How Bill Clinton sealed Ukraine’s fate

Immediately after Ukraine signed its final nuclear-weapons-abandonment agreement in 1994, the country’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, grimly remarked, “If Russia goes to Crimea tomorrow, no one will raise an eyebrow.” As we now know, that is not everything that Moscow would try to reclaim. Recently released archival documents show how American officials, adamant in the country’s denuclearization, ignored the feelings of Ukraine’s post-communist leaders desperate to secure their new land.

Vladimir Putin’s slaughter in Ukraine and threats of a nuclear escalation cast a haunting shadow over the Budapest Memorandum, the deal that prompted Mr Kravchuk’s remorse. Under his terms, Ukraine forfeited an inherited Soviet nuclear arsenal in exchange for Western aid pledges and “assurances” from Russia, the US and Britain that its borders would remain intact. Disarmament experts welcomed the pact, but it challenged Putin’s revanchism.

I have spent the last two years reviewing previously confiscated tranches of documents (some of which have been released in the last six months) provided by Presidential Libraries, the United Nations, the National Security Archive and the British National Archives. They pull back the curtain at a critical moment, revealing how the Clinton administration ignored flashing red flags as it harshly urged Ukraine to accept unilateral disarmament – depriving Kyiv of a deterrent against Russia while offering nothing real to replace it.

The US-led campaign to denuclearize Ukraine began in 1992. After centuries of foreign yoke, Kyiv jealously guarded its nascent independence. Many Russians viewed their neighbor’s sovereignty as anomalous, and Ukraine’s post-communist leadership feared what to do about it. Mr. Kravchuk was born in 1934 under a foreign government, Poland; saw his father die fighting Germany; and lived for decades under communist rule. He was determined not to see his nation subjugated again. The inherited Soviet arsenal was a powerful antidote to future Russian aggression.

Kravchuk’s government therefore harbored fears of abandoning them. He considered trading that ace for an ironclad territorial guarantee, something like the Article 5 umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But Secretary of State James Baker balked. He believed that this would lead to identical demands from all post-Soviet states. When Ukraine subsequently resisted committing to disarmament through the 1992 Lisbon Protocol, Mr. Baker ended that resistance with a heated phone call. “I’ve never heard one man talk to another like that,” said Jim Timbie, an assistant who was with Mr. Baker at the time, as he described the secretary’s side of the conversation with Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr. Mr. Baker requested that the signing ceremony be adjourned the next day with no speeches from the parties.

After November’s US election, Mr. Kravchuk gained an untried negotiating partner but no new influence. The Clinton administration proved even less amenable to his concerns. Archival documents show a new cadre of officials approached the issue with a heightened sense of certainty — and urgency. “Ukraine could not keep nuclear weapons,” recalled Steven Pifer, a State Department official who later served as ambassador to Ukraine (1998-2000), in 2018. “Nobody in the US government questioned that goal “. A sign in the New Independent States Bureau spelled out a Clintonian mantra that echoed the prevailing sentiment: “It’s the nukes, stupid.”

Press in court began on the sixth day in the President’s Office. Transcripts of conference calls show that Mr. Clinton did not wait for the comprehensive disarmament policy review recommended by the General Accounting Office in 1993, nor for Ambassador Strobe Talbott’s comprehensive assessment of existing policies towards post-Soviet states before increasing pressure on Kyiv. In his first phone call with Mr. Kravchuk in office on January 26, 1993, Mr. Clinton offered $175 million – which grew to $700 million by 1994 – in exchange for dismantling Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal. He also suggested “strong security assurances” by the US to allay Mr Kravchuk’s security fears.

Mr. Kravchuk, a wily former apparatchik, bet his country wouldn’t end up on the menu if he stayed at the table. He expressed his concerns in clear terms. “The fear,” he explained to Mr. Clinton, “is a political explosion and the carving up of Ukraine — autonomy for Donetsk and Krivoy Rog and Galicia, and eventually the dismemberment of the country.” Those warnings, prescient as they now seem, moved Mr. Clinton and not his team. National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, in a 1993 letter to the President, complained that promised future cooperation had failed to “spur Ukrainians to see their security enhanced by the abolition of nuclear weapons.” Kyiv didn’t understand its true “long-term interest,” Mr. Lake pointed out; only he and his colleagues did.

