Ukraine, nuclear weapons and the trilateral statement 25 years later

Today, January 14, marks the 25th anniversary of the Trilateral Statement.  Signed in Moscow by President Bill Clinton, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, the statement set out the terms under which Ukraine agreed to eliminate the large arsenal of former Soviet strategic nuclear weapons that remained on its territory following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Among other things, the Trilateral Statement specified the security assurances that the United States, Russia and Britain would provide to Ukraine eleven months later in the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.  Unfortunately, Russia grossly violated those assurances in 2014 when it used military force against Ukraine.

Soon after regaining independence, Ukraine’s leadership indicated its intention to be a non-nuclear weapons state.  Indeed, the July 16, 1990 declaration of state sovereignty adopted by the Rada (parliament) adopted that goal.  Kyiv had questions, however, about the terms of the elimination of the strategic weapons.

First, eliminating the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), bombers, ICBM silos and nuclear infrastructure would cost money.  Ukraine’s economic future in the early 1990s was uncertain (the economy ended up declining for most of the decade).  Who would pay for the expensive elimination process?

Second, the strategic nuclear warheads had economic value as they contained highly enriched uranium.  That could be blended down into low enriched uranium to fabricate fuel rods to power nuclear reactors.  If Ukraine shipped warheads to Russia for dismantlement, how would it be compensated for the value of the highly enriched uranium they contained?

Third, nuclear weapons were seen to confer security benefits.  What security guarantees or assurances would Kyiv receive as it gave up the nuclear arms on its territory?

These questions were reasonable, and Kyiv deserved good answers.  In 1992 and the first half of 1993, Ukrainian and Russian officials met in bilateral channels to discuss them, along with other issues such as a schedule for moving warheads to Russia.  In parallel, U.S. officials discussed similar issues with their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts.

However, in September 1993, a Ukrainian-Russian agreement dealing with the nuclear issues fell apart.  Washington decided to become more directly involved out of fear that a resolution might otherwise not prove possible, giving birth to the “trilateral process.”  Discussions over the course of the autumn led U.S. negotiators in mid-December to believe that the pieces of a solution were ready.

In a negotiation in Washington in early January 1994, U.S. Ambassador-at-large Strobe Talbott, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Valeriy Shmarov and Deputy Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgiy Mamedov and their teams finalized answers to Kyiv’s three questions, and wrote them into what became the Trilateral Statement and an accompanying annex.

The United States agreed to provide Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction funds to finance the elimination of the strategic delivery systems and infrastructure in Ukraine.  Specifically, $175 million would be made available as a start.

The three sides agreed that Russia would compensate Ukraine for the value of the highly enriched uranium in the nuclear warheads transferred to Russia for elimination by providing Ukraine fuel rods containing an equivalent amount of low enriched uranium for its nuclear reactors.  In the first ten months, Ukraine would transfer at least 200 warheads, and Russia would provide fuel rods containing 100 tons of low enriched uranium.

The sides laid out in the Trilateral Statement the specific language of the security assurances that Ukraine would receive once it had acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state.  Although Kyiv had sought security guarantees, Washington was not prepared to extend what would have been a military commitment similar to what NATO allies have; the assurances were the best that was on offer.

Two issues—the date for transfer of the last nuclear warheads out of Ukraine and compensation for the highly enriched uranium that had been in tactical nuclear warheads removed from Ukraine to Russia by May 1992—nearly derailed the Trilateral Statement.  The sides, however, agreed to address those in private letters.

Presidents Clinton, Yeltsin and Kravchuk met briefly in Moscow on January 14, 1994 and signed the Trilateral Statement.  That set in motion the transfer of nuclear warheads to Russia, accompanied by parallel shipments of fuel rods to Ukraine.  The deactivation and dismantlement of missiles, bombers and missile silos in Ukraine began in earnest with Cooperative Threat Reduction funding.

In December 1994, Ukraine acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and received security assurances from the United States, Russia and Britain in the Budapest Memorandum.  France and China subsequently provided Kyiv similar assurances.

Ukraine fully met its commitments under the Trilateral Statement.  The last nuclear warheads were transferred out of Ukraine in May 1996.

The other signatories met their commitments—with one glaring exception.  In 2014, Russia used military force to illegally seize Crimea, in violation of its Budapest Memorandum commitments “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against Ukraine.  Russian security and military forces then instigated a conflict in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives and continues to simmer.

At the time, the Trilateral Statement was seen as a major achievement in Washington, as it eliminated hundreds of ICBMs and bombers and nearly 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads that had been designed and built to strike the United States.  Not surprisingly, in light of Russia’s aggression, many in Ukraine now question the value of the Trilateral Statement and Budapest Memorandum.  They argue that, had Ukraine held on to at least some nuclear weapons, Russia would never have dared move on Crimea and Donbas.

That argument is understandable and perhaps correct (although alternative histories are not always easy to envisage).  However, had Ukraine tried to keep nuclear weapons, it would have faced political and economic costs, including:

·      Kyiv would have had limited relations, at best, with the United States and European countries (witness the virtual pariah status that a nuclear North Korea suffers).  In particular, there would have been no strategic relationship with the United States.

·      NATO would not have concluded a distinctive partnership relationship with Ukraine, and the European Union would not have signed a partnership and cooperation agreement, to say nothing of an association agreement.

·      Kyiv would have received little in the way of reform, technical or financial assistance from the United States and European Union.

·      Western executive directors would have blocked low interest credits to Ukraine from the IMF, World Bank and European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.

To be sure, one can debate the value of these benefits.  But those who now assert that Ukraine should have kept nuclear arms should recognize that keeping them would have come at a steep price.  Moreover, in any confrontation or crisis with Russia, Ukraine would have found itself alone.