By Rostislav Ishchenko
Translated by Ollie Richardson and Angelina Siard
cross posted with


On January 14th 1994 in Moscow the presidents of Ukraine, Russia, and the US signed the tripartite declaration for the liquidation of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Under the treaty 176 intercontinental missiles and 1500 nuclear warheads on the territory of Ukraine had to be liquidated.

One might ask what has Donbass got to do with this?

When today Ukrainian radicals say that if Ukraine had preserved the world’s third biggest nuclear arsenal nobody could stop Kiev strangling an anti-fascist uprising not only in Donbass but also in Crimea, this is the absolute truth. People generally don’t joke about such things. Despite the fact that it’s unlikely that Kiev could’ve created a fully-fledged system of controlling, servicing, and using in combat all the missiles it inherited, even the existence of this arsenal made Ukraine almost invulnerable in relation to any external pressure. Taking into account the fact that Ukraine, in principle, could bring a considerable part of its available weaponry (except intercontinental missiles) to combat readiness (today, 23 years after the last warhead left the territory of “independent” Ukraine, it is possible to talk about it openly), nobody would start to clash with a monkey armed with a nuclear “grenade”.

Ukraine relinquished nuclear weapons only because its leaders attached too much value to diplomatic tinsel under the name “recognition of independence”. It is exactly what we regularly hear from patriotically dilettanti, crying out: “Why hasn’t Russia recognised Donbass yet?”

I can understand people who suffer from the fact that units of the 1st Guards tank army still haven’t come to the Dnieper, Vistula, Oder, Rhine, and, finally, the Atlantic. The desire to capture everything, to kill all enemies, and to throw internal opposition into jail – cleaning snow in Siberia – is the natural reaction of small children and infantile adults concerning the complicated and unclear to them world that surrounds them. But I am surprised by the ritual surrounding abstract recognition [of the DPR/LPR – ed] by the people who don’t understand its significance.

Here is a simple example: Russia did not recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This did not prevent it from dispersing the Georgian army in one week when Saakashvili tried to restore the control of Tbilisi over these territories via armed force. Russia does not recognise Transnistria, but everyone perfectly knows that in a similar situation the reaction of Moscow will be the same. Russia never presented territorial claims to Ukraine, recognising its territorial integrity, but one month hadn’t even passed after the coup in Kiev and Crimea reunited with its Motherland. On the other hand, Japan does not recognise the Southern Kuril Ridge as Russian, but does this strongly help it? Up to the 70’s the US did not recognise the People’s Republic of China, considering the Taiwanese Kuomintang as the legitimate authority of China. And what?

Returning to Crimea. Not many people in the world recognised Crimea’s transition to the structure of Russia. But, besides the Kiev provokers, nobody tries to challenge the right of the Russian border guards to control the territorial waters of the peninsula.

In international law there is the concept of “an authority that actually controls the territory”. Irrespective of whether or not this authority is recognised by someone, or whether or not it was formed as a result of a coup, separation, or the voluntary division of the former state (as an option of merging two or several former ones), what’s important is not the fact of its international recognition, but the fact of its ability to support military-political control over a certain territory. If you have such an ability, then people will interact, trade, and even conclude quite official agreements with you. But if you formally own something but are not capable of controlling this ownership, then people will only sympathise with you whilst reaching agreements with those who control the territory.

In fact, this is what the Minsk process is based on. For several years Russia, France, and Germany have tried to explain to Kiev that it must speak and agree with the real authorities in Donbass. If it will reach an agreement on maintaining unity, then nobody will interfere, and if it won’t be able to reach an agreement, then it will be obliged to reach an agreement about a civilised divorce. But Ukrainian politicians, like 25 years ago, drag its heels concerning the question of formal recognition and demand that Donbass is returned to them under the Christmas tree either by Ded Moroz [Russia – ed], Santa Claus [America – ed], or Père Noël [France – ed].

But they could’ve learnt at least something from the story with nuclear disarmament.

Ukraine likes to remember the Budapest memorandum in connection with Crimea and Donbass. On Russian talk shows it as a rule is presented as a piece of paper without meaning (like saying: the memorandum is not a treaty and doesn’t oblige anyone to do anything). This isn’t true. A memorandum is a publicly given word of honour to follow certain rules. In some sense it is even more than a treaty. The latter, as a rule, is concluded over a certain period of time. But even termless contracts can be denounced (or just stop working) if the situation changes. But a memorandum indeed is not a binding document, it is not ratified, thus it cannot be denounced, but violating it is also not comme il faut [as it should be – ed]. This is like publicly promising a girl that you’ll marry her, and then, also publicly, bragging that you deceived her.

But notice that, unlike Kiev, the US and Great Britain, which together with Russia signed the Budapest memorandum, and also France and China, which gave Ukraine similar guarantees in special separate declarations, do not see any violations of the mentioned document. The answer to the question “Why?” is in the mentioned Tripartite declaration, the 25th anniversary of which we celebrated on January 14th. The following provisions were a part of the Budapest memorandum in an unchanged form. Ukrainian diplomacy likes to refer to them, but in practice they haven’t been violated:

“- reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the CSCE Final Act, to respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;

– 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 selfdefense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations;

– reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the CSCE Final Act, to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind;

– reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a nonnuclear 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;

– reaffirm, in the case of the Ukraine, their commitment not to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, except in the case of an attack on themselves, their territories or dependent territories, their armed forces, or their allies, by such a state in association or alliance with a nuclear weapon state”.

