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Western ‘Security Guarantees’ to Ukraine Don’t Say What Commentators Think

budapest-memorandums

Quite a bit of commentary on the Ukraine crisis refers to Western “security guarantees” made  in exchange for Kyiv’s de-nuclearization two decades ago. That analysis, alas, is not informed by the facts.

While Russia is almost certainly in violation of both the spirit and letter of The Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances of 1994, the other signatories have no obligation whatsoever to do anything about it.

The most applicable provision: “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.” Russia is rather clearly in violation of this, notwithstanding Putin’s claims of self-defense.

Likewise, the parties “reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 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.” Emphasis mine. So, unless Russia uses nuclear weapons, the other signatories have no obligation to do anything. If Russia were, unfathomably, to threaten or use nukes, then the other parties would be obligated to take the matter to the Security Council—where Russia would promptly veto any proposed action.

To summarize: The only security commitment given to Ukraine by the signatories is to make whole its nuclear deterrent against nuclear attack. The fact that nuclear weapons possession might also deter a conventional attack, while possibly true, is explicitly not addressed.

Indeed, since the UN Security Council is going to actually take up the matter—for all the good that’ll do (see above)—the other parties are actually going above and beyond the call of duty.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    It’s almost as if the Russians signed off on this. Perhaps because they did.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  2. Enon says:

    The Lithuanian government is apparently taking a different view.

    Lithuania invokes Nato treaty on Ukraine

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. walt moffett says:

    then there is explainer dated 2/28 from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. While not an official USG statement, it is interesting. In brief, military action would not be legal under international law but enforcement would be iffy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. @Enon:

    I can understand why Lithuania (and Latvia and Estonia for that matter) might be nervous, but Ukraine is not a NATO member. Given that, I can’t see how any provision of the NATO Treaty would even apply here.

    James?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: @Enon: Article 4 is rather vague:

    The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.

    I can see where small former Soviet states would feel “threatened” by Russia’s moves, and it’s perfectly reasonable for NATO to “consult” on the matter. Nothing much will happen pursuant to said consultations, however.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  6. Tillman says:

    I figured they invoked Article 4 since Putin’s rationale for invading Crimea was to protect Russian-speaking peoples, and they have populations like that.

    The fact that the Baltic states are invoking the treaty and not any of the further-Western nations should give some political cover as well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. Stonetools says:

    I understand why the Baltic states want to invoke NATO. In particular, they want to be reassured that the NATO commitments mean what they say. After all, they also have their “Sudantenland” minorities and there is frankly even less reason for NATO to want to fight on behalf of the Baltics. As Birsmarck might put it, the Baltic states aren’t worth the bones of a single healthy NATO infantryman

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  8. Norman Q says:

    Flawed analysis:

    “Likewise, the parties “reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 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.” Emphasis mine.

    Clearly, having Russian troops on Ukrainian soil blockading the Ukrainian military inside their installations constitute an “act of aggression”, thereby triggering invocation of the terms of the security agreement.

    I do agree that the terms of the security agreement do not arbitrarily mandate a military response by the signatories against said aggression. But at the very least the matter should be taken up by the UN Security Council immediately. Putting the matter to a vote would contribute to Russia’s political and economic isolation, which could facilitate a change of heart on Mr. Putin’s part.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  9. steve says:

    I think people continue to misunderstand Russia and Putin. This is about internal politics in Russia. Why would they care about any potential attempts at isolation? That has nowhere the immediacy of this crisis. Besides, what credible threats can the EU/NATO make? Are they going to play chicken over natural gas? For what? The privilege of providing billions of dollars to a fractured, corrupt country that is barely functional? Does the EU turn to us for advice on nation building? What is their experience?

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  10. Davebo says:

    @steve:

    Besides, what credible threats can the EU/NATO make?

    Freezing assets and refusing Visa’s of Russia’s elite would be pretty credible.

