The Nation and the World

The Trilateral Process: How Russia broke its agreement to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity

With the war happening right now in Ukraine, many are standing up against Russia. However, what a lot of people don’t know is that in 1994, Russia signed an agreement to never undermine Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty or governing independence. 

Before the Soviet Union, or USSR, collapsed in 1991, the government had strategically spread its nuclear arsenal all over the country, with much of it being stored in Ukraine. The downfall of the USSR left said Soviet nuclear weapons on the territory of newly independent states, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Russia quickly secured the weapons that were stationed in Belarus and Kazakhstan, but Ukraine proved to be more difficult. The country had more nuclear weapons than France, China, and the UK combined, making it the third-largest nuclear-weapon holder in the world.

Ukraine wanted assurance from Russia on four key points: What guarantees would be set in place to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial stability as an independent state, what sort of monetary compensation would Ukraine receive for the highly valuable uranium contained in the weapons, who would cover the expensive costs of said eliminations, and how, where, and under what conditions would the weapons be disposed of?

The Ukraine-Russia negotiations regarding these questions went back and forth during the months after the collapse of the USSR, but they didn’t seem to be achieving anything. After multiple failed attempts, the US got involved in the negotiations, and the first trilateral meeting involving all three countries was held in August of 1993. The discussions accelerated in December of the same year, resulting in the Trilateral Statement, signed by the Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk, Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, and US president, Bill Clinton, in Moscow in January 1994. This agreement involved all of the above-aforementioned assurances and stated that Russia would never threaten Ukraine’s territorial integrity as an independent state. Finally, Ukraine joined the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), signing to never acquire nuclear weapons. 

Both the US and Russia, along with the UK, agreed to

  • Respect Ukraine’s independent sovereignty within the existing borders.
  • Abstain from the threat of the use of force against Ukraine.
  • Abstain from using economic means on Ukraine to influence their politics.
  • Seek immediate Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine if they “should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used”
  • Abstain from the use of nuclear arms against Ukraine.

This promise became known as the Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances

After the two documents were signed, transitions into disposing of the nuclear warheads went fairly smoothly. By June of 1996, Ukraine had transferred the last of its remaining weapons to Russia for elimination. The removal of the weapons allowed Ukraine to expand its relationship with the US and Europe. 

Image source: iNews/Thomas Saunders

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