One Key Lesson of Putin's War: The Stark Failure of the Budapest Memorandum | Opinion

Amidst the debate over how best to respond to Russia's recent invasion of Ukraine, it's worth recalling a bleak truth: we convinced Ukraine to give up its greatest tool of deterrence—its nuclear weapon arsenal.

The 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances promised that the United States, Britain and Russia would "respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine" and would "refrain from the threat or use of force" against the country. In exchange for such security assurances, Ukraine forfeited what was then the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal, amounting to some 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads.

In agreeing to the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine had sought compensation for the highly-enriched uranium then lodged in its warheads and, most importantly, security assurances that it would not be invaded. By 1996, Ukraine had handed over all its nuclear warheads to the Kremlin.

Though the text itself does not convey anything beyond a minimal promise not to violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine, American negotiators reportedly made an unwritten commitment to Ukrainian officials that if Russia were to breach the Memorandum, the United States would engage in a strong response. These paper promises amounted to nothing when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014 and fostered breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. Nor have such promises kept Ukraine from facing down the current campaign for its national annihilation alone.

Machiavelli once wrote that "without its own arms, no principality is secure; indeed, it is wholly obliged to fortune since it does not have virtue to defend itself in adversity." In other words, the wise nation is the one that possesses its own means of self-defense. In an era of increasingly empty promises from Western democracies and unchecked rogue states, this axiom remains more relevant than ever.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is seen on
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is seen on a screen as he delivers a speech in front of the Assembly of the European Parliament on March 1, 2022 in Brussels, Belgium. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

There are a host of lessons that might be drawn from the collapse of the Budapest Memorandum. Western democracies are unreliable and fickle. International agreements involving the abdication of strategic assets in exchange for vague "assurances" of undefined future support are not worth the paper they are written on. Ukraine, despite having a strong historical foe on its borders, made real sacrifices for the fanciful Western ideal of denuclearization. But once it paid that price, those who had pushed for the deal largely hung the nation out to dry.

Ukraine is not the only country the U.S. and European countries have insisted make dangerous concessions for paper peace with an undemocratic, bellicose neighbor. In fact, this has been the entire blueprint of Western democracies' approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: push the Israelis to cede strategic territorial depth in the hopes that governments run by terrorists will behave. In exchange, Israel would ride a brief wave of Western plaudits and vague assurances of assistance, if the Palestinians were to seek to destabilize or attack the smaller Israel.

An Israeli deal with the Palestinians would surely be met, like the Budapest Memorandum, with fanfare and goodwill in the short term. The world, supposedly, would have become a more peaceful place. But little-remarked upon are the long-term consequences for the party that sacrificed its own security policy on the altar of quixotic Western delusions.

The Israelis have learned from countless terrorist attacks from Gaza (from which Israel withdrew in 2005) and southern Lebanon (which Israel abandoned in 2000) the dangers of giving up concrete assets in the hope of future goodwill. Peace never accompanies such land forfeitures.

But Ukraine's concessions in the 1990s are hardly remembered today—except perhaps by the tens of millions of Ukrainians who otherwise would have benefited from the deterrent effects of a nuclear arsenal that now lies comfortably under Kremlin control. Thus, the Ukrainian war also represents the failure of a Western peace process—a failure that our ally Israel should certainly remember when an unchastened American and European foreign policy establishment inevitably asks Jerusalem to repeat Kiev's mistakes.

Erielle Davidson is the associate director of the Center for the Middle East and International Law at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.