Volodymyr Vasylenko: “Ukraine had to give up its nuclear weapons to become a sovereign state and have its independence recognized by the entire world”
The anamnesis of Ukraine’s non-nuclear status
Professor Volodymyr Vasylenko knows first-hand about all the ups and downs Ukraine experienced after regaining its independence in 1991. He is the author of the first draft Declaration of State Sovereignty and the formula on Ukraine’s intention to become a neutral, non-aligned and non-nuclear state in the future. He represented Ukraine in the EU and NATO at the time when the Budapest Memorandum was being prepared. He was also involved in working on Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament and the respective talks. As an insider in the process, he all problems and risks associated with it.
U.W.: Why did the idea of Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament surface, and when?
There were several reasons. First, many people in Ukraine, including MPs, were under the influence of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, so the overall sentiment was anti-nuclear. Second and more important, Ukraine was moving towards independence and the Supreme Soviet was developing the Declaration of Ukraine’s State Sovereignty in May-July 1990. National democratic forces, represented in parliament by the People’s Council (Narodna Rada, the parliamentary opposition in the Ukrainian Parliament in 1990-1994 – Ed.), from the very start viewed the Declaration as an action plan for gradual restoration of Ukraine’s independence and withdrawal from the Soviet Union.
When the Declaration was passed, Ukraine was part of the USSR, a nuclear power. Indirectly, Ukraine was a nuclear state, because nuclear weapons were deployed in its territory. The USSR was also the leading member of a military bloc, the Warsaw Pact. So by stating in the Declaration its intention to become a permanently neutral, non-aligned and non-nuclear state, Ukraine laid the political and legal foundations for withdrawing from the USSR. By inheriting nuclear weapons and remaining a nuclear state, Ukraine would have tied itself inextricably to the Soviet military industrial complex, because nuclear weapons were designed and produced outside its borders. Control and service centres and testing grounds were also located outside Ukraine. If Ukraine had kept these weapons, it would have remained part of this system, which would have spelled political, economic and military dependence on Russia.
Moreover, back in 1990, when the Eastern Bloc fell apart and the USSR began to disintegrate, US Secretary of State James Baker announced the criteria which the United States and the West in general were going to be look at in recognizing newly independent states: building society and the state on democratic principles, developing the economy on market principles, respect for human and minority rights, no territorial claims and no nuclear weapons in possession. That is why it was vital for Ukraine to solve the issue of nuclear disarmament, especially considering the sad experience of the 1920s when the West did not recognize Ukraine and it became a target of Bolshevik aggression, eventually losing its independence.
In other words, for Ukraine to become a sovereign state and have its independence recognized by the entire world, it had to give up its nuclear weapons.
U.W.: Was there any pressure from the US or other states in this question?
There was no pressure at the stage when the Declaration was developed. It was a purely Ukrainian intellectual and mental development of strategic nature aimed at creating grounds for Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Soviet Union. Interestingly, Belarus was monitoring the events in our Supreme Soviet and its MPs essentially copied the final version of the statement on the neutral, non-aligned and non-nuclear status from our document into their own declaration of state sovereignty. This “unanimity” led to a discussion among Western experts, as they tried to decipher the intentions of the Soviets in various ways.
The true goal of this formula on Ukraine’s future status of a neutral, non-aligned and non-nuclear state remained a mystery also to the majority of Ukrainian MPs. The highly emotional perception of the nuclear threat caused by the Chornobyl disaster prompted 272 MPs to vote in favour (49 against), while entire Section 9 “External and internal security” of the Declaration was supported by a mere 238 MPs (100 against).
A short while later, on 20 August 1991, an abortive putsch took place in Moscow, and Ukraine proclaimed its independence four days later, on 24 August. The situation changed drastically, so there was no longer any need to realize the intention to become a non-aligned and neutral state. However, there was still the need to obtain non-nuclear status.
First, not to depend on Russia and, second, to be recognized by the West. In September 1991, I completed a detailed analytical document about non-nuclear status for Ukraine in which I argued that we had to give up nuclear weapons. This approach was accepted by Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s first president, not without the influence of Anton Buteiko, who was then his counsellor for international issues. Despite some active opposition to non-nuclear status in parliament, the majority of MPs supported the president. On numerous occasions, the Verkhovna Rada issued statements and passed decisions confirming Ukraine’s readiness for nuclear disarmament but on condition of security guarantees. The first such statement after Ukraine regained its independence was made by parliament on 24 September 1991.
