America’s obligation to Ukraine began with nukes in the early 1990s

A statue of Russian and Soviet writer Maxim Gorky stands decapitated in a city park on February 12, 2023 in Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, near the frontline between Ukrainian and Russian troops. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Does the U.S. have an obligation to aid Ukraine? The short answer to this question, one that many have been evading, is yes. The reasons have to do with America’s choices, policies and actions during the early 1990s.

As the Soviet Union was collapsing, the H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations had a kind of bromance with Russian leaders, namely with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. There were numerous meetings and telephone calls both on the presidential level and on various ministerial levels. People were on a first-name basis and many American leaders tended to see the world the way Moscow’s leaders did.

When the USSR finally collapsed in December 1991, Soviet nuclear assets were found in the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. Ukraine at that time had the third-largest nuclear arsenal on earth, after the U.S. and Russia. As Eugene Fishel describes at length in his important volume “The Moscow Factor: U.S. Policy toward Sovereign Ukraine and the Kremlin,” America and Yeltsin had begun to pressure Ukraine and the other two republics to agree to surrender their nuclear arsenals to Russia even before the collapse.

The American desire to accommodate Yeltsin after he became Russia’s president was motivated in part by an understandable interest in maintaining a deescalated state of U.S.-Russian relations and by a desire to help Yeltsin domestically. And so when Yeltsin told Bush at Camp David in 1992 that Moscow’s priority was to see Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan become denuclearized, he found a very receptive ear. There was little awareness or concern that the U.S. was essentially acquiescing to Russia gaining an additional advantage over its former colonial possessions.

Washington’s thinking was Russocentric and perhaps naively hopeful. As an internal State Department memorandum in April 1992 stated, “Nothing is of more central importance in this process than consolidation of nuclear weapons in a democratizing Russia.”

The Clinton administration basically continued Bush’s policies towards Russia and Ukraine. There was domestic pressure inside Ukraine for the nation to keep at least some of the nuclear arsenal as a form of deterrence against future Russian invasions. This was no idle fear — over the preceding century, Ukraine had been invaded by troops from Tsarist Russia, Bolshevik Russia, White or monarchist Russia, or the Soviet Union on at least seven occasions.

But President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher bullied Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk to do our bidding, and at an airport meeting in Ukraine they told Kravchuk in threatening terms that if Ukraine did not agree to transfer its nukes to Russia, “it would be a major setback for Ukraine’s relations with both Russia and the U.S.”

As Fishel has noted, “the U.S. government saw all Ukrainian behavior meant to demonstrate, advocate for, and defend Ukraine’s own independent interests as unhelpful, provocative, and even worthy of ridicule and outright bullying.”

The intense, three-year arm-twisting campaign resulted in Ukraine’s agreeing in 1994 to transfer all of its nuclear arsenal to Russia and to sign on to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In exchange, Ukraine received the so-called Budapest Memorandum, signed by the U.S., the United Kingdom, Russia and Ukraine, in which all of the signatories committed to assure Ukraine of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

But in 2014, Russia invaded and occupied parts of Ukraine, and since February 2022 Russia has attacked and tried to destroy all of Ukraine.

Was it delusional on our part to think or expect Russia to become a good international citizen? Given Ukraine’s history of having suffering repeated invasions, was it a mistake for us to bully Ukraine into giving up the nuclear arsenal on its territory? Should Ukraine have been made to surrender its nuclear arsenal to, of all places, Russia? Whatever the case, there was only one upper-level official in our government who thought that our preferential orientation towards Moscow was a mistake, and that actor was Dick Cheney, then Bush’s secretary of defense.

It is noteworthy that President Clinton, one of the principal agents inducing Ukraine to give up its nukes, said during an April 2023 interview that he now regrets his role in getting Ukraine to forfeit its nuclear weapons in 1994, and he has suggested that Russia would not have invaded had Ukraine still had its nuclear deterrent. But this and the whole story behind the Budapest Memorandum and Ukraine’s agreement to denuclearize seems altogether to have escaped Congress’s notice or its collective institutional memory.

Over the centuries, we have developed a clear understanding of the obligations that flow from agreements involving a bargained-for exchange. If pursuant to an agreement one party produces that for which the two parties bargained — and here Ukraine did surrender its nukes — then the second party needs to produce that which was bargained for — here a defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Aid to Ukraine is that bargained-for consideration.

Some in Congress today seem to think that aid to Ukraine is a charitable-giving option and act accordingly. Others understand that it is a matter of our geopolitical interests. But none seem to grasp that, based on our having pressured and induced Ukraine to surrender all of its nuclear arms to Russia, it is actually a matter of obligation.

Source: The Hill