference to become a state free of nuclear weapons. That was codified in Ukraine's declaration of sovereignty that was passed by its parliament in July 1990, a full year and a half before the Soviet Union collapsed. That founding document set out a vision for how Ukraine might go about achieving independence from Moscow. In it, the parliament said Ukraine has the desire to become in the future a neutral, non-nuclear state.

It was a completely voluntary move, and the reason was twofold. One was Chernobyl. This general anti-nuclear sentiment in Ukrainian political discourse also translated into an anti-Moscow, anti-institutional sentiment because the perception was that these people from the Soviet Union are building these faulty reactors that blow up, contaminate our land, and cause a humanitarian disaster. Then they lie to us, there's negligence, cover-up, and the mishandling of the aftermath. So, Chernobyl and this anti-nuclear sentiment became a very important part of this pro-independence movement, and it helped unite Ukrainians based on civic and humanitarian grounds rather than on ethnonationalistic grounds in their attempt to gain political independence from Moscow.

It turns out from talking to people who were part of drafting the declaration that the other part of the thinking behind this unilateral renunciation was that Ukraine was deeply integrated with the Soviet military machine. The command-and-control lines ran directly from the military units deployed in Ukraine to central command in Moscow, bypassing the republican authorities. At that time, the leaders of the republics didn't even know fully what was deployed in their territory. The understanding was that unless we sever these military ties, there will be no way we can attain our independence.

When the Soviet Union collapsed faster than anyone had anticipated, the question became, “To whom do the armaments in the non-Russian republics belong?” It was a much easier question to answer when it came to conventional armaments because it was decided that whatever was on the territory at the time rightfully belonged to these republics, but when it came to the nuclear inheritance, some really difficult questions arose. It has been my argument that part of that predicament was the fact that nuclear possession was not a matter of just national policy. There was the international nuclear nonproliferation regime centered on the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and the NPT recognized only five nuclear-weapon states. So, it was basically a framework for guarding and managing a legitimized nuclear possession. In that kind of international nuclear order, Ukraine's nuclear situation was a square peg that had to be fitted to the round hole.

Ukrainian leaders formulated a claim that, as a successor state of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was just as entitled to Soviet nuclear inheritance as the Russian Federation and wanted to be compensated for giving it up. These claims were often misunderstood in the West and aided by Russian voices to mean that Ukraine was intending to go nuclear, wanted operational control over these armaments, and wanted to do all these nefarious things. But a major driver for these claims was Ukraine’s attempt to reconstitute a relationship with this new Russia on more equal terms.

What I found in my research was that, within Ukrainian political discourse, those who advocated for actual retention of these armaments as a deterrent were very few and very marginal. To begin with, Ukraine had set out this grand vision of disarmament. Another factor was the economic resources and time it would take to build up the missing links of a fully fledged nuclear weapons program, which Ukraine did not have at the time. Ukraine was an aspiring democracy, emerging out of this totalitarian empire. It wanted to join the international community on good terms. So, much of it was about the kind of country Ukraine wanted to become rather than just the things it wanted to get out of it. Ukraine was accused of bargaining and haggling. No, Ukraine wanted a fair deal. It negotiated with Russia and the United States, and at the end of that process, it got a deal. I would consider it a fair deal.

ACT: The United States also pushed Ukraine to give up its nuclear capability and be a real democracy. What was the effect of such pressure? How did it lead to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum?

Budjeryn: Beginning in the fall of 1991 with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, the United States took a pretty straightforward stance: there shall be no more than one nuclear successor to the Soviet Union. I think later with the Clinton administration, that singular focus on nuclear issues in engagement with Ukraine was relaxed. That's not to say this demand became qualified, but there was a greater willingness to engage beyond just the nuclear issue and offer positive inducements instead of just saying disarm or else. That kind of mix of carrots and sticks proved more effective than just sticks under the George H.W. Bush administration. It’s just that [as] the administration went into the presidential election campaign, the focus shifted, and it wanted to have this issue sorted quickly. Ukraine was seen as recalcitrant in making these demands.

Part of the story was that Washington has been focused historically on Moscow alone. There were lines of communication, negotiations and relationships that had developed over years. Moscow was the seat of power. I think maybe this overwhelming focus on Moscow led to a blindness about what was going on in the provinces. The Soviet collapse came as a surprise to which the West kept reacting, and it reacted in very creative ways. The Nunn-Lugar [Cooperative Threat Reduction] program and the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives were among the entrepreneurial foreign policy responses to an unprecedented situation. It took time for Washington to hone the specialists and the mindset to say that people in the former republics have agency, they are new countries with certain national interests. We have to take them seriously and engage with them. By the time the Clinton administration comes in, there's a greater understanding that things might not be going so smoothly, you can't just bend people to your will, you have to give them a fair deal.

