Nuclear Disarmament and the Budapest Memorandum: “the Arrival of a Safer Era for the World”?

Katerina Belenkina, Miklós Zsámboki

On December 5, 1994, an event took place in Budapest, Hungary, which became the final and defining step in a series of decisions toward the third-largest nuclear state abandoning its nuclear arsenal and becoming a non-nuclear-weapon state. That country was Ukraine. With the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine took third place in the list of nuclear states, behind the United States and the Russian Federation. Leonid Kuchma (president of Ukraine from 1994 to 2005) handed over Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in exchange for security assurances the leaders of the US, Russia, and the UK pledged to give to the country. The document containing those assurances went down in history as the Budapest Memorandum, signed on December 5, 1994, in Budapest.

Forrás. [Source., or Boiling point] is a blog series by the Blinken OSA staff at the Hungarian news website To observe the UN’s International Day for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Awareness, held this March 5 for the first time, we share a series of records from the Blinken OSA Archivum holdings related to the Budapest Memorandum, a major chapter in nuclear disarmament. We will not analyze the tragic events currently taking place on the territory of Ukraine, and we will not speculate whether Russia would have had annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 or launched a full-scale invasion against the country in 2022, had Ukraine preserved its nuclear arsenal. Instead, we revisit the process that led to the signing of this document, also revealing the reactions at the time.

Soviet propaganda film Boevye Svoistva Iadernogo Oruzhiia adapted by the Hungarian Civil Defense Alliance.
Excerpt from the full film.

(Blinken OSA Archivum, Paranoia Archive)


Part 1. Nuclear Disarmament and the Budapest Memorandum: “the Arrival of a Safer Era for the World”?


After the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), advocating nuclear disarmament, was approved by the United Nations General Assembly and has been open for signing since 1968, the most important step in nuclear disarmament was the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START-1. This bilateral treaty was signed in Moscow by US President George H. W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on July 31, 1991. A few months later, however, the USSR collapsed, and four independent states with nuclear weapons appeared; in addition to the Russian Federation, these were Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. While the Russian Federation has become the legal successor fulfilling the obligations formulated in the START-1 treaty, further negotiations became necessary for the other countries to renounce their nuclear weapons. The Lisbon Protocol, signed in May 1992, recognized the independent states as successors of the USSR under the terms of the START-1 treaty, and obligated them to completely abandon nuclear weapons and join the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states. Consequently, Belarus joined the NPT in June 1993, followed by Kazakhstan in early 1994. In November 1994, following a longer and heated debate, the Ukrainian Parliament (the Verkhovna Rada) passed a law on joining the NPT as a non-nuclear state, which, however, entered into force only under the condition that the nuclear powers provided Ukraine with security guarantees articulated in an appropriate international legal document.

The Budapest Memorandum was what formalized these guarantees: the Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was signed on December 5, 1994, in Budapest, Hungary, against the backdrop of the fourth summit of the Conference on Security and Co-Operation in Europe (CSCE, December 5-6, 1994). The document bears the signatures of President Boris Yeltsin for the Russian Federation, President William J. Clinton for the United States of America, President Leonid Kuchma for Ukraine, and Prime Minister John Major for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as pictured below. With the Memorandum signed, Ukraine acceded to the NPT, started to dismantle and remove the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, and agreed, as a non-nuclear-weapon state, not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons in the future.

Photo of the signing ceremony of the Budapest Memorandum in the Ukrainian daily Uryadovy Kuryer.
(Blinken OSA Archivum, Library)

In return, the Budapest Memorandum listed the security assurances offered to Ukraine. (Kazakhstan and Belarus received the same assurances in identical but separate memoranda also signed in Budapest.) The Memorandum consists of six points, through which the signing countries “reaffirmed their commitment to”:

  1. the independence, sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;
  2. their obligation to 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 self-defense;
  3. refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty;
  4. to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, 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;
  5. 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;
  6. consult in the event a situation raises which raises a question concerning these commitments.

The above are excerpts from the official English version, below is the full text in Ukrainian, as it appeared in the Uryadovy Kuryer (Governmental courier), the official newspaper of the executive branch in Ukraine, also including the signatures:

The Budapest Memorandum published in the Ukrainian daily Uryadovy Kuryer.
(Blinken OSA Archivum, Library)

The Hungarian daily Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian nation) quoted the signatories when calling the Budapest Memorandum an “epoch-making” document “in which the three countries had provided security guarantees to Kyiv, allowing the Ukrainian President to hand over the documents of his country’s accession to the NPT.” Magyar Nemzet also reported President Clinton noting in his address that while “initial negotiations had started still between the United States and the former Soviet Union,” the agreement now “heralded the arrival of a safer era for the world.” The newspaper highlighted that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma gave his remarks in Ukrainian, finding it “symbolic that the signing ceremony had taken place at the European security summit.”