Russia was among the countries that insisted with extra vigour that Ukraine had to give up its nuclear arms and publicly declared their stance. However, it did not, in fact, want Ukraine to move along quickly along this path and hampered the process, aware that this would make the West angry and put Ukraine in international isolation and blockade. Every time the Verkhovna Rada debated this issue, there were some provocations – territorial claims or something like that. And then parliament was in uproar: If Russia is hostile to us, how can we give up nuclear weapons? International pressure came after Ukraine became independent and was recognized by all European states and influential world powers. The pressure was huge. I experienced it in 1992-94 as Ukraine’s ambassador to the Benelux countries and representative to NATO and the EU. Nuclear powers did not want to lose their monopolistic right to nuclear weapons. At the same time, they were concerned about international security, because proliferation of nuclear arms is indeed a dangerous thing. On 3 April 1992, we started intensive negotiations.
U.W.: Was there a chance to keep part of the nuclear weapons or, at least, stretch the disarmament process over a longer period?
I don’t think Ukraine would have benefited from this. The issue was a colossal irritant and grounds for accusations against Ukraine and all kinds of provocations. Moreover, let me emphasize once again, we did not have the specialists, resources, knowledge and technology to service nuclear weapons and do maintenance works. If nuclear warheads are not serviced in a timely manner and are neglected, they become a source of increased danger.
U.W.: What if we had refused to give up nuclear weapons after all? Ukraine could have said it had acted in haste, but then changed its mind and decided the timing was not right.
We would have faced sanctions then. Of course, the USA would not have waged war against Ukraine, but it would have arranged political, economic and diplomatic isolation. There is no doubt about that. We would have been left one-on-one against Russia which would have taken advantage of the situation to establish its military and political control in Ukraine. We would have had a kind of quasi-independence.
U.W.: Did Ukraine have enough money to afford keeping nuclear weapons at the time?
That is another question mark. The economic situation was very bad at the time. Kravchuk allowed Leonid Kuchma to sign an agreement with Russia recognizing corporate debt as Ukraine’s state debt. This coincided in time with a huge spike in energy prices which led to colossal inflation and devaluation of coupons, which served as a replacement for money.
Thus, there were tremendous economic difficulties, but most importantly, there were issues with servicing nuclear weapons. Some experts said that we could change the control codes for nuclear missiles. They said they could do it. I am not an expert in this field and don’t know how feasible and safe it was. Two camps were fighting in Ukraine at the time. One wanted Ukraine to keep nuclear weapons no matter what, and the other wanted non-nuclear status. I am absolutely convinced that we made the right strategic choice. However, we should have adequately developed the state and its armed forces.
U.W.: Was there a possibility to give up strategic weapons but keep the tactical ones at least for a while?
This is still a mystery to the public at large. I did not deal with this issue, but tactical nuclear weapons were taken out of Ukraine very rapidly. No-one can tell who gave the orders and what agreements existed with Moscow. I believe a Russian special operation took place there. We did not need strategic nuclear weapons. Aimed at the USA, they were useless to us and a strong irritant to America.
On 26 February 1993, I received a phone call from the American embassy with a request to meet an important person from Washington who was passing through Brussels. That person was Strobe Talbott. He said: “I am going to be appointed Deputy Secretary of State. I will be dealing with Eastern Europe and, among others, Ukraine, but I know nothing about your country. Could you please bring me up to date?” We had a very long talk. He was especially interested in nuclear disarmament issues. I told Talbott that obtaining non-nuclear status was our idea, so there was no need to put pressure on us – we would do it. But we needed to have security guarantees – that was the most important thing. So the Americans could think about that. The Russians were not interested in quickly completing negotiations with us. If the US wanted a result, it had to join the negotiations as the third party.
U.W.: So, initially, it was only about negotiations with Russia?