Ukrainians initially were unprepared to engage with two nuclear superpowers on nuclear issues. President Leonid Kravchuk and Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko in their first meeting with Baker could only take notes, then go back to their scientists and their military and ask how to respond to some of these questions about nuclear weapons. There was, among the political leadership, a low level of knowledge about the nuclear arms on Ukraine's territory. But they learned quickly and held their own, even with very little leverage. The negotiation of the security guarantees started in June 1992 with the Bush administration and concluded with the signing of the Budapest Memorandum on December 5, 1994.

In Moscow in January 1994, U.S. President Bill Clinton (L), Russian President Boris Yeltsin (C), and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk (R), set the stage for Ukraine’s disarmament. They signed a statement providing for the transfer of all nuclear weapons in Ukraine to Russia for dismantlement and for Ukraine’s compensation by Russia for the highly-enriched uranium in those weapons. In December that same year, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States signed the Budapest Memorandum which gave Ukraine security assurances for giving up its nuclear arsenal. (Photo by Wojtek Laski/Getty Images)That was one part of the deal. The other was the compensation for the fissile material contained in the warheads that would come to Ukraine from Russia in the form of nuclear fuel assemblies for Ukrainian power plants. The idea was that the highly enriched uranium in the warheads would be down-blended to low-enriched uranium and then come back as fuel assemblies. The United States underwrote that deal, as part of the Megatons to Megawatts program, where the United States would buy the down-blended uranium from Russia for its own nuclear power plants. These ideas showed quick thinking. It was inventive and entrepreneurial foreign policy.

The deal granted to Ukraine not only the nuclear fuel and compensation, but the recognition thereby that these were Ukraine’s warheads to give up. That was just as important to Ukraine as the actual goods it got in return. Russia had just unceremoniously taken over all of the international statuses and all of the political space that was previously occupied by the entire Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was part. I think the fear was, not unjustified in retrospect, that if you grant Russia these statuses, maybe the geopolitical ambition would follow.

I think still, amazingly, in Western imagery, we conflate the Soviet Union and Russia all the time. It seems like a minor thing, but we are seeing these chickens come to roost right now. We think somehow the Earth just opened up and out came the Ukrainians and the Kazakhs and the Belarusians and Russia is just kind of this slightly truncated Soviet Union. No, the process of succession had to be negotiated, and it involved policy and the implementation of policy. It's not a given that the outcome should have been what it is now, even in the nuclear realm. Ukraine tried to challenge this nuclear monopoly, without challenging the entire nonproliferation regime.

The Ukrainian argument was, “You cannot claim that these are Russian weapons on our territory. We were part of a nuclear superpower. We contributed our resources, human, natural, and so forth, to the creation of this. We are entitled to something, at least a recognition that this is our stuff to give up.”

ACT: Was the Budapest Memorandum a good deal for Ukraine?

Budjeryn: Ukrainian negotiators knew very well at the time of the memorandum that what they got in the end was not exactly what they sought. They sought a more robust set of security guarantees, whether that came in a form of a legally binding treaty or in some pledges of consequences for their breach. Whether that was at all possible to achieve is difficult to say. On the one hand, Ukraine was pushing hard, but it was up against two nuclear powers that had a lot of leverage. Ukraine had very little. It's commendable that U.S. policymakers and negotiators did go for a signature of a separate document that was attached to the act of Ukraine's succession to the NPT.

But in terms of substance, those were just clauses, basically copy-pasted from the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act, and the kind of general nuclear positive and negative security assurances that are pledged by the United States and the UK and Russia, the three depositary states of the NPT, to all non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT. So that was essentially the content of the memorandum. The only new thing was the consultation mechanism that was written into it that should any issues arise in connection to the memorandum, parties should consult. I think what Ukrainians envisioned was ironically some form of guaranteed neutrality, something we're talking about for Ukraine right now. It wasn't a NATO Article 5 type of protection, but rather, we just want our borders secured, what can you promise or threaten for the breach of that?

It was a tricky question then, just like it remains a tricky question now, not only because Ukrainians are keen on joining NATO, given the peril they are in, but also because there seems to be an asymmetrical interest and engagement in Ukraine from Western and Russian sides. It clearly looks like the Kremlin's current ruler, [President Vladimir] Putin, wants to reshape Ukraine. He wouldn't be happy with just leaving it neutral and deciding its own affairs. So what would the West have to threaten in terms of negative consequences to keep Putin away? At that point, it becomes some kind of security commitment that involves something more robust than just reassurances taken from other multilateral instruments.

