March 5 (Bloomberg) -- For a brief period, Ukraine was the world’s third-largest nuclear power.
It gave up thousands of nuclear warheads inherited from the Soviet Union in return for a 1994 promise from the U.S. and Russia not to use force or threaten military action against the newly independent nation, a pledge Russian President Vladimir Putin repudiated yesterday after his troops took control of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
The 20-year-old Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed by the U.S., Russia, the U.K. and Ukraine, has moved to center stage in the standoff over the country’s Crimea region. Beyond the immediate crisis, Putin’s actions may have lasting consequences for future security talks, including efforts to further reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.
“There are very clear legal obligations that are at risk,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said today in Paris.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov failed to attend a morning meeting to discuss the Budapest Memorandum, according to a joint statement in which the U.S., the U.K. and Ukraine said they “deeply regret” the no-show.
Lavrov said the western-backed government in Kiev no longer rules Crimea, where control has shifted to armed “self-defense” groups.
While it commits all parties “to refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” the 1994 agreement is not a treaty, has no enforcement mechanism and doesn’t require action by any signatories if it’s violated.
The U.S. says Putin violated the accord by sending forces into Crimea and threatening to intervene elsewhere in Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, said March 3 his country has 16,000 troops in Crimea and is allowed to have as many as 25,000.
Meeting with reporters yesterday, Putin said that the commitments no longer apply because a “coup” in Kiev has resulted in “a new state with which we have signed no binding agreements.” He said he reserved the right to use military action in southeastern Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians.
The U.S., U.K. and Ukraine, in a joint statement today, said they treat the Budapest Memorandum’s assurances “with utmost seriousness, and expect Russia to, as well.”
That doesn’t mean the U.S. and the U.K. are committed to defend Ukraine if Russia invades, said Christopher Swift, a lawyer and adjunct professor of national security studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington.
“There is nothing in the Budapest Memorandum that automatically triggers a collective defense obligation by an outside power in the event that someone invades Ukrainian territory or subverts its sovereignty,” Swift said in an e-mail. “This is not like the network of cascading defense commitments that got us into the First World War.”
The agreement’s commitments “are legally binding, but a violation by one of the signatories does not create casus belli for any party to that agreement,” he said. “The only exception would be Ukraine itself.”
In the decades since the accord was reached, even when the region has seen the mobilization of troops, it “was not even raised,” Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, said in a phone interview. “This is something a few analysts and politicians have been kicking around for a couple of weeks to get the main geopolitical actors involved.”
Even so, the Budapest agreement was considered a major diplomatic accomplishment two decades ago, when the U.S. and Russia shared an interest in limiting the number of nuclear-armed states and reducing the risk that former Soviet weapons would fall into the wrong hands.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 left Ukraine with a large nuclear arsenal -- about 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads designed to strike the U.S. and 2,500 shorter-range nuclear weapons.
In 1994, the country’s leaders agreed under pressure from Russia and the U.S. to give up all of them in return for a pledge to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territory. Ukraine completed the transfer of all its nuclear warheads to Russia in May 1996.
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