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What the Budapest Memorandum means for the U.S. on Ukraine

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg joined Washington Post Live on Jan. 31 (Video: The Washington Post)

As the world girds for a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s possible you will hear quite a bit in the coming days and weeks about the Budapest Memorandum.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was suddenly left with the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. So it, the United States and Russia reached an agreement in 1994, known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, by which Ukraine would turn over its nukes in exchange for those security assurances.

The agreement is being cited in light of Russia transparently threatening to violate it again — after it already violated it with its annexation of Crimea in 2014 — but also when it comes to the United States’ duty to defend Ukraine from the same aggression.

But unlike Article 5 of the NATO charter, it does not require a specific response from the United States or others. So it’s worth a little history lesson.

The memorandum has been invoked recently in response to some on the right, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson and some congressional Republicans, arguing that the United States effectively has no business taking sides between Ukraine and Russia. One popular Twitter thread responding to Carlson said the Budapest Memorandum amounted to the United States having agreed to serve as “the guarantors of Ukrainian security.” A bipartisan group of members of Congress last week wrote an op-ed stating that the memorandum assured the United States “would come to the aid of Ukraine in the event it was preyed upon.”

The reality is much murkier. The agreement is not an official treaty. It is neither legally binding nor does it carry an enforcement mechanism. And while it provides security assurances, they do not include specific promises with regard to a potential invasion.

The brief memorandum contained five points that the signatories — which also included the United Kingdom — said they would “reaffirm,” including:

  • “None of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”
  • “To refrain from economic coercion” in accordance with other agreements.

And, perhaps most pertinent with regard to a potential U.S. response today:

  • “To seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine … 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.”

Indeed, the agreement was murky enough that, when it was announced in early 1994 but before Ukraine ratified it, there was plenty of confusion about just the kind of situation we now find ourselves in. U.S. officials often talked around the issue, but they also stated on multiple occasions that it wouldn’t mean the United States was suddenly entering into new and novel security commitments. (Hence, the repeated use of the word “reaffirm.”)

Early on, Secretary of State Warren Christopher was asked specifically whether the United States would now be “a guarantor of the borders of Ukraine.” He responded obliquely, “The security guarantees do relate to that subject and provide assurance in that connection.”

At the time, the New York Times quickly noted, “These promises could inject the United States into the middle of a Russian-Ukrainian crisis over, say, the status of the Crimea, with America risking the safety of New York or Washington to protect Kiev.”

Elsewhere, though, U.S. officials emphasized Ukraine would effectively benefit from assurances already offered to others, including by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Both the economic-coercion provision and the U.N. Security Council provision of the Budapest Memorandum cited those already-existing assurances.

In a background briefing on Jan. 11, 1994, an anonymous U.S. official was asked whether the Budapest agreement — the shorthand at the time was the “trilateral” agreement — meant the United States would go to war if Ukraine were invaded.

“So these are security assurances, and these are assurances consistent with our obligations within those two treaties,” the official said, adding: “There are no new guarantees or obligations as part of this agreement.”

A few days later, Christopher was asked about just such a situation as the New York Times cited — and as ultimately transpired in the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea.

“Would the United States be expected to send in troops, for example, to defend Ukraine’s possession of Crimea in a dispute with Russia?” a journalist asked.

Christopher gave a response that was decidedly not yes. He said the agreement was that nuclear powers would not use such weapons against Ukraine and that the agreement essentially echoed other treaties.

“Exactly how those commitments are carried out will have to evolve,” Christopher said.

By the next month, a lead State Department official for the region, Strobe Talbott, explained to a senator that the lack of new security requirements meant this wouldn’t be a treaty subject to Senate approval.

“Naturally, if there were any provisions in this agreement that obligated the United States to take on new security responsibilities of its own, of course it would be submitted to the Senate,” Talbott testified. “But there are no such obligations contained in the accord.”

Later that year, when Ukraine’s parliament was ratifying the agreement, another anonymous U.S. official took care to emphasize that it didn’t mean Ukraine would be defended “in the event that Ukraine finds itself in a military altercation.”

“It’s quite different than that,” the official said.

“If I could just also note, in case there’s any confusion — and there probably isn’t, but just in case — these are not security guarantees; these are security assurances,” the official said. “And there’s a difference. These are not Article 5, NATO-like security guarantees.”

Nearly three decades later — amid fears about a larger-scale invasion than Crimea — there apparently remains confusion.