Even though the Budapest Memorandum did not contain robust guarantees, and they were not legally binding, the mere fact that Ukraine's succession to the NPT took place in conjunction with this document made the Budapest Memorandum part of the broader nonproliferation regime. Therefore, its breach has an impact on the nonproliferation regime writ large because it erodes one of the main bargains enshrined in that regime, that if you make this decision to forgo a nuclear weapon, that should not happen at the expense of your security. The survival of a non-nuclear state should not be imperiled by a country that has nuclear weapons that has been granted this privilege under the NPT to be a recognized nuclear power. The nonproliferation regime is essentially discriminatory in nature, and this memorandum is among the bargains that ameliorates that inequality.

What I see happening now, meaning after 2014 and the seizure of Crimea and the way the issue of the Budapest Memorandum has been treated in Ukraine's public discourse, is that much of the nuance about the history of disarmament, about what Ukraine had and didn't have, about what it would have taken for Ukraine to refashion its nuclear inheritance into a fully fledged deterrent, gets lost. So the story is boiled down to “Ukraine had the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal, it gave it away for nothing, and now look what happened.”

Even though it is incorrect, it is understandable, and it's extremely damaging to the credibility of the nonproliferation regime. I imagine the value of security assurances like the ones in the Budapest Memorandum has declined considerably as a tool in nonproliferation going forward. Think about what we can promise North Korea to convince it to disarm. Think about other states that are looking at Ukraine and again might not know all the nuances of the story. What conclusions will they likely make? It reinforces in a very damaging way some of the existing tensions within the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Even apart from Ukraine, the tension between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states has been high, and the outcome of that is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, this insurgency that has been mounted by the non-nuclear-weapon states who are saying, “You guys are not holding up your side of the deal, in particular when it comes to fulfilling NPT Article VI on pursuing arms control and disarmament.” The damage of Russia’s breach of its commitments to Ukraine in connection with the latter’s disarmament is difficult to assess. At this point, we can't foresee all of the possible consequences, but I really don't see how this could amount to anything good.

ACT: Was it a mistake for Ukraine to give up those weapons?

Budjeryn: I think it was not. I think it was the right thing to do. But I think the West could do a better job in dispelling Ukraine’s regrets. We've heard President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reference the Budapest Memorandum and how those guarantees are not holding up. I think it has been a failure of Western policy to sideline that document altogether. I, for one, cannot understand why the United States and the UK, the other two signatories, have made so little of the Budapest Memorandum. The consultation mechanism provided for in the memorandum was invoked, there was a meeting of the signatories on March 5, 2014, just as the Russian troops were taking over Crimea. Even though Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Paris where the meeting was happening, he did not bother to show up. But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was at the table, as was UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. They issued a joint statement in support of Ukraine sovereignty, and that was it.

After that, all the military assistance that came to Ukraine, all the statements of support were not framed in reference to the memorandum and in reference to the commitments made by the other signatories under the memorandum. If the United States is providing Javelins and over $2 billion in military assistance, why not say, “We have committed to uphold your security back in the day, now our bill has come due, this is what we're doing.” I also really don't understand why the Obama administration decided to stay out of the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia on stopping the war in eastern Ukraine. France and Germany were at the table. Maybe it was part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy of “leading from behind” where the Europeans were expected to take charge. I think the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum should have been the ones at that table, especially the United States. It would have been a different set of negotiations had the United States joined that format.

So, the West kind of bears the responsibility not for signing the wrong thing back in 1994, but not making enough of the document that already existed and certainly had the scope for serving as a framework for that kind of political and security support for Ukraine.

ACT: Could the memorandum serve that same purpose today in Ukraine?

Budjeryn: It should. I mean, as Zelenskyy's statement at the Munich Security Conference indicates, the Budapest Memorandum has a very bad reputation right now in Ukraine. But I don't think all is lost. I think there's still an opportunity to take it out, dust it off, and make good of it precisely because it does link Ukraine's current security situation back to its decision and validates it.

But I think the credibility of the Western world and the entire global nuclear order is at stake here because you have a country that did the right thing, that disarmed in accordance with the global nonproliferation consensus, and thus contributed to international security. Then you have one of the major nuclear powers going rogue, basically. We haven't even talked about the Russian shelling of nuclear power plants. This is something we expect terrorists to do, not a stakeholder in the global nuclear governance and a founding member of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The nuclear dimensions of this war in Ukraine have to be emphasized to reassure Ukraine that it did do the right thing and to communicate to other potential proliferators that are looking at all of this and taking notes that, no, you will not be left to stand alone, which is, to the extent possible, something that the United States and Europe are already doing. But they need to make that linkage.