It is not difficult to notice that exactly the same obligations that were given to other states that joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as non-nuclear states also apply to Ukraine. Help to Ukraine (including via immediate actions of the UNSC) is promised only if Kiev becomes a victim of aggression or the threat of aggression with the use of nuclear weapons. I.e., in the event of non- nuclear aggression, nobody owes Ukraine anything. It was promised to Ukraine to not use economic coercion against it. But even now, despite all the unfriendly steps made by Kiev, Russia did not tear up any treaty or any agreement on the initiative. Economic ties were torn up only where Ukraine tore them up.

Concerning territorial integrity, guarantees are given only within the framework of the CSCE final act. At the same time, peacefully changing the borders is allowed (who will say that Crimea was conquered? And, by the way, it is precisely for this reason that Turchynov demanded war in March 2014 – back then it was possible to try to record a violation of the Budapest memorandum). Moreover, even the obligation not to use armed force against Ukraine has no absolute character, the vague formulation “except in selfdefense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations” was used. Let’s note that the UN did not record a violation of the Charter by Russia (only the UN Security Council has the competence to do this).

So formally the Memorandum hasn’t been violated.

Let’s be frank, it is indeed formulated in such a way that it is impossible to violate it whatever may happen. And Ukraine knew this. Pay attention: the Tripartite declaration is dated January 14th 1994 (it was signed by Kravchuk), and the Budapest memorandum was signed on December 5th (practically one year later) by Kuchma. During all this time Ukrainian diplomacy tried to squeeze out the best conditions from the guarantor states. But it didn’t squeeze them out, and couldn’t have.

A critical mistake was made by Kiev on May 23rd 1992. On this day Russia, the US, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan signed the Lisbon protocol on the basis of which, Kiev, Minsk, and Astana joined the NPT as non-nuclear countries. Kazakhstan and Belarus also did not apply for nuclear status. For them, the signing of this document was natural. However Ukraine tried to keep its nuclear arsenal. But Kiev decided that it would be possible to bargain later, and that the most important thing at the time was international recognition. And Ukraine was frankly blackmailed with the refusal to recognise it as a nuclear state.

Kiev did not understand that a country with the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal would be recognised anyway. Even if it doesn’t happen immediately, it will be possible to wait for however long is necessary – agreements will be made with it all the same and its opinion will be taken into account in international affairs. Kravchuk was afraid that the people [of Ukraine – ed] won’t treat the “sovereign” government seriously if it isn’t internationally recognised. His Minister of Foreign Affairs (Zlenko) hurried to report on recognition by “the whole world” (to start with – by “all the civilised world”) and open embassies everywhere where it was possible. And he signed the Lisbon protocol in which Ukraine unambiguously took upon itself the obligation to relinquish nuclear weapons. All the rest is two years of floundering in an attempt to get out of the already undertaken obligations or to at least squeeze out at least some dividends from this.

In fact, the issue of Kiev’s relinquishment of its nuclear status was decided by the Minister of Foreign Affairs (not the Rada, not the government, and not the president). Of course, Zlenko had the correspondingly issued powers, but it is his signature that is underneath the protocol, and, most importantly, it is he and his department who developed recommendations for decision-making bodies. Ukraine at the time had no other experienced foreign affairs specialists.

The fact of recognition and having their own diplomatic missions played the same role for the Ukrainian authorities that pieces of glass, beads, and broken guns played for African savages in the 15th-16th centuries, or blankets and whisky for Indians a couple of centuries later. It was a fetish for which it is possible to give everything. And they indeed gave. And thank God. It is difficult to imagine what would’ve happened to the world if Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons. In any case, Kiev would’ve for sure launched a war against Russia in the 90’s.

Since the clever learn from the mistakes of fools, it is worth remembering the story of Ukrainian nuclear disarmament and not to make a fetish out of the recognition of someone’s independence and sovereignty. This is a little more than a mere formality that sometimes others try to flog expensively. The fact of recognition does not give anything other than the right to officially maintain diplomatic mission in the countries that recognised you. But, for example, Taiwan, after most of the world recognised the People’s Republic of China and severed diplomatic relations with Kuomintang, simply renamed its embassies into trade missions. Nothing else changed and won’t exchange until Taipei is able to keep the island under control. But as soon as the unity of China will be restored, even those ten countries that still recognise not the People’s Republic of China, but the Republic of China (Taiwan), will absolutely quietly accept the new reality.

What’s important is the actual state of affairs, and not the theoretical one. Imagine that Zlenko didn’t sign the Lisbon protocol, Kravchuk didn’t sign the Tripartite declaration, Kuchma didn’t sign the Budapest memorandum, and Ukraine would’ve kept its nuclear arsenal. Do you think that it would’ve remained unrecognised for long? Right. And now let them kick themselves.

The Essential Saker II: Civilizational Choices and Geopolitics / The Russian challenge to the hegemony of the AngloZionist Empire
The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world