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The United States, deterrence, and the Budapest Memorandum

Our country has a duty to help achieve a justly ordered peace in Ukraine


An apartment building damaged in a Russian rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 17 Associated Press/Photo by Kharkiv Regional Administration

The United States, deterrence, and the Budapest Memorandum
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Last December marked the 29th anniversary of the Budapest Memorandum (BM), the 1994 accord by which the Russian Federation, Great Britain, and the United States committed themselves to respect Ukraine’s “independence and sovereignty” and “existing borders.” Those nations pledged “their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine,” and this “in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.” They also promised “to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action” for assistance, “if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression.”

Such security “guarantees” were deemed necessary inasmuch as Ukraine agreed to relinquish what at the time was the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. With this purge the signatories agreed to respect Ukraine’s “independence,” “sovereignty,” and “territorial integrity.” In addition to the 1994 BM, two other related treaties—in 1997 and 2010—were violated by Russia, as was U.N. General Assembly resolutions 2625 and 3314—all of which stressed the obligation to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

With its pattern of multiple violations of the BM, Russia alas has been a repeat offender and serial aggressor. Without security guarantees, Ukraine has no future. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its waging of a proxy war through separatists in Ukraine’s eastern region were met with relative passivity in the West. And with formal war beginning in February 2022, British and American security guarantees declared in the agreement have proven to be empty. With both 2014 and 2022 violations by Russia, international law has been discarded. In the end, breach of the BM contributes to a destabilizing trend and breakdown of the entire international order.

It is a sad coincidence that the anniversary of the Budapest Memorandum follows directly on the heels of the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor (literally, “death by hunger”) which commemorated the millions of Ukrainian lives lost due to human-caused famine between 1932 and 1934. Research indicates that roughly one out of eight people perished due to a famine that was shown to be the direct result of brutal policies of Stalin’s regime.

Despite the purported unity in the Western world, the West’s response to Russia continues to be hampered by an excessive fear of provocation and escalation—which Vladimir Putin has exploited with cunning and barbarism. Fear of escalation and foot-dragging, which have marked U.S. diplomacy since the beginning of the war, have been characteristic of the West’s broader timidity. And precisely this is one of the striking features of our trepidation: not deterrence of evil but self-deterrence in the face of evil.

Only when totalitarian regimes recognize moral and military strength will they be discouraged from acts of aggression and subjugating others.

Given Russian imperialist designs, the only way to end the war is through strategic military aid that leads to a justly ordered peace. At the war’s beginning, both the United States and the United Kingdom refused to help impose a no-fly zone around Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders. This refusal simply conveyed the message to Ukraine that she was on her own in the war. And it conveyed that the security guarantees of the BM were indeed empty.

Robert Einhorn, senior fellow in arms control, security and foreign affairs at the Brookings Institution, is correct to argue that if nations want a justly ordered peace, they must prepare for potential conflict and use diplomacy in this light. Only when totalitarian regimes recognize moral and military strength will they be discouraged from acts of aggression and subjugating others. This is none other than deterrence. The need for such deterrence today abounds. It applies to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to Iran’s widespread provocations in the Middle East, and to China’s insistence on Taiwan’s imminent “reunification to the motherland.”

To stop Russian aggression and reestablish a deterrent threat, the United States and Great Britain will need to reaffirm those commitments to Ukraine established in the BM. Why? Because in 1994, at a time when Ukraine gave up everything for her independence, we told Ukraine that we would. Because one of the four signatories, the Russian Federation, has broken all commitments and we told Ukraine we would respond if the guarantees of the accord were broken. And deterring Russia is essential to deterring China, since totalitarian regimes around the globe are constantly assessing risk versus reward.

A failure to deter encourages future totalitarian aggression. Our action—or inaction—influences future generations and the future of free nations, in which religious freedom and Christian faith have a fundamental stake. Deterring evil is the morally just thing to do, when and where we have the capacity to do so.

What resulted from the violation—and broken promises—of the Budapest Memorandum must not be permitted again. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and its attempts at obliterating this neighbor state make that point absolutely clear. What happens to Ukraine will reverberate around the world.


J. Daryl Charles

J. Daryl Charles, a fellow of the John Jay Institute and contributing editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, is author or co-author of Between Pacifism and Jihad (IVP, 2005), The Just War Tradition: An Introduction (ISI Books, 2012), and War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just-War Perspective (Crossway, 2010), and co-editor of Just War and Christian Traditions (University of Notre Dame Press, 2022).


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