Senior members of the National Security Council acknowledged Ukraine’s concerns in a 1994 regional policy report. “Russian territorial ambitions against Ukraine may result from failure of reforms in Russia itself,” they passively noted. “Disputes between Russia and Ukraine, left unaddressed, will threaten the stability and unity of Europe.” But after acknowledging the possibility of what has now become historical fact, the authors threw up their hands — or washed them clean . “At best,” they concluded, “we can actively work to encourage Ukraine and Russia to resolve their differences.”

But Russian leaders had long cabled that they were not very interested. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev insisted that Ukraine’s nuclear weapons be handed over to their former masters in Moscow. His opposition to international scrutiny or US surveillance was adamant. When Mr. Talbott and Defense Secretary Les Aspin rebuked his “counterproductive” stance at a meeting in Garmisch, Germany in 1993, Grachev countered that a nuclear-armed Russia was “in no way an adversary of Ukraine.”

In the trilateral negotiations that preceded the Budapest Memorandum, the US exercised a firm hand and ultimately asked little of Russia. Moscow was merely repeating commitments it had already made under the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act in return for the complete disarmament of all former satellites. American policymakers never returned to bolster Ukraine’s strength after President Boris Yeltsin declared Russia’s “blood relationship” with its former dominions at the UN General Assembly, or when he declared a announced “cold peace” .

US officials avoided ruffling Russian feathers while acknowledging Moscow’s duplicity and doubts about its own disarmament. Weeks before the memorandum was signed, Mr Talbott reported to Mr Lake warnings from Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister: “Advisers and political manipulators who [Georgiy] Mamedov calls ‘Iagos’, whispered in Yeltsin’s ear.”

Mr Mamedov claimed they venomously claimed there were “forces” in the US, including in the government, that want to “contain” Russia”. In the same document, released last October, Mr Talbott noted that “we are keeping our powder dry for another arms race, if necessary.” Amid urgent efforts to disarm Ukraine, he admitted: “We don’t think so [Moscow is] reducing their strategic [nuclear] Forces fast enough.”

The smoldering debris in Ukraine may not be prima facie evidence that its post-Soviet government should have insisted on nuclear warheads as its birthright. But there is something more than just artificial historical resignation. In his 2018 tract on Ukrainian-US relations, Mr. Pifer ended the chapter on disarmament with what reads like a stale afterthought: The Clinton administration, he wrote, “could have provided major military assistance, including lethal military ones Equipment to strengthen Ukraine’s defense capabilities and deter further Russian aggression.”

The legacy of the Budapest Memorandum does not lie in crude conclusions about the desirability of disarmament per se. This straw man obscures the insights provided by the living historical record that is now emerging. Rather, comments like Mr. Pifer’s raise a more pressing question: if Ukraine’s nuclear weapons “had to go away,” what means should Kyiv have been given to stop the historic cycle of Moscow dominance? The flaw of the Budapest Memorandum from the start – reflected in the impoverishment of Ukraine today – is that this question appears to have remained unanswered, if seriously considered at all.

Overall, the archival records paint a picture of a new government that has embarked on what it considers a benevolent path. Its unparalleled strength, bestowed by Soviet disintegration, led to an undisciplined fixation on disarmament. The first Democrats to rule since Jimmy Carter did not count on the wisdom of the party’s most famous strategist, Zbigniew Brzezinski. “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire,” he said. “But with the subjugation and subordination of Ukraine, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”

Perhaps the government would have done well to heed the common sense taught by Mr. Mamedov in 1994. “Many on our side will resent you for meddling in what they believe is none of your business,” he said. “Kyiv will resent it if you take the strongest card out of their hands.” Instead, they chose to invent an Esperanto of disarmament, democracy and free markets.

Perhaps they believed that these words alone could lead to their adoption from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Almost 30 years later, it’s clear they didn’t. It is difficult to accept that the approach that has given us the memorandum can really provide a reasonable framework for US policy in the future – certainly not with the road to Kyiv as fraught with Russian aggression as it has been decades before .

Mr. Bogden is a Fellow of the Smith Richardson Foundation and the German Marshall Fund of the US, a Fellow at the US Court of International Trade, and a Senior Visiting Researcher at Bard College.

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