Trump could trump Putin on Ukraine

Andrew L. Urban

Vladimir Putin is playing his cards in the Ukraine Invasion Stakes as if he held the trump card. A resolute player at the table might well trump that card. On the 2nd anniversary of his invasion of Ukraine, the 10th anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the 30th anniversary of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, it is clear that Putin must be stopped by force … greater force.

Exactly, Volodymyr Zelensky says: “We have no choice but to win. Losing means we will cease to exist. If we have the weapons, we will win.”

Trump has already foreshadowed that. In response to questions on Fox News in July 2023, as to how he would stop the war within a day or two, as he had boasted, Trump said: “I know Zelensky very well, and I know Putin very well, even better. And I had a good relationship, very good with both of them. I would tell Zelensky, no more. You got to make a deal. I would tell Putin, if you don’t make a deal, we’re going to give him a lot. We’re going to [give Ukraine] more than they ever got if we have to. I will have the deal done in one day.”

Never mind a deal; Zelensky is not interested and who can trust Putin? Joe Biden doesn’t have the guts to do it, but a new president, such as Donald Trump, could (should) invoke the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (signed by the US, UK and Russia) to expel Russia’s army – perhaps eject is a better word –  from Ukraine. And the UK, the third party to the Memorandum, would find it hard to decline an invitation to join the US.

Why hasn’t the US and UK done this already, you may ask. Well, I did ask; I asked Rebeka Koffler, former US government intelligence analyst, current independent intelligence consultant and author of Putin’s Playbook (Wilkinson). Her answer was short, simple, credible and damning: “Biden got bad advice.” The time to invoke the Memorandum was on February 24, 2022 – the day the invasion began. An urgent phone call from Washington to Moscow … with London dialled in. Followed by formal diplomatic missives.

After the annexation of Crimea by Russia in February/March 2014, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and US cancelled the G8 Summit planned for June that year in the Russian city of Sochi and suspended Russia’s membership of the group, stating that Russian was in breach of its Budapest Memorandum obligations to Ukraine and in violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. That didn’t seem to bother (or deter) Putin, but at least the west put its objections on the record. A case of speak softly and carry a small stick …

The Budapest Congress Centre, where the Memorandum was signed on December 5, 1994, is a huge complex set in a chestnut tree park in the Buda Hills, a couple of kilometres west of the Danube and a stone’s throw from the old Palace overlooking the river. The event was held in the Patria, the largest space among the 20 multifunctional rooms/spaces, with a capacity of 2000. The signing concluded arduous negotiations that resulted in Ukraine’s agreement to relinquish the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, which the country inherited from the collapsed Soviet Union.

Among those present on that cold winter’s day (average max. 5C)  were Russian President Boris Yeltsin, American President Bill Clinton, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and British Prime Minister John Major. (And their minions, observers, etc…) It was a BIG DEAL.

By signing the Memorandum, Russia, the US and the UK confirmed their recognition of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine becoming parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and effectively removing all Soviet nuclear weapons from their soil, and that they agreed to the following:

1     Respect the signatory’s independence and sovereignty in the existing borders (in accordance with the principles of the CSCE Final Act).

2     Refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of the signatories to the memorandum, and undertake that none of their weapons will ever be used against these countries, except in cases of self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

3     Refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine, the Republic of Belarus and Kazakhstan of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind.

4     Seek immediate Security Council action to provide assistance to the signatory if they “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, their territories or dependent territories, their armed forces, or their allies, by such a state in association or alliance with a nuclear weapon state.

6     Consult with one another if questions arise regarding those commitments.

In short, Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal, its protective deterrent power, on the assurance of sovereign safety. Protection was transferred from nuclear capability to protection by three major powers. And so it came to pass: the third power which signed up to respect and protect Ukraine’s sovereignty was Russia … a member these days of the world’s Belligerati Club.

“In 1994, Washington wrote Kyiv a check for U.S. support in the Budapest Memorandum—albeit hoping that it would never be cashed. Unfortunately, it has (to be),” writes Steven Pifer, former US Ambassador to Ukraine and a member of the independent think tank, the Brookings Institution.

“This is not just a matter of assisting Ukraine in fulfilment of U.S. obligations. It is also about preserving the credibility of security assurances for the future. Security assurances such as those in the Budapest Memorandum do not carry as much weight as NATO security guarantees or the guarantees in the mutual security treaties that the United States has with Japan and South Korea. Still, security assurances have played a role in the effort to freeze and end North Korea’s nuclear program.

“These kinds of assurances may not by themselves offer major leverage. However, when looking for ways to prevent nuclear proliferation, Washington and its partners should marshal every possible tool. The problem is that Russia’s actions against Ukraine have discredited security assurances.”

Given Putin’s cavalier attitude towards international agreements and the like, the niceties of difference between “security assurance” and “security guarantee” fade into insignificance. Diplomats may wrangle over the nuances and implications, but Putin knows that power grows out of the barrel of a gun. If a US President were to invoke the Budapest Memorandum, with an ultimatum for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine or face devastating military action, Putin may well complain, threaten and try to push on. He should be told to shut up, read the Memorandum and go home.

PS: Donald, text me to discuss. 

Andrew L. Urban is co-author with Chris McLeod of ‘Zelensky the unlikely hero’ (Wilkinson, 2022) and ‘Volodymyr Zelensky the front line president’ (Wilkinson, 2024)




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