Our state does not need an army: in 1917, many Ukrainian politicians were convinced of this. The world is tired of a long and terrible world war, and in the end, everyone will refuse to solve their problems by force of arms. And Ukraine can be an example.
In fact, it did not become an example, and after it was divided between occupiers, it ceased to be independent. This cruel lesson remained unlearned. Seven decades after the fall of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, a new general of Ukrainian politicians decided to get rid of their nuclear weapons.
In a world tired of a long and exhausting cold war, there was a movement towards reducing such weapons. Ukraine was to become one of the first to voluntarily renounce all nuclear potential. Previously, only the Republic of South Africa had done this: it had destroyed 6 of its nuclear warheads. They became unnecessary for this state after the fall of communism in the world, and therefore – it ceased to be a threat to Africa.
Ukraine went much further: it renounced thousands of weapons, and in favour of its main historical enemy – Russia. Some who initiated this step deliberately sought to weaken the Ukrainians. Some, on the contrary, believed that giving up nuclear weapons would facilitate Ukraine’s path to independence and guarantee it the support of the whole world. That is why the idea of a nuclear-free status appears in the Declaration on State Sovereignty on 16 July 1990.
The initiator of its inclusion in this founding document was Ivan Drach, one of the leading figures of the then anti-communist opposition, one of the leaders of the People’s Movement of Ukraine. He justified his position as follows: a non-nuclear state cannot be part of a nuclear one. And therefore, giving up these weapons will make it impossible for Ukraine to remain a part of the USSR. The argument is not convincing – among the republics of the Union, only four (Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) had nuclear weapons. The rest were already non-nuclear, but also stateless.
It is worth considering one more reason for such an attitude towards nuclear weapons – environmental. The desire to get rid of everything related to atomic energy after the Chernobyl accident was very clear among Ukrainians. Ivan Drach also felt this. He was not only a politician but also a poet, the author of the philosophical poem “Chernobyl Madonna.”
Forces interested in the disarmament of Ukraine, primarily Russia, took advantage of anti-nuclear sentiments. In the early 1990s, it was the neighbouring country’s media, which shaped public opinion in our country as well, who spread unreliable information about the expiration dates of Ukrainian missiles, which could lead to a disaster, was widely disseminated.
But let’s return to the political reasons, which were nevertheless decisive. The logic was that “getting rid of nuclear weapons can contribute to the independence of Ukraine”. Western countries (and primarily the USA) sought to preserve the integrity of their former enemy, the Soviet Union. They feared the uncontrolled spread of its deadly arsenals around the world.
Therefore, the Ukrainian opposition considered giving up nuclear weapons as the price for changing the attitude of major players toward the idea of Ukrainian statehood. Of course, none of the Western politicians voiced this, but it seems that exactly such steps were expected from the Ukrainians.
However, the inclusion of the proposition on nuclear-free status in the declaration of sovereignty did not achieve the West’s support for Ukraine’s independence. We do not know whether Margaret Thatcher, who was in Kyiv a month before the adoption of the declaration, equated independent Ukraine with “independent California”, would have changed her position. But it is known for certain that the preservation of the integrity of the USSR remained the basis of US policy, even after the Declaration. As early as 1 August 1991, President George Bush spoke in the Verkhovna Rada and justified the need to sign a new union treaty and warned Ukrainians against “suicidal nationalism.”
America was in no hurry to recognize the independence of Ukraine even after its declaration by parliament. The adoption of another statement by the Verkhovna Rada on 24 October 1991, which fixed its nuclear-free status, did not speed up this process.
Only after the all-Ukrainian referendum, in which the majority of citizens supported the August 24 Act, did the United States recognize Ukraine. Therefore, it was not the readiness to disarm, but rather the clear desire of more than 90% of Ukrainians to live in an independent country that changed the international attitude towards Ukraine.
But even after that, the USA continued to consider Russia as its main partner in the post-Soviet space. Other former republics of the USSR (perhaps with the exception of the Baltic states) were tacitly recognized as its sphere of influence. Therefore, Russia, unlike Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, retained the status of a nuclear power and followed the USSR’s position on the UN Security Council. It was seen as an equal partner. The Americans believed that the country led by the democrat Boris Yeltsin had the greatest potential for development and were ready to help it first.
