Don’t Panic! The Budapest Memorandum Does Not Require US and UK to Defend Ukraine

by Julian Ku

Lots of reports, including those from the new Ukrainian government at a meeting of the UN Security Council, suggest that Russian military forces have crossed into Ukraine. This has caused a mild panic on Wall Street and some typically overwrought press reporting from, just to give an example, Britain’s Daily Mail.

A treaty signed in 1994 by the US and Britain could pull both countries into a war to protect Ukraine if Putin’s troops intervene.

Bill Clinton, John Major, Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kuchma – the then-rulers of the USA, UK, Russia and Ukraine – agreed to the The Budapest Memorandum as part of the denuclearization of former Soviet republics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union

Technically it means that if Russia has invaded Ukraine then it would be difficult for the US and Britain to avoid going to war.

Uh…no it doesn’t. At least not from my reading of it.  It might be a good idea for the US to stand up for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and it is true that the Budapest Memorandum commits Russia to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (I thought Russia’s president wanted to respect international law?).  The UN Charter does that anyway. The Memorandum does not in anyway obligate any country to intervene in order to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

In other words, it is not a security guarantee, like the kind that the US has with Japan. It is also not a formal treaty which, at least under US law, would have more binding impact.  So relax, American doves, it’s 2014, not 1914.  International agreements will not lead us blindly to war (sorry, Ukraine!).

17 Responses

  1. Thanks, I saw this on the “Daily Smell.” Of course, I knew if I saw it on there, then it was probably B.S.
    Now I see it is!

  2. Response…The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.

  3. KHitt, you didn’t italicize the portion which says “an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.”

  4. Although your analisis is accurate, I find witty remarks such as “sorry Ukraine!” and the general tone of your post unacceptable. It gives a feeling that for western legalheads it’s totally allright to leave Ukraine alone without any kind of support as long as there’s no treaty that would force the US or EU to act.
    This also proves how useless NATO is. If we are so scared that we’d be dragged to war because of some international obligation it’s better to disolve the treaty right away and avoid the situation when one of the allies eventually invokes article 5. We’d have one problem less to worry about. 

  5. Just been watching Threads again & now it feels even more spooky. But I do feel Russian troops are there for peace keeping even if they aren’t painted in white. Ukraine is not a foreign country to Russia & they are protecting their *mutual* interests. Boots on the ground does not necessarily mean “act of war”.  And why should we (the West) make things worse by sticking our oar in?

  6. not only that im fairly certain this was never ratified by the US Senate and to be binding by US constitutional law

  7. Response… Have you people forgotten that Ukraine is unstable right now and that half the population is pro Russian which started the riots in the first place? The protest leaders  consisted of some pretty extreme radicals. We need to be careful automatically taking sides of anyone simply because theyre against Russia. Lets remember that many dictators come into being during a bad economy and power vacuum. Thats Ukraine right now. For all we know, half of Ukraines military could be pro Russia!!! 

  8. If the civilized world doesn’t stop Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’ll be a clear signal to the countries, which own nuclear weapons, not to give them up.
    In 1994 Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and signed the international treaty with US, UK and Russia, who agreed to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
    Western inaction will mean the erosion of international law.

  9. Pro-Russian demonstrators attacking anyone who disagrees… now more people who disagree want to fight back. Where are the UN? Russia is right to go in & protect mutual interests & keep the peace. They’re not the only members of the UN!
    And we should not be talking about war.

  10. If Russia violates the Momerandum, Ukraine can do the same and start develop nuclear weapons. 

  11. Non Liquet, I suppose you didn’t read the part which states “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations”. Does not specify nuclear weapons.

  12. Larry — that commitment does not require any of the signatory parties to respond in any particular fashion to a breach of the memorandum. I think the only relevant precedent in support of an argument that the UK or US is bound to do something militarily to protect Ukraine from a breach of the memorandum is the Treaty of London invoked in World War I by the British to protect Belgium from attack.

    That said, after the North Atlantic Treaty and in light of the subsequent paragraphs in the memorandum  itself regarding nuclear weapons, if the parties had intended collective self-defense to be automatic and obligatory, they would have provided for it explicitly.
    The West has to be honest with Ukraine. Although Russia is in clear breach of the memorandum, the US and UK retain their freedom of action as to how to respond to that breach.  

  13. @Non Liquet: Actually the Memorandum does mention a “THREAT of  of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used”. One could argue that an act of aggression from a nuclear state carries a threat of a nuclear strike. Also, it is possible to read “a victim of an act of aggression” and “an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used” as two independent instances. In which case the weapons used in an act of aggression against Ukraine would be irrelevant.

  14. I’m ukrainian and it’s pretty pitty to read a post like this.
    I’d like to thank Bhart for the support and understanding.

  15. Ye don’t help Ukraine, let it be the precedent that treaty for giving up nuclear arsenal is crap. Iran crank up those reactors.

  16. If USA says they will defend a country for giving up there nukes. I say we stick to our word and help ukraine

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  1. […] the United States and Britain must come to its defense. That, however, is reading too much into a carefully worded document. The memorandum consists primarily of reaffirmations of longstanding legal principles. The […]