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Why Ukraine gave up its nukes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As we follow the latest twists and turns on what's happening with Ukraine, it's helpful to add a little context on how a nuclear arsenal fits into the picture. So we're going to back up now three decades to the early 1990s and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine suddenly found itself independent and the third-largest nuclear power in the world. Thousands of nuclear arms had been stationed on its soil by Moscow, and they were still there. In the years that followed, Ukraine made the decision to denuclearize completely. In exchange, it would get a security guarantee from the U.S., the U.K. and Russia, known as the Budapest Memorandum.

MARIANA BUDJERYN: The implication was Ukraine would not be let to stand alone and face a threat should it come under one.

KELLY: That is Mariana Budjeryn of Harvard University. As Russia threatens to invade Ukraine again, that agreement is now front and center.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELESNKYY: (Through interpreter) We are initiating the Budapest Memorandum.

KELLY: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talking about it just this past weekend in his speech at the Munich Security Conference. Well, I asked Budjeryn to step back to how Ukraine saw the agreement when they signed it back in 1994.

BUDJERYN: It is clear that Ukrainians knew they weren't getting the exactly - sort of these legally binding, really robust security guarantees they sought. But they were told at the time that the United States and Western powers - so certainly, at least, the United States and Great Britain, they take their political commitments really seriously. This is a document signed at the highest level by the heads of state.

KELLY: Yeah. And people may remember, you know, quite how closely the U.S. was watching. They may remember then-President Clinton visiting Kyiv in 1994 and talking about this.

BUDJERYN: Exactly. And I think perhaps there was even a certain sense of complacency on the Ukrainian part after signing this agreement to say, look, we have these guarantees that were signed. You know, they had this faith that the West would stand by them - the United States, the signatories and Great Britain - would stand up for Ukraine as it were should it come under threat, although the precise way in which was not really proscribed in the memorandum.

KELLY: So let's fast-forward from signing the memorandum, 1994, 20 years to 2014 and the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea. We seem to have a problem here. The memorandum was about that Ukraine could not be invaded, that its borders would be respected. What happened?

BUDJERYN: Well, what happened was exactly that - that Russia just glibly violated it. And there's a mechanism of consultations that is provided for in the memorandum should any issues arise. And it was mobilized for the first time in at that point - what? - 20 years on March 4, 2014.

So there was a meeting of the signatories of the memorandum that was called by Ukraine. It did take place in Paris. And Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov, who was in Paris at the time, simply did not show up. So he wouldn't even come to the meeting in connection with the memorandum.

KELLY: And the Russians argued, look, we signed this, but it was a while ago. It was a different government. Now it's all illegitimate. Was that the basic...

BUDJERYN: Exactly. That was the basic gist - that we signed it with a different government. But that, of course, does not stand to, you know, any international legal criteria, right? You don't sign agreements with a government. You signed it with a country.

KELLY: You are Ukrainian, I should note. You go back often. You just returned from Ukraine, I gather. What's the conversation today? Is there regret in Ukraine that this memorandum was ever signed, that they gave up their nuclear weapons?

BUDJERYN: There certainly is a good measure of regret, Mary Louise. And some of it is poorly informed because, of course, it would have cost Ukraine quite a bit, both economically and in terms of international political repercussions, to hold on to these arms. So it would not have been an easy decision.

But as we know in public sphere, these rather more simple narratives take hold. And the narrative in Ukraine publicly is we had the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal. We gave it up for this signed piece of paper. And look what happened. And it really doesn't look good - doesn't look good for the international nonproliferation regime because if you have a country that disarms and then becomes a target of such a threat and a victim of such a threat at the hands of a nuclear-armed country, it just sends a really wrong signal to other countries that might want to pursue nuclear weapons.

KELLY: You're making the case that if you were watching all this from, say, Tehran today, you might think - huh - look at the choice Ukraine made. Look where we might find ourselves.

BUDJERYN: Or from North Korea. Exactly.

KELLY: Yeah. So how important do you think the nuclear history is here in trying to understand what is going on today between Ukraine and Russia?

BUDJERYN: You know, I would say after having researched this topic for nearly a decade, Ukraine did the right thing at the time. It did the right thing by itself and also by the international community. It reduced the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world. That makes everyone safer.

Now looking at this history, however, the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum especially but also the international community more broadly needs to react in the way as to not make Ukraine doubt the rightness of that decision. This show of solidarity that we've recently seen - that goes a really long way to convince both Ukrainian leadership but also the public that, you know, even though we gave up these nuclear weapons - or nuclear option, rather - the world still stands by us, and we will not face this aggression alone.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Mariana Budjeryn of Harvard University. Thank you.

BUDJERYN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF STS9'S "TOKYO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.