Right. We talked to the Russians, and the Verkhovna Rada wanted certain guarantees to be provided to Ukraine. And then, after my talk with Talbott, Americans indeed joined the negotiations and we made some progress. Britain also joined in. The Budapest Memorandum was signed, as is known, by four states: Britain, USA, Russia and Ukraine. France and China issued separate statements to the effect that they respected the territorial integrity and state borders of Ukraine. The memorandum and, even more so, the statements are not very meaningful. They do not spell out a specific mechanism for helping Ukraine and protecting its borders and territorial integrity. A positive side was that it recognized as unacceptable not only military aggression but also economic pressure aimed at stripping Ukraine of its independence or violating its territorial integrity. Another plus is that point six of the memorandum says that its parties must hold consultations in case Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence are in danger.
Ukraine’s attempts to enforce this point were unsuccessful. In 2003, when Russia provoked a conflict over Ukraine’s island of Tuzla, the nuclear powers that had extended security guarantees to us refused to hold any consultations. Now, during the current Russian aggression and after Russia’s annexation of part of Ukraine’s territory, only the USA and Great Britain agreed to hold consultations.
U.W.: How can you explain the imperfections of the Budapest Memorandum? What was the reason: the weakness of Ukrainian diplomats, the pressure from partners or, perhaps, haste?
No, there was no haste. Ukraine declared its intention to become a non-nuclear state back in 1990. After declaring independence, we confirmed that Kyiv would stick to this intention and started negotiations in 1992. True, the Western states were hurrying things up. They wanted this to happen as soon as possible, but the Budapest Memorandum was signed on 5 December 1994, so there was plenty of time.
In my opinion, the Ukrainian leadership was somewhat ill-prepared. It lacked strategic thinking to some extent and had rosy hopes for good neighbourly relations with Russia. Kyiv was still ill at ease in the international arena among players with tremendous diplomatic experience. There was a feeling that they believed these promises and guarantees. If such serious players took on commitments, it all had to be more or less normal. However, we should have defended our position more vigorously and pragmatically during the negotiations.
In particular, I wrote to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that security guarantees had to be normative, organizational and material. These were the three types of guarantees that needed to be specified, particularly by way of demanding an invitation to NATO and solving issues having to do with the operation of our nuclear power plants and the energy sector in general. It would then have held together well and had a certain effect. But there was no talk of NATO membership at the time, even though we should have asked for it in exchange for nuclear disarmament. We would have given up nuclear arms and come under NATO’s umbrella. This decision, I believe, would have ensured the interests of both the West and Ukraine. It would, however, have gone against Russia’s interests. If it had happened, we would not have had much trouble with Russia. Remember how Russia blackmailed the Poles, the Czechs and the Baltic peoples: “Don’t join NATO.” However, as soon as they joined the alliance, it all calmed down. And today I am sure that as soon as Ukraine becomes a NATO member, the Russians will have a fit of hysterics, but our relations will go back to normal after a while, because they will understand that there is no way they can subjugate Ukraine now.
U.W.: Don’t you think that Ukraine is the only state that has fulfilled the Budapest Memorandum as of today?
It is true.
U.W.: In other words, the USA and Britain – to say nothing of Russia – owe us now…
Well, we are not even talking about Russia in this context. It has never intended to respect our sovereignty, territorial integrity, etc. By formally signing treaties with us, Moscow proceeded from an assumption that Ukraine was part of the Russian Federation rather than a separate state. It has believed all along that Ukraine’s independence is a temporary anomaly and that sooner or later Ukraine will return to Russia and become part of “one and indivisible” entity.
U.W.: Were there any secret deals? Say, between the USA and Russia?
I don’t think so. Both the Americans and the Russians were, by and large, interested in Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament and did not conceal the fact. Ukraine’s leadership had the mindset back then that we would agree to non-nuclear status for the sake of international recognition and establishment of normal relations with the West.
U.W.: A topic that is actively being debated now is revising the memorandum and restoring Ukraine’s nuclear status. How real is this?
From a legal standpoint, this is possible. The argument here is that the states that guaranteed security, independence and territorial inviolability to Ukraine have failed to meet their commitments. Hence, we can withdraw from the Budapest Memorandum and try to ensure our security by restoring nuclear status, especially if this step is supported by Ukrainian citizens.
However, this framing of the issue will evoke an absolutely negative reaction from the West, and we will find ourselves in international isolation. Moreover, we do not have the material resources now to start this process. It is more realistic to reform the country, restore the efficiency of our national security sector and raise the issue of granting Ukraine the NATO Membership Action Plan.