January 14 marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Trilateral Statement, the agreement that set the terms for eliminating the strategic nuclear weapons left on the territory of Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In return for giving up the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, Ukraine received security assurances, nuclear fuel for its reactors and assistance in destroying the missiles, bombers and nuclear infrastructure. More importantly, Kyiv’s decision to sign the Trilateral Statement and accede to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state removed what would have been a huge problem for its relations with Russia, the United States and Europe.

When Ukraine regained its independence at the end of 1991, 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 44 strategic bombers and some 1900 strategic nuclear warheads remained on its territory. Under the terms of the May 1992 Lisbon Protocol to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), Ukraine agreed to rid itself of the strategic weapons, but Kyiv made clear that certain questions first had to be resolved.

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators tried for months to find answers to those questions. In September 1993, however, it became apparent that the bilateral discussions would not succeed. U.S. negotiators thus engaged in a trilateral process with Moscow and Kyiv. The exchanges played out over the fall and resulted in an agreement early in 1994. Presidents Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk signed the statement on January 14 in Moscow.

The Trilateral Statement confirmed that Ukraine would eliminate all of the strategic nuclear weapons on its territory and accede to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state “in the shortest possible time.” In return for this, the statement provided that Kyiv receive:

  • Security assurances. The United States, Russia and Britain would provide security assurances to Ukraine, such as to respect its independence and to refrain from economic coercion. Those assurances were formally conveyed in the Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances signed in December 1994. (Curiously, Kyiv has never invoked the memorandum, not even during its dispute with Moscow over Tuzla Island in 2003 or when the Russian government applied trade sanctions in 2013 to dissuade Ukraine from signing an association agreement with the European Union.)
  • Compensation for highly-enriched uranium (HEU). Russia agreed to provide fuel rods for Ukrainian nuclear reactors containing low enriched uranium equivalent to the HEU removed from the nuclear warheads transferred from Ukraine to Russia for dismantlement.
  • Elimination assistance. The United States agreed to make available substantial Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction assistance to cover the costs of eliminating the ICBMs, strategic bombers, ICBM silos and other nuclear infrastructure in Ukraine.

While there were minor hiccups, implementation of the Trilateral Statement went fairly smoothly. The last train with nuclear warheads from Ukraine arrived in Russia on June 1, 1996, and the last of the strategic bombers, ICBMs and ICBM silos were destroyed by 2001.

Ukraine’s agreement to rid itself of nuclear weapons—along with similar decisions by Belarus, Kazakhstan and South Africa—set a very positive context for the 1995 NPT review conference. The conference agreed to extend the NPT indefinitely.

Years later, some in Ukraine wonder whether the country might have pursued a different foreign policy course had it retained nuclear arms. This was not, however, a real option. Soviet nuclear warheads had relatively short shelf lives, and Ukraine lacked the infrastructure to refurbish the warheads, build new ones or produce needed elements such as tritium gas. At enormous cost, Ukraine might have maintained a small number of weapons for a time, but their reliability and safety would have come under increasing doubt.

Had Ukraine tried to hold on to a nuclear arsenal, the last 20 years would have seen a very different history. It is hard to imagine the very positive developments that took place in U.S.-Ukrainian relations in the mid-1990s—greatly expanded reform assistance, frequent summit meetings, the establishment of a strategic partnership and the creation of the U.S.-Ukraine Binational Commission, chaired by Vice President Al Gore and President Leonid Kuchma—had Kyiv held on to nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons also would have thwarted the development of Ukraine’s relations with Europe. NATO would not have agreed to a “distinctive” NATO-Ukraine partnership or a NATO-Ukraine Council in 1997, and Kyiv would have had little reason to expect much from the European Union.

Moreover, no issue between Moscow and Kyiv would have proven more contentious. Had the Russians believed that Ukraine would seriously try to keep nuclear arms, they would have resorted to all kinds of diplomatic, political, economic and other pressure to force a change of policy course.  If—or when—the issue boiled over into a full-fledged crisis, the Ukrainians would have faced Russia alone, with no international support whatsoever.

The Trilateral Statement instead represented a win-win-win outcome. Washington and Moscow achieved their goal: elimination of the strategic nuclear weapons in Ukraine. For its part, Kyiv successfully satisfied its key demands on security assurances, compensation and assistance, while opening the way to normal relationships with the West—and avoiding the pariah status that North Korea and Iran have achieved owing to their nuclear weapons programs.  

Senior Fellow Steven Pifer worked closely with Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Deputy Secretary—and current Brookings President—Strobe Talbott on denuclearizing Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan following the Soviet Union’s collapse. For a more detailed history of the Trilateral Statement, see “The Trilateral Process: The United States, Ukraine, Russia and Nuclear Weapons,” a Brookings Arms Control Series paper by Steven Pifer.