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Are the US and the UK bound to intervene in Ukraine?

AFP | William Hague (left) and John Kerry (file picture)
Text by: Thomas HUBERT
5 min

As they visit Kiev this week, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and US Secretary of State John Kerry are being reminded that their countries signed a 1994 treaty guaranteeing Ukraine’s "independence and sovereignty".


Comments from US and British officials on Ukraine are under particular scrutiny as both countries signed the Budapest Memorandum with Ukraine and Russia in 1994, affirming “their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine”.

The pro-European leaders of last month’s Ukrainian revolution have invoked the 20-year-old pact to lobby the US and the UK for support. Russian President “Vladimir Putin is fully conscious that by declaring war (on Ukraine), he is also declaring war on the guarantors of our security, the United States and Britain,” former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said in a statement on her website on Monday.

Under the treaty, the signatories offered Ukraine “security assurances” in exchange for its adhesion to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, whereby Kiev handed over its nuclear warheads to Moscow in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

No guarantee of intervention under Budapest Memorandum

Yet according to Stephen MacFarlane, a professor of international relations specialised on the former Soviet Union at St Anne’s College, Oxford, Ukrainian leaders are also preparing for a scenario under which US and British involvement would remain verbal.

Despite Yulia Tymoshenko’s “war on the United States and Britain” rhetoric, the Budapest Memorandum offers no guarantee of intervention. “It gives signatories justification if they take action, but it does not force anyone to act in Ukraine,” Stephen MacFarlane told FRANCE 24. “[US Secretary of State John] Kerry’s harsh remarks on what is going on in Ukraine indicate a degree of resolve, but at the end of the day, what can you do?”

Ahead of his visit to Kiev on Tuesday March 4, John Kerry said in a television interview: “You don’t just invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests. There are ways to deal with this and President Putin knows that,” he added.

On his way to Kiev on Monday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, too, criticised Russian intervention in Ukraine. “The sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine have been violated, and this cannot be the way to conduct international affairs,” he told the BBC, announcing that the UK had suspended preparation work for the next G8 summit in Russia.

While the US could use sanctions such as asset seizures to “make life hard for Putin”, MacFarlane noted that William Hague’s choice of words indicated “greater circumspection”.

Although the British foreign secretary warned of “consequences and costs” for Russia, he vowed to “do everything we can to calm tensions” and supported the German suggestion of mediated talks between Moscow and Kiev.


Germany steering Europe away from confrontation with Russia

As the European Union’s foreign ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss the crisis on Monday, FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor Armen Georgian underlined the difference in tone between the American and European positions. “While the US is using very harsh language and talking about sanctions, the noises we’re getting from Brussels is the EU is not heading towards sanctions: it wants to keep lines of communication open with Russia, and a lot of this has to do with the German position,” he said.

“The UK has no military options, and a significant economic relationship with Russia,” said MacFarlane. Russia is the fastest-growing major export market for British goods and services. “We could take part in a sanctions regime, but we would probably be hurt more than the US,” the British-based academic added.

Meanwhile, Germany’s dependence on Russian gas and its even greater trade ties with Moscow influenced European policy as a whole, he said.

The credibility of Western powers is at stake in the region, where initiatives such as the Budapest memorandum flourished after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Some nations managed to escape the Russian sphere of influence, such as the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, now EU member states.

Moscow successfully opposed attempts by other former Soviet republics to form alliances with the West, including during its quick war on Georgia in 2008. Nations such as Ukraine and Moldova remain in the balance.

Changing circumstances, not strategies

The 1994 treaty may have focused on immediate security and nuclear arms disposal, failing to envisage diverging interest between the US and the UK on one side and Russia on the other. Yet MacFarlane argues that there has been no major change in eastern and western strategies in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War, with competing influences affected by available resources rather than policy shifts.

“Under Yeltsin, the Russia state was in crisis, with low energy prices yielding low revenues; under Putin, revenues have been growing,” he said. “While Yeltsin did not have the resources to intervene in the region, Putin has – and he does.”

On the Western side, the US was deeply engaged in Europe in the 1990s. “They are now redirecting their resources towards Asia and would like to see the EU become more active in managing security in the region,” said MacFarlane – an elusive prospect given the diverging views expressed at the start of Monday’s meeting of EU foreign ministers.


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