Field Test of the Budapest Memorandum and Ukraine’s Non-Nuclear Status

Recently, due to the annexation of the Crimea and events in the Eastern Ukraine, intensive discussions are ongoing on the possible ways to overcome the crisis and measures to be taken by the government to minimize threats to national security. Many of these discussions address the Budapest Memorandum (1994) and safeguards ensured to Ukraine for joining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state.

This publication is intended to analyze some possible steps of our state, considering new political realities based, inter alia, on the fact that the Budapest Memorandum was ineffective tool to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

On historical background of the Budapest Memorandum signing

On 5 December 1994, heads of three nuclear states, John Major (Great Britain), Boris Yeltsin (Russia) and Bill Clinton (USA) and Leonid Kuchma, the President of Ukraine, signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurance related to Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (the Budapest Memorandum) during the OSCE Summit in Budapest. It should also be reminded that similar international documents this very day were signed by the mentioned states with two other former Soviet republics, namely Belarus and Kazakhstan. Besides, further discussions should consider that South African Republic (SAR) refused nuclear weapons in 1991 and joined NPT as a non-nuclear state.

buharestIt seems necessary to recall the historical conditions of such events, considering the deep-rooted myth that Ukraine voluntary gave up nuclear weapons, and its impact on today’s discussions. The myth is based on ideas detached from realities of the first half of 1990s that the then government had complete freedom to choose further destiny of nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union. Uncritical acceptance of such an approach, in turn, creates a reason to consider the decision to abandon nuclear arsenal wrong.

In fact, a thorough analysis of historical facts gives sufficient evidence that Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons under severe external pressure facing considerable internal instability. Besides, external pressure was exerted upon not only Ukraine, but also Belarus and Kazakhstan, which as well possessed nuclear weapons of the former USSR.

At the beginning of 1990, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine experienced difficult social and political processes that accompanied the establishment of their national identity. Professor Volodymyr Vasylenko, famous Ukrainian diplomat, former representative of Ukraine to the EU and NATO and direct participant of those events, reminds that back in 1990, James Baker, US Secretary of State, named “non-possession of nuclear weapons” among the main criteria guiding the US and all the Western World in recognizing new independent states [2]. According to V. Vasylenko, “Ukraine had to give up nuclear weapons for it to become sovereign state and its independent status to be recognized all over the world” [2].

Even earlier, SAR was in the similar situation and was forced to abandon nuclear weapons because of the following main factors:

  • accumulation of political and economic problems caused by isolation of the state;
  • awareness of the inevitability of future changes in the state system related to abolition of apartheid and predicted coming of the African National Congress representatives to power;
  • political pressure from the outside (especially from the USA).

Stephen F. Burgess, American expert, paid attention to such specific conditions and in research of 2006 devoted to the nuclear program of SAR stated:

“South Africa and, apparently, other states under the process of political changes are more sensitive, than established political regimes in relation to external and internal pressure exerted to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons”.

Based on the above historical examples and slightly extending the opinion of Burgess, it may be concluded that in the modern world states seriously weakened for some reasons do not have rational possibilities to keep nuclear weapons, when put under coordinated external pressure [3].

Other important factors, which led to the Ukraine’s decision to give up nuclear weapons, are as follows [4]:

  • absence of possibilities to control nuclear missile systems at the Ukraine’s territory;
  • nuclear weapons were designed and produced in Russia; mounting and service were performed by experts of the special administration of the former USSR Ministry of Defense, which did not have its subdivisions in Ukraine;
  • the growing problem related to maintenance of nuclear warheads due to the fact that lifetime of some of them was coming to the end;
  • absence of finances to produce own facilities for regeneration of nuclear warheads;
  • necessity to retarget nuclear weapons for nuclear deterrence in case of polar views in Ukrainian society related to geopolitical vector of state development; and last but not least
  • strong anti-nuclear mood of the Ukrainian society mainly caused by Chornobyl accident.

At least some of the abovementioned obstacles are not likely to be insurmountable, but only provided neglecting the difficult social and political situation and economic crisis faced by the young state and absence of resources, including time required to solve the whole set of problems that would have been caused by the decision to follow the status of nuclear state.

