The early 1990s were a turbulent time, resulting in actions and agreements that continue to impact global affairs today.

With Russia launching an invasion into Ukraine on Feb. 24, understanding the key events following the dissolution of the Soviet Union is important as we consider how the U.S. and other nations should respond.

The collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991 ended the Cold War, while also raising concerns over what would happen to the nuclear weapons scattered across the former USSR.

Ukraine held over 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads, giving them the third-largest stockpile of weapons in the world. However, they did not have access codes or control systems (Russia did), and they didn’t have the financial ability to maintain the weapons safely.

That same year, the international community watched Yugoslavia collapse into violence, leading to a decade-long conflict that caused the country to break apart.

World leaders were concerned about the leftover nuclear missiles that might fall into the hands of bad actors. To ensure the safety of existing nuclear stockpiles and reduce the number of nuclear powers throughout the former Soviet bloc, international leaders approached Ukraine.

Reluctant at first to give up its nuclear arsenal, Ukraine ultimately acquiesced when the U.S. and Russia agreed to several demands.

First, Ukraine would receive financial compensation from Russia for the enriched uranium contained in the warheads. Second, the U.S. would assist in removing the missiles and silos. Third, Ukraine would receive assurances of security in the event they were ever attacked.

This happened on Dec. 5, 1994, when Ukraine signed a political agreement that provided security assurances if they agreed to The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and gave up their Soviet-era nuclear weapons. Belarus and Kazakhstan signed identical agreements the same day.

These three agreements are referred to as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which were made by the U.S., the U.K. and the Russian Federation. France and China both gave lesser assurances of security in separate documents.

So, what was agreed to in the BMSA? There are six basic principles to which the U.S., U.K., and Russia agreed:

  1. Respect independence and sovereignty of the current agreed upon territory.
  2. Refrain from the use of threat or force.
  3. Refrain from using economic pressure to influence politics.
  4. Seek immediate United Nations Security Council action in the event the country is a victim of an act of aggression.
  5. Refrain from use of nuclear weapons against Belarus, Ukraine or Kazakhstan.
  6. Consult with one another if questions arise about this agreement.

These are political agreements, and it is unclear if the U.S., U.K. or Russia have any legally enforceable obligation beyond respecting the sovereignty of Belarus, Ukraine or Kazakhstan.

In addition, the documents do not require military support in the event an act of aggression occurs. As BMSA was not ratified by the U.S. Senate, it functions as a memorandum of agreement and not a binding treaty, thus limiting U.S. obligation.

While Russia’s 2014 annexing of Crimea, its decision on Feb. 21 to move troops into eastern Ukraine and its Feb. 24 invasion are clearly violations of the first, second and third principles of the BMSA, Putin is not the only signer accused of violating the agreement.

For example, in 2013, Belarus accused the U.S. of using economic sanctions to apply political influence, thus violating principle three.

While it can be argued that the U.S. has fulfilled its obligation with BMSA, as it did not invade or apply economic press to Ukraine, the historic understanding was that the U.S. would take a hard line in the event that Russia, or anyone else, were to threaten Ukraine.

Following the Russian annexation of Crimea, the U.S. and U.K. held a meeting in March 2014, which Russia declined to attend. A joint statement issued by the U.S., the U.K. and Ukraine following the meeting cited the BMSA as the basis for criticizing Russia’s actions that it described as a “violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

All of this brings us to the nation’s moral obligation and raises the question, what should the U.S. do?

We gave assurances that Ukraine would be respected if they gave up nuclear weapons. So, the current situation is about more than the integrity of our promises to a struggling eastern European country.

The world is watching. If we don’t honor our commitments, how can we expect Iran, India or Pakistan to give up their nuclear stockpile in exchange for assurances of protection?

Fewer nuclear weapons would clearly make the world a safer place, but nations are unlikely to agree to non-nuclear proliferation if there are no real assurances of security.

How the U.S. and others respond to Russia’s actions toward Ukraine will have a significant impact on global affairs moving forward, particularly as they relate to reducing nuclear stockpiles.

The Biden administration is in a tough spot.

On the one hand, Russia possesses over 6,200 nuclear weapons compared to 5,550 in the U.S. With this many weapons at play, sending troops and military equipment would escalate a regional conflict to a global one quickly.

Putin’s statement following the invasion makes it clear that he is willing to incite a larger conflict: “To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history. All relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me.”

On the other hand, sanctioning Russian banks and excluding Russia from the international debt market are likely to be seen as too weak.

Sanctions will also impact U.S. allies, as Russia’s top exports are oil and gas, totaling over $215 billion. Sanctions on oil and gas would impact all nations to which Russia exports its supply, and it will likely increase fuel prices even further. In short, sanctions might hurt U.S. allies more than Russia.

There are no easy answers, but the U.S. must consider the long-term impacts of whatever course of action it takes – particularly as it relates to ongoing negotiations with other nations to reduce nuclear weapons.

If the U.S. doesn’t stand by its past commitments, then its ability to negotiate future agreements will be significantly diminished.

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