In the issue of nuclear disarmament of Ukraine, the interests of the USA and Russia seemed to coincide completely. For three years, the leaders of both states simultaneously put pressure on the Ukrainian leadership.
A favourable environment for disarmament was created by the fact that the Ukrainian political elite was not ready to adequately defend national interests. But the problem was not only the former communists, but now the leaders of independent states at various levels, who lacked the necessary experience and sometimes even motivation. The majority of Ukrainian society was immature and did not see a threat from Russia, instead, it continued to fear NATO.
Therefore, the most rational option, which provided for the renunciation of nuclear weapons in exchange for the prospect of Ukraine’s members in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a though it was discussed in the ranks of the opposition, was hardly realistic. This move was never voiced as a state position in the early 1990s.
And even in the 15th years of independence, only 15% of Ukrainians supported integration into NATO. It is obvious that earlier, there were even fewer of them. And this was again used equally by Russia and the USA. The first – left Ukraine in its orbit of influence, and the second – did not undertake any onerous obligations.
In 1994, a turning point occurred. After a meeting with US President Bill Clinton, who unexpectedly arrived in Kyiv in January, Leonid Kravchuk signed a so-called tripartite agreement. It largely contradicted the Ukrainian disarmament plan.
Contrary to earlier decisions of the Verkhovna Rada, it was no longer about the destruction of weapons located in Ukraine, but about their transfer to Russia. There was no mention of any financial compensation. Despite the fact that only the nuclear materials, which Ukraine would be deprived of, were estimated to be worth about 100 billion dollars, that is, more than ten annual state budgets of that time.
But the most important aspect was ignored. The provision in which the parliament stated: “Ukraine will gradually get rid of nuclear weapons on the condition of receiving reliable guarantees of national security” was not mentioned.
Such guarantees were not provided either before the signing of the agreement by Kravchuk, or after the ratification of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons by parliament. The Budapest Memorandum did not contain them either. It was only an imitation.
This is how the then Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Borys Tarasyuk, recalls the preparation of this document: “When we had already prepared the final text, the question arose about ‘assurances’ or ‘guarantees’. We insisted that there should be ‘guarantees’. In the end, it was agreed that there would be ‘assurances’ in the English text, and ‘guarantees’ in the Ukrainian and Russian. Taking into account the phrase at the end of the memorandum that the text is drawn up in four copies and all of them are authentic, we can say that our version of using the word ‘guarantees’ is legally correct.”
The Americans thought in a completely different way. US Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer noted: “when the negotiations on the adoption of this document took place, they used the concept of ‘security provision’, but not guarantees. And this leads to misunderstandings. The difference between these two concepts was not important to the American side, because it was clear to America of the use of this term, namely that the American side would not use force in this case.”
Twenty years passed, and after the Russian occupation of Crimea, we saw that the American diplomat was right. Ukraine did not receive any security guarantees for giving up its nuclear weapons.
Therefore, the appeal to this agreement by another Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, did not work. He declared: “I am initiating consultations within the framework of the Budapest Memorandum. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is tasked with convening them, and if they do not take place again, or if there are no security guarantees for our state as a result of them, Ukraine will have every right to believe that the Budapest Memorandum is not working, and all package decisions from 1994 are being called into question.”
These words, spoken on 19 February 2022, were not able to stop the full-scale Russian invasion that occurred five days later. The threat to review the decision of Ukraine to get rid of their nuclear weapons did not change anything in Putin’s plans. Just as it did not force the West to review their security guarantees for our country.
Only the stubborn will to fight and the ability of Ukrainians to defend their freedom in the face of a powerful enemy began to change the attitude of the free world toward Ukraine. We receive weapons and other important assistance not because of signed declarative statements, but because of our present readiness to fight. It is now the main guarantee of our independence. And it is based on this will to fight that Ukraine will be able to win and conclude international agreements that will truly protect our independence.