On assessment of safeguards ensured to Ukraine by the Budapest Memorandum

A comprehensive review of the situation around Ukraine’s decision to give up nuclear weapons clearly identifies that the then government of our country, in fact, had no rational alternative to acquiring non-nuclear status by Ukraine. At the end of 1994, freedom of choice for our country was actually limited by “narrow corridor” of opportunities to get this or that compensation for giving up nuclear arsenal and transportation of nuclear weapons to Russia.

Within such a compensation Ukraine was granted by safeguards [5] listed in the Budapest Memorandum. At the Memorandum signing, direct participants of those events recognized poor efficiency of safeguards ensured to Ukraine. Again, according to V. Vasylenko, who in 2006 assessed safeguards ensured by the Memorandum, he highlighted the sixth paragraph of the document, which established obligatory consultation mechanism at the request of Ukraine, if there is a threat to its security. V. Vasylenko considers inclusion of this paragraph to the Memorandum “small success of Ukrainian diplomacy” [6]. It should be reminded that France and China did not sign the Memorandum, addressing safety assurance mechanisms defined by the UN Charter and Final Act of CSCE in their special statements.

It may be concluded that despite insufficiency of safeguards ensured to Ukraine, the Budapest Memorandum was the best possible way for Ukraine at that time. Collateral evidence for this is the fact that Belarus and Kazakhstan signed similar Memorandums.

The abovementioned facts showed that provisions of the Budapest Memorandum reflected the real political picture of that historical moment, when under pressure of the most powerful actors on the international scene, especially nuclear states, Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons to strengthen its independence and preservation of international nuclear non-proliferation regime, but in return received a commitment from signatory states “to hold consultations in case of a situation raising concerns related to these commitments” [7]. As it turned out, these commitments did not prevent annexation of the Crimea and Russia’s interference in processes taking place in the Eastern Ukraine.

However, if we consider events in that way, it becomes rather obvious that Ukraine’s decision to give up nuclear weapons and agreement of compensations (including safeguards) for this step should be seen as part of a unified political process, considering the balance of power of that time. This very approach logically explains to some extent forced nature of actions taken in Ukraine and weakness of received safeguards.

Drawbacks of the mechanism to ensure safeguards through consultations emerged in 2003 during the conflict over Tuzla Island, when an attempt of Ukraine to implement the sixth paragraph of the Memorandum was unsuccessful. According to V. Vasylenko, at that time “nuclear guarantor states generally refused to hold consultations” [2]. Therefore, despite the mechanism declared by this paragraph, Ukraine lacked political weight even to start the process of consultations. Those events also demonstrated contradictory nature of the consultation mechanism defined by the Memorandum.

In fact, if the state is weak, it has no power even to initiate consultations envisaged by the Memorandum, as it happened during the crisis in 2003. Besides, if the state has leverages to force nuclear guarantor states to start negotiations in case of a threat to its security, the consultation mechanism, in such a case, will not ensure it with any additional opportunities. Moreover, the Budapest Memorandum was developed in a way not considering the case, when the threat may be posed by one of the states ensuring Ukraine’s safety, and admitted its controversial interpretation [5].

Later, attempts to review and strengthen safeguards ensured to Ukraine by the Budapest Memorandum were made during the presidency of Viktor Yuschenko, but they also failed. In December 2009, considering expiration of the Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms and non-preparedness of the new bilateral agreement between Russia and the USA, Dmytro Medvedev, President of the Russian Federation, and Barack Obama, President of the USA, one more time confirmed safeguards ensured to Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, as non-nuclear states.

The Budapest Memorandum failed: nuclear weapons as the key to ensuring national safety of Ukraine

International community has recognized the violation of the Budapest Memorandum provisions with respect to Ukraine. This was stated by Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, in his speech during the Hague Nuclear Security Summit of 24 March 2014. He stated that safeguards were important conditions for Ukraine’s joining the NPT, but their reliability was seriously undermined by the events around Ukraine. UN Secretary General expressed the opinion that this will have negative consequences for both regional safety and the whole nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime [8].

Recognizing the critical importance of such a statement for Ukraine to receive efficient safeguards in future, one should not assume that violation of the Budapest Memorandum provisions automatically opens real opportunities for our country to become rapidly a state possessing nuclear weapons [9].

