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Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament Decision and Security Assurances

Mr Mukesh Kumar is Research Intern at the Centre for Defence Economics and Industry, MP-IDSA.
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  • June 10, 2022

    In the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Soviet nuclear weapons were present on Ukrainian territory, apart from the territories of Belarus and Kazakhstan. These included more than 1,900 strategic warheads, 2,500 tactical warheads, 176 Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and 44 bombers. On 30 December 1991, 11 members of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) signed the Minsk Declaration on Strategic Forces, agreeing to give the Russian government authority over all the nuclear weapons stationed on their territory, as per Article IV.1 Earlier on 16 July 1990, Ukraine adopted a ‘Declaration of Sovereignty’ wherein it pledged ‘not to accept, produce, or acquire nuclear weapons’.2

    Political and diplomatic efforts to remove Russian nuclear weapons from Ukraine began with the Lisbon Protocol of 1992. As part of the protocol, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan pledged to ratify the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and become members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).3 Ukrainian members of parliament, though, were divided over the merits of signing the Protocol and demanded the conferment of the status of temporary nuclear weapon state.

    In April 1993, the Ukrainian parliament insisted on 13 pre-conditions for ratification of START.4 These pre-conditions included security assurances from Russia and the US, economic assistance for the dismantlement of the weapons, and Ukrainian control over a part of the arsenal. These demands were rejected by the US and Russia, with the US, instead, offering to provide additional financial assistance, over and above the US$ 175 million promised in 1992, as part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) commitments for Ukraine’s denuclearisation.   

    In September 1993, Russia and Ukraine started bilateral negotiations on dismantlement of nuclear warheads.5 However, issues relating to assurances for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, costs of dismantlement of nuclear arms, among others, resulted in failure to conclude a final document. Subsequently, the ‘Trilateral Statement’ was signed along with the US on 14 January 1994, wherein Ukraine agreed for complete disarmament of strategic and tactical weapons, in return for economic and security assurances on accession to NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.6

    Ukraine ratified START on 3 February 1994 (Kazakhstan had done so on 2 July 1992, and Belarus on 4 February 1993) but did not join the NPT, till December 1994, when the Budapest Memorandum was concluded, with the United Kingdom (UK) joining the US and Russia.

    In the Budapest Memorandum,

    the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and United States reaffirm[ed] their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the final act of Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe [CSCE], to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of the Ukraine.

    They also reaffirmed

    Their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine …7

    While acceding to the NPT as a NNWS, Ukraine sought legally binding assurances from the US, Russia and the UK, which they were reluctant to give. These countries, however, reaffirmed their commitment to take actions at the UN Security Council (UNSC) in face of any external aggression and act of war against Ukraine.8

    Security Assurances vs Security Guarantees

    The charter of the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) or Helsinki Accords, from which the Budapest Memorandum took inspiration from, condemns external aggression and annexation of territory by force. Russia breached the Budapest Memorandum in 2014 with the annexation of Crimean peninsula by force.9 Russia has since maintained a heavy troop presence of more than 1,00,000 soldiers in Crimea. 

    The security assurances, instead of security guarantees, provided to Ukraine seems void, in the face of the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine, which began in February 2022. It is pertinent to note that a former US Ambassador to Ukraine in 2014 had stated that ‘the Budapest Memorandum was not an agreement on security guarantees’.10

    During the current conflict, the UN has been unable to take substantive action, in face of disagreement among its veto members. The UNSC has failed to adopt resolutions in its meetings held on the issue. The UNSC, meeting on 21 February, rejected Russia’s recognition of certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.11 After hostilities began, the UNSC on 25 February failed to pass a resolution on account of Russia’s veto power. Finally, on 27 February, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2623 calling for an emergency special session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to resolve the Ukrainian crisis.12 The resolution was passed by 11 votes in favour, Russia voting against and three abstentions (China, India and the United Arab Emirates).

    On 2 March 2022, in the Eleventh Emergency Special Session, the UNGA passed resolution ES-11/1, titled ‘Aggression against Ukraine’, calling for an immediate ceasefire, provision of humanitarian aid and withdrawal of Russian forces from the territory of Ukraine.13 Later, on 24 March 2022, UNGA passed another resolution titled ‘Humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine’, with overwhelming majority, demanding civilian protection and humanitarian access.14

    Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, in a hard-hitting speech before the UNSC on 5 April 2022, charged the UNSC to either act or dissolve itself and asked—‘Where is the security that the Security Council must guarantee?’15 The US and UK, parties to the Budapest Memorandum, though, have helped in training, economic assistance, and providing arms to Ukraine.16  


    The inability of international organisations like the United Nations to effectively protect the security interests of weaker countries is starkly apparent. The Russian military action in Ukraine will have negative consequences for the sanctity of international order and peaceful resolution of border disputes. Ukraine’s security predicament in the face of the Russian military onslaught brings into focus the vacuity of big power security assurances in the absence of legally binding security guarantees and treaty commitments.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.