Deceit, Dread, and Disbelief: The Story of How Ukraine Lost Its Nuclear Arsenal

Deceit, Dread, and Disbelief: The Story of How Ukraine Lost Its Nuclear Arsenal

Never-before-released archival files reveal Washington’s error in cudgeling Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons despite the risk of a Russian invasion.


The House of Representatives, after three agonizing weeks, has a speaker in Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA). But the question remains: will Ukraine now get U.S. taxpayer dollars for its fight against Russia? A major contributor to the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the question remains at the heart of House Republican angst and is by no means settled, whatever President Joe Biden may say.

But while most in official Washington trumpet their support for Ukraine, never-before-released archival evidence dating back 30 years proves their forebears in office share blame for the current crisis. The documents show conclusively how two American administrations, senior Pentagon leadership, and NATO, all pressured Ukraine into giving up its only deterrent against Russian aggression—nuclear weapons—despite the credible risk of Russian invasion. 


With this information coming to light as Putin himself threatens to deploy nuclear weapons on the battlefield, how willing might Ukraine skeptics in the House GOP be to listen to the foreign policy establishment urging more money and arms for ill-defined objectives?

In 1994, American officials browbeat Ukraine’s newly independent leaders into giving up the nuclear weapons they inherited from the Soviet Union—weapons which could have staved off future aggression from Moscow—in exchange for nebulous “security assurances,” declared as part of the so-called Budapest Memorandum.

These assurances ultimately proved meaningless, as Ukraine’s plight shows today. Yet, the Budapest Memorandum remains settled history for many in the foreign policy establishment: something that could not have unfolded any other way.

Drawn from archives in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United Nations, new never-before-published evidence flatly contradicts this idea. These documents are the grist of exhaustive searches and inquiries to the National Security Archive, two presidential libraries, and the Library of Congress. 

These records cut sharply against the rationale for this historical resignation: that Ukraine was incapable of the technical means of operating nuclear weapons and that such weapons wouldn’t do much for its security even if it could. Moreover, their contents undermine the general belief that the effort—even if ultimately in error—was at least dedicated to the noble goal of reducing overall global stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

On the contrary, the evidence reveals President Bill Clinton’s future CIA director concluding that Ukraine did have the means to operate an arsenal. The unearthed papers show the USSR’s last foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, confirming that “just one nuclear missile” in Ukrainian hands would have been enough to safeguard its independence so far as Russian strategic planning was concerned. They also show top American officials—from both parties—fretting over Russia’s belligerent, irredentist behavior during the negotiations, including repeated concerns about a potential future Russian invasion of Ukraine even as they chided “whiners” in Kyiv for expressing the same anxieties.

The same “settled history” crowd contends the Budapest Agreement—even if ultimately in error—was at least dedicated to the noble goal of reducing overall global stockpiles of nuclear weapons. We now know it was nothing of the sort. 

Historical materials also illuminate how American officials blocked serious attempts by Kyiv to trade its inherited arsenal for genuine security guarantees—even going so far as to lobby Europeans to keep Ukraine out of non-NATO security arrangements. Perhaps this was because, as the record now reveals, they were also backchanneling to Moscow respect for Russia’s “vital interests in its near abroad” and a willingness to “help in a variety of ways.”

Among the ways cited? The American-Russian-Ukrainian accord that preceded the high-level public declarations in the Budapest Memorandum.

Rather than a serious effort at global nuclear arms control, the actual imperative seems to have been a desire on the part of American officials to coax Russia into joining the Western democratic world. The Budapest Agreement, therefore, amounted to a diplomatic shell game—one where weapons were transferred from a weaker state to a stronger one with imperial pretensions, largely to soothe Russian insecurities about achieving “parity” in its nuclear stockpile vis-à-vis the United States. 

That was an understandable and even laudable aim. Yet, it resulted in a doomed policy that required assuaging Russia at almost any cost, ignoring the Kremlin’s own words and actions, and ultimately leaving Ukraine to the perilous fate borne out today.

After all, the only reason Ukraine agreed to surrender its weapons is because Western powers linked that decision to “security assurances” that proved hollow. According to Yuri Kostenko, Kyiv’s former head envoy for disarmament, the outcome deprived his country of “the most powerful method of protecting the state.” It received nothing in return—except, perhaps, its worst fears fulfilled. Now, with forfeited Ukrainian missiles raining down on Ukrainian cities, it is time for Western policymakers to confront the past—their past—with the seriousness it deserves.