In 1994, Ukraine joined the NPT as state not possessing nuclear weapons. Robert Einhorn, famous American expert, [10] once pointed out three scenarios for a Treaty member country to create nuclear weapons, namely:

(1) openly develop own nuclear fuel cycle with a further intent to officially withdraw from the NPT, respectively terminating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with IAEA and refusing to perform the Additional Protocol to it, and to withdraw from such international export control regimes, as Zangger Committee, the Nuclear Suppliers Group and others, and start developing nuclear weapons [11];

(2) resort to secret implementation, over a considerable period of time, of the nuclear military program with an intent to subsequently withdraw from the NPT;

(3) use combination of the two abovementioned scenarios.

Going beyond the moral and ethical assessment of the policy aimed at implementation of such scenarios, it should be emphasized that they require considerable investment. According to expert assessments, depending on specific conditions and extent of this or that military nuclear program, these are sums from several to more than hundred billions US dollars. Therefore, in case of the relevant political decision, during a long period of time Ukraine would have to take these costs not only from other sectors of economy and social spheres, which still require fundamental reforms, but also from financing of the armed forces, including costs for their fundamental reforming and equipping by high-tech (non-nuclear) weapons.

This should draw attention that withdrawal of the state from the NPT means exclusion of such a country from all international export control regimes, which automatically entails a ban on the supply of goods to it (equipment, materials, technologies, etc.), which can be used for military purposes. Such a situation will require development and creation of the necessary technologies and production capacities from the ground up. In the context of nuclear military program for Ukraine, this would primarily concern such resource consuming and sensitive in terms of nuclear proliferation technologies, as uranium enrichment and spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. Thus, the potential costs of military nuclear program for Ukraine would be much higher than the specified minimum.

Besides, it is necessary to consider that in the event of withdrawal from the NPT [12], the state would probably become the subject to economic and other sanctions from the international community [13]. Such a prospect in conditions, when Ukraine requires considerable financial support to hold fundamental reforms, shows poor judgment and even malignancy of calls for the creation of its own nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine that international financial institutions and Western donor states will continue to provide Ukraine with financial assistance, the major part of which will actually be spent on production of nuclear weapons.

The prospect for Ukraine’s joining the EU is seemed associated with these arguments. It is advisable to refer to the opinion of Bruno Tertrais, French expert on arms control. In publication of 2006 [14], he reflected the lack of tendencies to proliferation nuclear weapons in Europe and stated, in particular, that in addition to nuclear safeguards, which were given by the USA and USSR to their European allies, the so-called European Project was another reason for non-proliferation on the continent. The nuclear non-proliferation was one of the main objectives to implement the European Project and it was reflected by creation of Euratom (1957). Tertrais warns that “Efforts of another EU member to become nuclear state will require total cancellation of existing political treaties and agreements on safety on the whole continent, including not only NATO, but the EU”. In this regard, in his opinion “the prospect to lose EU membership or to get refusal to be accepted as a community member is a factor of deterrence to any European country that suffers temptation to have nuclear weapons”.

The last argument concerns deadlines for implementation of nuclear military program. There are different assessments following the necessity to consider numerous factors, which are specific for each case. The situation related to Iran’s nuclear program should be observed to get a general overview. In 2006, the New York Times wrote that “US Administration suggests it could be about 5-10 years [15], but some experts think this can be extended to 2020”. Of course, when assessing duration of such a period for Ukraine, it is necessary to consider that our state has a developed nuclear sphere and it preserved serious scientific and technical potential. However, on the other hand, considering reforms in the key spheres of our state that has not yet been started, including its safety and economic sectors, the production of nuclear weapons in Ukraine is unlikely to be less than for Iran, even with fast recovery of its economic potential.

Summing up considerations on the calls to create nuclear weapons in response to violation of the Budapest Memorandum, it can be concluded that practical steps in this area would form significant potential for marginalization of Ukraine on the international scene, increase the likelihood of international sanctions to it. Besides, the most pressing issues of the national safety would not be solved in the short or medium term, increasing vulnerability of the state to external and internal hazards.

Besides, Ukraine’s decision to become nuclear state cannot be implemented due to the absence of required political, financial, economic, process and time resources. It can be assumed that political forces that have insisted to produce nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be finally removed from management of the state, following pressure from the international community.