To understand the symbolism President Kuchma referred to, in the coming days we will introduce a series of documents preserved at the Blinken OSA Archivum. These archival records will tell us more about the CSCE summit and the gravity of Hungary hosting it, reveal the security assurances the Budapest Memorandum did include and the guarantees it did not, and outline the broader geopolitical moment it was signed at. Finally, already with more context, we will return to the full speech Ukrainian President Kuchma delivered at that particular European security summit, in Budapest, Hungary.


Part 2. European Security Summit in a Flourishing Democracy: Hungary


Although the signing ceremony of the Budapest Memorandum was not part of its official program, “the European security summit” President Kuchma alluded to was, of course, the fourth summit of the Conference on Security and Co-Operation in Europe (CSCE). CSCE was initiated in 1973 to establish a dialog across the Iron Curtain and to advocate for human rights in the Socialist Bloc. The first and maybe most significant result of CSCE was the final document of its first summit, held in Helsinki in 1975: in a previous blogpost, we called it an unintentional effect of the Helsinki Final Act that it reinforced and justified the emergence and activity of human rights groups throughout Eastern Europe, eventually contributing to the regime changes in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Responding the these changes and the collapse of the Soviet Union, CSCE turned into today’s Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) at its fourth summit, organized in Budapest in December 5–6, 1994. We will introduce documents related to the conference in the next chapter of this series, but first, we look at the symbolic meaning of Budapest hosting it, as well as the signing ceremony of the Budapest Memorandum.

Ambassador Donald M. Blinken and his wife, Vera Blinken, standing next to President Bill Clinton in Budapest on December 5, 1994.
(HU OSA 367-0-3 Vera and Donald Blinken Papers, Vera Blinken Personal Files)

Not much detail on the signing ceremony’s preparations were made public at the time, however, it is known that Donald M. Blinken, US Ambassador to Hungary from that year until 1997, who passed away last September, played an instrumental role in it. Preserving both the Vera and Donald Blinken Papers—comprising correspondence, press clippings, and photographs related to Ambassador Blinken’s ambassadorship in Hungary—and the Records of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute—media monitoring and analysis accumulated by the Radios—the Blinken OSA Archivum provides opportunity for a deeper understanding of the event. Below, we share Ambassador Blinken’s article published in December 1994, and an internal wire from RFE/RL.

Received at the Munich headquarters of RFE/RL on December 5, 1994, at 8:32 p.m., the internal wire below contains excerpts from President Clinton’s address delivered at the US Embassy. From the context it can be derived that this event took place following the signing ceremony:

RFE/RL wire on President Clinton’s speech at the US Embassy in Hungary on December 5, 1994.
(HU OSA 300-120-8 Records of RFE/RL Research Institute, Western Press Archives, Biographical Files)

A few weeks after the CSCE summit, Ambassador Blinken published an article in the Budapest Sun, an English-language weekly based in Hungary (the same text appeared in Hungarian in the leading Hungarian daily, Népszabadság), to reflect on his first year as Ambassador to Hungary. “During the recent CSCE summit, the eyes of the world were focused on Budapest,” he writes, reaffirming Hungary’s suitability to host such an event. Echoing President Clinton, he acknowledges “the significant strides forward that democracy has made in Hungary since 1989” and the consequent progress in US–Hungarian relations:

Ambassador Donald M. Blinken’s article on US–Hungarian relations in the Budapest Sun, published on December 22, 1994.
(HU OSA 367-0-1 Vera and Donal Blinken Papers, Donald Blinken Ambassadorial Files)


Part 3. Setting a New Security Framework for Europe


Titled Towards a Genuine Partnership in a New Era, the final document of the 1994 Budapest summit of CSCE was finalized on December 21. The 33-page text below includes the fourth summit’s Declaration and its Decisions. “We are determined to give a new political impetus to the CSCE,” the Declaration (page 2–5) announces. “To reflect this determination, the CSCE will henceforth be known as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).” Recognizing the changing challenges of the twenty-first century, the Declaration notes how “Most vestiges of the Cold War have disappeared. Free elections have been held and the roots of democracy have spread and struck deeper. Yet the path to stable democracy, efficient market economy and social justice is a hard one.”

“Family photo” with participating heads of state in the Hungarian daily Népszabadság reporting “Differences and Agreements at First Day of European Summit.”
(Blinken OSA Archivum, Library)

The signing of the Budapest Memorandum was an event that embodied the basic principles of the CSCE in practice: preventive diplomacy, trust- and security-building measures, environmental security, etc. “We are strongly committed to the full implementation and indefinite and unconditional extension of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” Point 12 of the Budapest Summit Declaration (page 3) stresses, while its Principles Governing Non-Proliferation (page 18–20) endorses “universal adherence to the NPT.” Yet, paradoxically, the Document makes no direct reference either to the Budapest Memorandum, or its parallel signing to the summit.