START-ing the Firing Gun

As the Soviet Union began to collapse, the George H.W. Bush Administration sought to preserve the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which promised to decrease the world’s strategic nuclear weapons stockpiles by 80 percent. After nearly a decade of negotiations, it was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1991. But with the USSR about to shatter into five sovereign countries, how would this two-party deal endure?

A few weeks before the union formally dissolved, President Bush met with Mikhail Gorbachev’s advisor, Alexander Yakovlev, and asked about the 30-odd percent of the Soviet arsenal that would soon fall outside Russian territory—in Kazakhstan, Belarus, and, most notably, Ukraine. “How do you see that working out[?],” Bush asked. “Control? Ratification? Safe dismantling[?]”

“They’ll look to the West [for direction],” Yakovlev said of the soon-to-be independent republics.

“Of course,” he added. “We won’t give up our weapons.”

It was an ignominious start to a years-long dance between the United States, Ukraine, and Russia—one in which leaders in Moscow would hardly be coy about their aims. In this case, they dictated that reductions be counted by first removing weapons from soon-to-be former Soviet subjects. Otherwise, the cuts START envisioned would place Russia’s own nuclear arsenal behind that of the United States—a nonstarter for Moscow. 

This approach would also remove the only real lever of deterrence from a nervous and newly sovereign republic governed by Kyiv, a state that had been subjugated many times already by its supposedly amiable neighbor. Secretary of State James Baker was present and quickly intuited the strategic issue at stake. Could this pave the way, he asked, for a future war with Ukraine?

Yakovlev deflected before retorting blithely, “What sort of war could it be?”

“A normal war,” Baker responded.

During this period, Ukraine had linked its position on nuclear weapons to its prospects for an adequate conventional military. In 1991, it aspired to spend three percent of GDP on an independent army as large as 450,000 men. As months passed, however, Ukraine’s military ambitions drifted out of reach. The country lacked the immediate economic capacity and supply chains to equip its forces. Vladimir Lukin, a future Russian ambassador to the United States, intimated to American officials that Kyiv’s leadership “may now perceive that Ukraine’s future status as a great power could depend on nuclear weapons.”

Later that month, America’s first ambassador to the Russian Federation, Robert Strauss, wrote to Washington about the hysteria caused by reports of Yeltsin considering a nuclear strike on Ukraine. The situation was “made worse,” the emissary wrote, by the new president “acknowledging he had discussed the possibility with military experts.”

In his memoirs and later interviews, Brent Scowcroft noted that then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney vigorously opposed the removal of nuclear weapons from the newly independent states at Russia’s periphery. Though most of their personal papers on the subject remain classified, a memo to the National Security Advisor from March 1992 demonstrated that these disputes did not disappear. National Security Council staffer David Gompert titled it “Why We Must be Adamant about De-nuclearizing Ukraine.” He noted three major counterarguments:

Ukrainian nuclear weapons will not threaten the U.S. as Russian nuclear weapons do, for the simple reason that Ukraine, unlike Russia, is not a serious potential adversary. It might even prove advantageous to us to see Russian power checked—and Russian nuclear weapons deterred—by a Ukraine with a minimal deterrent. In any case, we hurt ourselves with the Ukrainians by insisting that they be stripped of nuclear weapons while we legitimize those of their powerful neighbor.

Gompert dismissed these objections, and the Bush administration continued on its path. The document, however, bears witness to the persistent debate that unfolded within the administration.

While Ukraine preferred to develop its own conventional military means to deter Moscow, it simply lacked the resources to do so. Its inherited nuclear weapons became a chit to trade for an ironclad security guarantee from the West—ideally something commensurate to NATO’s Article V umbrella.

But looping, cursive marginalia on Gompert’s memo captured an impasse. “The dilemma we face,” wrote Nicholas Burns, then on staff at the National Security Council, “is that many Ukrainian leaders are concerned about a threat from Russia and will be looking for some sort of security guarantee from the West.” He added, “We cannot give them what they want but is there a way to somewhat allay their concerns?”