Statements on the necessity for Ukraine to become a nuclear state distract attention of the Ukrainian society from current extremely complicated tasks related to the fundamental reforms. Besides, the history of the second half of XX century many times refuted the idea on indispensability of nuclear weapons for national safety. It does not ensure victory in armed conflicts (for example, wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Indo-Pakistani Conflicts, etc.).

The historical realities in developing of our state and those contributions it made into the global safety during the short period of independency justify the expediency of such a strategic direction of nuclear disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation and combating nuclear terrorism. The relevant steps and actions of Ukraine should be put into one political line aimed at reducing the role of nuclear weapons and increasing the role of international law in international relations.

The world community recognized violation of the Budapest Memorandum provisions with respect to Ukraine. This gives our state serious legal grounds to raise the question related to safeguards for being a non-nuclear state and creates favorable conditions to hold international discussion in a wider context, considering safeguards given by nuclear states to other states that do not have nuclear weapons. In author’s view, these are coordinated efforts of interested states (in particular, Belarus, Kazakhstan and SAR), which can ensure a certain success.


  1. Up to 1989, SAR alone produced six nuclear warheads, which were later demounted and destroyed.
  2. Volodymyr Vasylenko “Ukraine had to give up nuclear weapons for it to become sovereign state and its independent status to be recognized all over the world”. Ukrainian Week [Ukrainskyi Tyzhden’], No. 15 (335), 11 – 17 April 2014.
  3. Author recognizes that, for example, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which possesses nuclear weapons, cannot be referred to strong economic states.
  4. For details see: Volodymyr Horbulin: “Without the Right to Repentance” [Bez Prava na Pokaianie], Chapter “Nuclear Syndrome or Essay on Political Complexes” [Yadernyi Sindrom, ili Esse o Politicheskikh Kompleksakh], Kharkiv, Folio, 2009, P. 40-47.
  5. Provisions of the Memorandum were regarded in Ukraine this way, though other interpretations are possible. Geoffrey Pyatt, the United States Ambassador to Ukraine, paid attention to this in his interview for “Dzerkalo Tyzhnia” newspaper dated 2 June 2014: “The Budapest Memorandum was not the agreement aimed at ensuring safeguards”, since “the objective of the document is to confirm that signatories undertake to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”
  6. 17 May 2006. Interview with Volodymyr Vasylenko, Ambassador at Large, published in “Den” newspaper.
  7. The Memorandum gives list of commitments by nuclear states regarding Ukraine, which should be met according to other international documents, namely: the UN Charter, principles of CSCE Final Act, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
  8. The Hague, The Netherlands, 24 March 2014 – Secretary-General’s remarks at the opening session of the Nuclear Security Summit, available at: .
  9. Attention should be paid that Ukraine can only obtain, but not restore nuclear status, as, strictly speaking, our country have never had such a status, though nuclear weapons have been stored at the territory of independent Ukraine prior to its removal.
  10. Robert J. Einhorn, Identifying Nuclear Aspirants and Their Pathways to the Bomb, The Nonproliferation Review, November 2006, Vol. 13, No. 3.
  11. The paper lists only main international treaties and agreements, which will be broken due to the decision to produce nuclear weapons. In fact, such a step will cause termination of a set of other agreements of different levels, termination of Ukraine’s participation in a dozen of international programs and projects, etc.
  12. The history of the Treaty shows only one such a precedent: in 2003, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea announced about its withdrawal from the NPT.
  13. Consequences of economic sanctions imposed on Iran related to uncertainties about peaceful nature of its nuclear program are estimated at more than 100 billion US dollars. Of course, this assessment cannot be mechanically transferred to other countries, but the indicated figure gives an idea of the scale and devastating economic consequences of sanctions used against certain states by the world community.
  14. Bruno Tertrais, Nuclear Proliferation in Europe: Could It Still Happen?, The Nonproliferation Review, November 2006, Vol. 13, No. 3.
  15. Creation of nuclear weapon model is meant.

*Position of the editorial board may not always coincide with the opinion of authors.

Serhiy Kondratov, Senior Researcher of the National Institute for Strategic Studies 25/12/2014