The Superficially Moderating Effects of the Budapest Memorandum

Depending on where you stand, of all the surprises contained in Ukraine’s ongoing saga, one of the larger ones might be that it’s taken until now for Crimea to become a flashpoint. Twenty-plus years ago, as Cold War divisions crumbled, academics frequently included Ukraine and specifically Crimea in their assessments of places susceptible to separatism on an ethno-national basis.* For example, addressing the dissolution of the USSR in Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (published in 1996) Rogers Brubaker writes:

With the loss of this wider “home” territory, Russians living in territorially concentrated settlements in the successor states are likely to seek to redefine areas of the successor states in which they form a local majority or plurality as “their own” territories by demanding some form of regional autonomy. These areas include, most significantly…parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, notably Crimea…

In fact, that’s not the only bit of Brubaker’s book with current relevance, as recent commentary on Ukraine makes clear. In Foreign Policy on Wednesday this week, Timothy Snyder (also linked to yesterday) wrote:

The policy which seems to be under consideration in Moscow has three parts: first, to claim, as Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has already done, that Russian interests in Ukraine are under threat; second, to extend Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in Crimea; and third, to claim a right of protection — which, in the case of Russia’s neighbors, Georgia and Moldova, has already resulted in the creation of Russian protectorates. As of this writing, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is on alert, and a Russian parliamentarian is in Crimea discussing passports and the possibility of a Russian annexation.

This behavior is a textbook (literally) illustration of what Brubaker calls, “the transborder nationalism[s] of…’external national homelands'” (5). These homeland nationalisms, “assert states’ right – indeed their obligation – to monitor the condition, promote the welfare, support the activities and institutions, assert the rights, and protect the interests of ‘their’ ethnonational kin in other states” (Ibid). In previous iterations (Yugoslavia, for example), this phenomenon has manifested itself quite violently, and in an environment of truly toxic escalatory rhetoric from politicians at all levels, including presidents. What’s remarkable about events so far in Crimea is the relatively calm atmosphere in which they seem to be taking place. I mean, there’s Russian APCs traversing the roads of Crimea, and yet Moscow has denied responsibility and, at least verbally, been fairly unprovocative at the highest levels of government.

I suspect we have the Budapest Memorandum to thank for this veneer of comparative equanimity from President Putin. It was signed in 1994, and:

Under the memorandum, Ukraine promised to remove all Soviet-era nuclear weapons from its territory, send them to disarmament facilities in Russia, and sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Ukraine kept these promises.

In return, Russia and the Western signatory countries essentially consecrated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine as an independent state…Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States promised that none of them would ever threaten or use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.

For what it’s worth, it also precludes the signatories from using economic coercion to further their interests in Ukraine, and there is a pretty strong argument that Russia’s periodic interference with the flow of gas would qualify. So perhaps the Memorandum is already viewed by Russia as a toothless document. But in the case of natural gas flows, Russia can also semi-plausibly claim that any shut-off is simply the result of a business dispute, and anyway, it’s not like the United States is going to spend diplomatic capital on a few cold Eastern Europeans. Things like annexation, invasion, and violations of territorial integrity, however, cannot be disguised as business disputes, and are much more likely to be taken seriously by the international community. Given that Russia has pledged to maintain the inviolability of Ukraine’s borders, it can’t very well talk too loudly about subverting it instead. If you accept this line of reasoning, then the Budapest Memorandum has been marginally salutary, at least insofar as it has helped to moderate rhetoric about Crimea. But it doesn’t appear to be doing much to actually keep armed Russians from moving about the peninsula.

*Barry Posen’s “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict” is a good example