Final Document of the 1994 Budapest CSCE summit.
(HU OSA 318-0-7 Records of Records of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, CSCE-OSCE Files)

The Blinken OSA Archivum preserves the archive of the International Helsinki Federation (IHF), including documents the human rights organization prepared and accumulated while participating in CSCE-OSCE summits and working groups. At the 1994 Budapest summit, IHF primarily contributed to the human rights section, the results of which are summarized among the final document’s decisions (Decision VIII, “The Human Dimension”, page 21–27). However, besides statements, proposals, and background materials of this working group, the records also include administrative and PR files, such as the Press and NGO Guide, seen below. Of interest is the summit’s schedule (page 11–12), capturing the breadth of an event hosting 53 participating heads of state; and, more importantly, the list of “Photo Opportunities” for the press, recommending, right after “US President Clinton’s arrival” and the “Family Photo” (see above), a certain “NPT Signing Ceremony.” Most probably that meant the signing of the Budapest Memorandum, which this way did, sort of, become part of the CSCE summit program.

Press and NGO Guide of the 1994 Budapest CSCE summit.
(HU OSA 318-0-7 Records of Records of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, CSCE-OSCE Files)

One of the possible explanations for why the Budapest Memorandum did not receive more attention in these documents is that at that moment the possible conflict on Ukraine’s territory was hypothetical, unlike the several large-scale conflicts that indeed were taking place in Europe and the post-Soviet space, and required immediate settlements. “The spread of freedoms has been accompanied by new conflict and the revival of old ones,” the Budapest Summit Declaration warns. “Warfare in the CSCE region to achieve hegemony and territorial expansion continues to occur. Human rights and fundamental freedoms are still flouted, intolerance persist and discrimination against minorities is practiced. The plagues of aggressive nationalism, racism, chauvinism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and ethnic tension are still widespread.”

We will address these in a later chapter of this series.


Part 4. NATO Expansion in 1990s: “Cold Peace” Between Clinton and Yeltsin


The event that received the largest press attention at the 1994 Budapest CSCE summit certainly was the public “clash” between US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Both spoke at the conference’s Second Plenary meeting on December 5, as recorded in the summit schedule of the Press and NGO Guide (see in Part 3). Even that document hints at the uncertainty regarding Clinton’s arrival; eventually, he spent “seven hours on the ground in Hungary,” during which he signed the Budapest Memorandum (see in Part 1), addressed the guests at the US Embassy (see in Part 2), and spoke at the CSCE summit.

AP video report covering the Budapest summit of CSCE in 1994, with speeches by Clinton and Yeltsin,
also capturing the signing of the Budapest Memorandum.

“Clinton was determined to come to the Budapest CSCE summit to show his backing for the transition to democracy and market economies in Eastern Europe,” a Reuter press release received at the RFE/RL headquarters that day at 2:42 p.m. reports. “Clinton said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was the bedrock of European security and cooperation,” adding, “NATO would help knit together the disparate states of Central and Eastern Europe for collective security. . . . No country outside NATO will be allowed to veto expansion.”

Reuter report on speech US President Clinton delivered at the CSCE summit in Budapest, on December 5, 1994.
(HU OSA 300-120-8 Records of RFE/RL Research Institute, Western Press Archives, Biographical Files)

Yeltsin, portraying Russia as “the Eastern pillar of security and stability,” spoke after Clinton, and immediately objected to NATO’s planned expansion. Below we share the full speech of the Russian President (or it’s non-official English translation, to be precise, preserved at the Blinken OSA Archivum among the CSCE-related files of IHF). “Establishment of a full-fledged all-European organization with a solid legal basis has become a vital necessity for Europe,” Yeltsin declared, proposing CSCE, of which Russia had already been a member, to be this “instrument of peace, stability, and democracy,” and not NATO. “Today, [NATO] is trying to find its place in Europe, not without difficulty. It is important that this search not create new divisions, but promote European unity,” he expressed, and provided the most-quoted statement of the whole summit by warning that “Having just rid itself of the Cold War legacy, Europe risks to immerse itself into a ‘cold peace.’”

Unofficial translation of speech Russian President Boris Yeltsin delivered at the CSCE summit in Budapest, on December 5, 1994.
(HU OSA 318-0-7 Records of Records of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, CSCE-OSCE Files)

Unlike Yeltsin, Clinton did mention the signing of the Budapest Memorandum. “He welcomed historic agreements signed at Budapest on Monday with the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan renouncing nuclear weapons and finally bringing into force long-delayed arms cuts under the START-1 treaty,” the same Reuter release reported. “But while celebrating that landmark, Europe had to face the war on its doorstep in Bosnia, Clinton said. ‘The terrible conflict in Bosnia rages not 300 miles from this city,’ said Clinton, identifying the central issue undermining a summit supposed to set a new security framework.”

In the next chapter, we will recall another terrible war ongoing at the time, setting the broader historical scene of the Budapest Memorandum.