Skip to main content

Ukraine crisis' impact on nuclear weapons

By Steven Pifer
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1847 GMT (0247 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Steven Pifer: In Ukraine occupation, Russia reneging on 1994 deal to leave it alone
  • Budapest Memorandum let Ukraine shed nukes in exchange for its sovereignty, he says
  • U.S., Russia, UK, Ukraine signed. Russia now reneging. West must penalize it, he says
  • Pifer: Failure to support Ukraine could delegitimize future nuke deals, like with Iran

Editor's note: Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and helped negotiate the Budapest Memorandum.

(CNN) -- Russia's military occupation of Ukrainian territory on the Crimean peninsula constitutes a blatant violation of the commitments that Moscow undertook in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances for Ukraine. The United States and United Kingdom, the other two signatories, now have an obligation to support Ukraine and penalize Russia.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine found itself holding the world's third largest nuclear arsenal, including some 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads that had been designed to attack the United States. Working in a trilateral dialogue with Ukrainian and Russian negotiators, American diplomats helped to broker a deal —the January 1994 Trilateral Statement — under which Ukraine agreed to transfer all of the strategic nuclear warheads to Russia for elimination and to dismantle all of the strategic delivery systems on its territory.

Steven Pifer
Steven Pifer

Kiev did this on the condition that it receive security guarantees or assurances. The Budapest Memorandum, signed on December 5, 1994, by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom (the latter three being the depositary states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, that is, the states that receive the accession documents of other countries that join the treaty) ) laid out a set of assurances for Ukraine. These included commitments to respect Ukraine's independence, sovereignty and existing borders; to refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine's territorial integrity and independence; and to refrain from economic coercion against Ukraine.

Rubio, Cotton: Congress must act quickly to punish Putin

The memorandum bundled together a set of assurances that Ukraine already held from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) Final Act, United Nations Charter and Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Ukrainian government nevertheless found it politically valuable to have these assurances in a Ukraine-specific document.

Words matter, and a big question at the time arose over whether to use the term "guarantees" or "assurances" in the memorandum. The United States provides guarantees to allies, such as NATO member states; the term implies a military commitment. In the early 1990s, neither the George H. W. Bush administration nor the Clinton administration was prepared to extend a military commitment to Ukraine— and both felt that, even if they wanted to, the Senate would not produce the needed two-thirds vote for consent to ratification of such a treaty.

The Budapest Memorandum thus was negotiated as a political agreement. It refers to assurances, not defined, but less than a military guarantee. U.S. negotiators —myself among them — discussed this point in detail with Ukrainian counterparts so that there would be no misunderstanding.

Squeezing Russia economically
Russian TV personality supports Putin
Albright: Putin is delusional

What is taking place today in Crimea can only be described as a Russian military occupation. The Russian Black Sea Fleet and its associated units have had bases in Crimea since 1991, by agreement with Ukraine. But the agreement does not allow for the Russian military, which has poured thousands of additional troops onto the peninsula over the past several days, to take control of Crimea.

Opinion: Putin's Ukranian endgame

These Russian actions are in blatant violation of the Budapest Memorandum, as well as Russia's commitments under the CSCE Final Act and a 1997 bilateral Ukraine-Russia treaty. As signatories, the United States and United Kingdom have an obligation to respond, even if they are not obligated to respond with military force.

Washington and London should act in two ways. First, they should work with other European Union member states to support Ukraine. That means political engagement, such as Secretary of State John Kerry's visit today to Kiev. They should also assemble a financial package with the International Monetary Fund to extend credits to Ukraine. That can give the country some breathing room as it undertakes critical reforms to put its economic house in order.

Second, Washington and London should work with the European Union and others to impose political, diplomatic and economic sanctions on Moscow unless and until Russia ceases its violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. This has begun. On Sunday, the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Japan announced they were suspending preparations to take part in the G8 summit to be hosted in June in Sochi by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Other steps have been taken, and still others are being planned.

The West should aim to impose significant costs on Russia that will lead Putin to rethink his actions. That likely will prove difficult, but there can be no business as usual with Moscow.

Opinion: How Putin carries out power grab

A strong response is important for settling Ukraine's current crisis. It also matters for the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. Security assurances were key to bringing Kiev to agree to get rid of its nuclear arms. If Washington and London do not stand by the Budapest Memorandum now, it would discredit the idea of such assurances. That would be unfortunate, as security assurances could play a role in defusing nuclear proliferation cases, such as Iran.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steven Pifer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT