Ukraine, The Great Powers, Budapest, and Astheneia

| April 2014
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In his Ethics, Aristole addresses the question of what he terms astheneia (ασθενεια), which can be translated as weakness or infirmity, as part of his overall discussion of akrasia (ακρασία)—the “lack of mastery” or insobriety. This applies when someone knows what the right or ethical thing to do is, but fails to do it because of possible cost—usually at the expense of one’s personal comfort or ease—or because the ethical course of action will bring hardship and difficulty.

This should be of particular concern to modern politicians, particularly in electoral democracies, where campaign promises are easily made but too often not fulfilled when political costs are too high. [The Obama administration discovered these realities in attempting to implement the president’s inauguration day 2009 executive order mandated that the Guantanamo detainee facility be closed by January 2010; Gitmo remains operational more than four years after its putative closure date.] But voters, at least, have the option of taking their revenge at the polls; but what happens when promises are made to other states that are not then not fulfilled?

In 1994 Ukraine gave up its share of the Soviet nuclear arsenal as well as its delivery systems, accepting upon itself the obligation to divest itself of atomic weapons and become a non-nuclear power. It did so even though some of the more nationalist political forces warned darkly that, at some point in the future, when the emerging post-Soviet Russian state had recovered its strength, it might seek to bring Ukraine back into the fold—and Ukraine would need some sort of deterrent against Moscow. To encourage Kyiv to follow through on its commitments, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States pledged to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, to abstain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine, to refrain from using economic coercion against Ukraine, and, in the event of any aggression by a nuclear power against Ukraine, to bring the matter to the United Nations Security Council (where the assumption was that the matter would quickly be taken in hand). These understandings were codified at a summit in Budapest on December 5, 1994. However, they were not formalized in a treaty (which, for the United States, would have required ratification by the Senate) or even in an executive agreement,  assuming that the extension of such guarantees could be seen as arising out of the president’s Article II responsibilities as commander in chief.

The Ukrainian government was either led to believe or fooled itself into thinking that was was produced in Budapest constituted guarantees, and certainly publicized it as such. At the time, it didn’t seem important because Russia during the Yeltsin administration seemed headed on a downward spiral that would remove the country from the ranks of the Great Powers. It seemed an easy commitment to make—and to suggest that in a post-Cold War world where there were no dividing lines in Europe and everyone was now friends, that formal assurances were not needed.

Fast forward twenty years later, and the situation is quite different. Whatever the merits of the Crimean secession, it, like the secession of Kosovo, occurred without the sanction of the central government and while the Helsinki Act of 1975 recognizes that borders in Europe can be changed—that can only occur as a result of negotiation and concurrence of all parties concerned, which is not the case here. And faced with the prospect of an open conflict with Russia, Britain and the United States have sought the legal “out” that the Budapest Memorandum was a set of security assurances, not binding guarantees. In the 1990s, a weak Russia could be pressured by the West with little cost or risk; but now, acting to defend Ukraine would bring with it significant cost and risk.

Should the Ukrainians have held out for a formal treaty in 1994? Would ratification have made a difference? We commemorate this year the centennial of the start of World War I—and the British government entered the war because of the German violation of the 1839 Treaty of London which guaranteed the country’s independence and neutrality. [It is from this incident that we have the famous riposte of the German Chancellor who expressed incredulity that the United Kingdom would be prepared to go to war with the German Empire over a “scrap of paper.”] Perhaps the British decided that, unlike in 1914, they would not want to be contractually bound to defend Ukraine against assault?

Perhaps a formal treaty on guaranteeing Ukrainian sovereignty and independence (along the Belgium model) would not have past muster in the U.S. Senate (although if the other Belgium proviso about neutrality had been included, it might have helped to mollify Russian anxieties about NATO expansion right up against the soft underbelly of their long and indefensible border with Ukraine). If, as many observers have suggested, Ukraine could not politically give up its Soviet nuclear inheritance without something it could market as a guarantee, then the Budapest Memorandum was a white lie.

One might perhaps advance a very utilitarian ethical argument to suggest that fooling the Ukrainians into accepting the Memorandum as something greater than it was (and sweetening the pot with significant amounts of Western aid) was a justifiable masquerade. After all, one of the largest cases of nuclear deproliferation occurred, removing significant quantities of WMD and delivery systems from a state which during the 1990s would have a poor track record in keeping control of more conventional armaments from finding their way to war zones around the world, due in part to economic crisis and poor governance. In this view, Ukraine’s security was traded for the overall security of the world.

This, of course, has relevance far beyond the immediate crisis. No doubt hardline elements in Iran look at recent events in Ukraine—as they did in Libya in 2011—as proof that a state which gives up WMD and accepts nebulous “security assurances” ends up losing. It also is causing a number of states to re-evaluate whether informal pledges of support and assistance are still good.

Treaties are difficult, at least in the U.S. context, because the constitutional provision elevating them to be the “law of the land” means that commitments are parsed and debated. Certainly, the belief that Estonia’s Article 5 guarantee under the North Atlantic Treaty is still going to be honored by the United States may be a factor in why that small Baltic country has not come under serious pressure from Russia. But nonbinding pledges can be distributed with less foresight and care. Perhaps one lesson from current events—although it will not likely help the Ukrainians—will be for future policymakers to be more discriminating with making commitments—or even the appearance of commitments—that they plan to keep.


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