    Could result in Putin having a horrific bass fishing accident.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. superdestroyer says:

    Bottom line: the Ukraine was stupid to give up its nuclear weapons. Does anyone really believe that they would being bullied by Putin if the Ukraine still had nuclear weapons? Of course, if the Ukraine dissolves in civil war, it may be a good thing that neither side has nuclear weapons. However, if Russia is going to helps the ethnic Russians in the Ukraine but no one helps the ethnic Ukrainians, maybe having nuclear weapons would be seen as a good thing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  12. Rob in CT says:

    Giving up nukes without ironclad security guarantees (e.g., being formally put under someone else’s nuclear umbrella) does indeed seem like a bad idea.

    I, for one, am happy they did, because Ukraine does not seem like a stable, functional state. We have enough to worry about with Pakistan having nukes.

    As for the US response: so far, I’m fine with it. As has been pointed out bythe few level-headed people in our punditariat, a lot depends on the willingness of European nations to put pressure on Russia (apparently, our people are trying to round up some sort of concensus on that now). Our connections to the Russian economy are pretty small. Western/Central Europe, however, is another ballgame. They can hurt the Russians, and the Russians can hurt them back (natural gas, obviously). If they have no stomach for it, there isn’t a helluva lot we can do. So far, it sounds like key Euro countries don’t have much stomach for it. Maybe that will change, depending on events in Crimea.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. Eric Florack says:

    As a matter of logic, once military action begins, treaties aren’t worth much in terms of stopping it. That seems to me the one point Obamas military cuts never accounted for.

    What happens when (not if, but when) negotiations between the EU and the Russians fall apart is anyone’s guess. But it seems a safe bet we won’t be prepared to deal with it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 6

  14. Mu says:

    Does the EU turn to us for advice on nation building?

    Based on our glorious success in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. josh says:

    have to agree with norman Q. The use of the word “or” certainly could be read as allowing for two options – one that does not include or involve use of nukes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  16. PD Shaw says:

    I also think norman Q’s interpretation is correct. He breaks down the sentence like this:

    if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or

    [if Ukraine should become] an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.

    In the first clause Ukraine is a victim, it has actually been attacked by unspecified means. In the second clause Ukraine is an object of a nuclear threat.

    James reads it like this:

    if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression [in which nuclear weapons are used] or

    [if Ukraine should become] an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.

    My main problem with James’ interpretation is that if it only intended to apply to situations in which Ukraine is threatened or attacked with nuclear weapons, the clause could be much shorter. I just wrote it in italics. The whole purpose of having separate object and victim clauses is to emphasize two different scenarios, not a continuum of a single scenario.

    It also assumes that Ukraine was not concerned about being vulnerable to a conventional attack now that it has given up its nukes, or that the other signatories thought the cost of going to the U.N. too high if Ukraine was attacked conventionally. Conventional attack would be a likely concern for Ukraine and a U.N. report a cheap obligation from the others.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  17. Tyrell says:

    Today, Ukraine. A few months, Poland. A year, Czechoslavakia.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. J-Dub says:

    This situation clearly calls for invoking General Order 24.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. mattbernius says:

    @Tyrell:

    Today, Ukraine. A few months, Poland. A year, Czechoslavakia.

    Care to place a bet on that prediction?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. Surreal American says:

    @Tyrell:

    Today, Ukraine. A few months, Poland. A year, Czechoslavakia.

    Well not so much Czechoslavakia since that nation no longer exists (replaced by the Czech Republic and Slovakia).

    Don’t fret, though. With both Liz Cheney and MSNBC making that same error, you’re at least in mixed company if not good company.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  21. Neil Hudelson says:

    You know a big difference between Hitler in the 30s and Putin now? Hitler had built up an army. All these predictions of Russia taking over all of the old eastern block conveniently fails to explain how they are going to both afford and have the troops to do it. Their army ain’t that big any more.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  22. mattbernius says:

    @Surreal American:
    Dude, you’re totally screwing up my bet!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. Mikey says:

    @Tyrell:

    Czechoslavakia

    WHAT YEAR IS IT

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  24. Surreal American says:

    @mattbernius:

    My bad.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. The other Jack says:

    Where is the article stating the ousted Ukraine President is still the official President since they didn’t dispose of him according to their Constitution? What about Obama recognizing an illegitimate government?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0