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Why Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons — and what that means in an invasion by Russia

Ukrainian Military Forces servicemen walk past a metal plate that reads "caution mines" on the front line with Russia-backed separatists.
Anatolii Stepanov
AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian Military Forces servicemen walk past a metal plate that reads "caution mines" on the front line with Russia-backed separatists.

Three decades ago, the newly independent country of Ukraine was briefly the third-largest nuclear power in the world.

Thousands of nuclear arms had been left on Ukrainian soil by Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But in the years that followed, Ukraine made the decision to completely denuclearize.

In exchange, the U.S., the U.K. and Russia would guarantee Ukraine's security in a 1994 agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum.

Now, that agreement is front and center again.

Mariana Budjeryn of Harvard University spoke with All Things Considered about the legacy of the Budapest Memorandum and its impact today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On whether Ukraine foresaw the impact of denuclearizing

It is hard to estimate whether Ukrainians would foresee the impact.

It is clear that Ukrainians knew they weren't getting the exactly legally binding, really robust security guarantees they sought.

But they were told at the time that the United States and Western powers — so certainly at least the United States and Great Britain — take their political commitments really seriously. This is a document signed at the highest level by the heads of state. So the implication was Ukraine would not be left to stand alone and face a threat should it come under one.

And I think perhaps there was even a certain sense of complacency on the Ukrainian part after signing this agreement to say, "Look, we have these guarantees that were signed," because incidentally, into Ukrainian and Russian, this was translated as a guarantee, not as an assurance.

So they had this faith that the West would stand by them, or certainly the United States, the signatories, and Great Britain, would stand up for Ukraine should it come under threat. Although, the precise way was not really proscribed in the memorandum.

On whether Russia has respected the memorandum

Russia just glibly violated it.

And there's a mechanism of consultations that is provided for in the memorandum should any issues arise, and it was mobilized for the first time on March 4, 2014.

So there was a meeting of the signatories of the memorandum that was called by Ukraine and it did take place in Paris. And the foreign minister of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov, who was in Paris at the time, simply did not show up. So he wouldn't even come to the meeting in connection with the memorandum.

[Russia argues that it] signed it with a different government, not with this "illegitimate" one. But that, of course, does not stand to any international legal kind of criteria. You don't sign agreements with the government, you sign it with the country.

On whether Ukrainians regret nuclear disarmament

Some Ukrainian's regret giving up their nukes, but Budjeryn says the country made the right decision at the time.
STR / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Some Ukrainians regret that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, but Mariana Budjeryn says the country made the right decision at the time.

There certainly is a good measure of regret, and some of it is poorly informed. It would have cost Ukraine quite a bit, both economically and in terms of international political repercussions, to hold on to these arms. So it would not have been an easy decision.

But in public sphere these more simple narratives take hold. The narrative in Ukraine, publicly is: We had the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal, we gave it up for this signed piece of paper, and look what happened.

And it really doesn't look good for the international non-proliferation regime. Because if you have a country that disarms and then becomes a target of such a threat and a victim of such a threat at the hands of a nuclear-armed country, it just sends a really wrong signal to other countries that might want to pursue nuclear weapons.

On the importance of Ukraine's nuclear history today

I would say, after having researched this topic for nearly a decade, Ukraine did the right thing at the time. It did the right thing by itself, and also by the international community. It reduced the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world and that makes everyone safer.

Now, looking at this history, however, the guarantors — the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum especially but also the international community more broadly — needs to react in the way as to not make Ukraine doubt in the rightness of that decision.

This show of solidarity that we've recently seen, in this last kind of spur of tensions, goes a really long way to convince both Ukrainian leadership but also the public that even though we gave up these nuclear weapons, or nuclear option, the world still stands by us. And we will not face this aggression alone.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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