Is U.S. committed to action in Ukraine?

By F. Michael Maloof

President Obama has been busy condemning Russia for its advance on its troubled neighbor, Ukraine.

A statement from the White House press office said President Obama “expressed his deep concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is a breach of international law, including Russia’s obligations under the U.N. Charter, and of its 1997 military basing agreement with Ukraine, and which is inconsistent with the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act.”

“The United States condemns Russia’s military intervention into Ukrainian territory,” Obama said.

Earlier, the president warned that any “violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing.”

“The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine,” he said.

Obama said Russia’s “continued violation on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would negatively impact Russia’s standing in the international community.”

But statements might be all that develop, as a document cited by Ukraine in its call for “guarantees” of its protection actually is a memorandum signed in 1994 in Budapest that calls for no military intervention.

The idea of intervention centered on the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances signed on Dec. 5, 1994, by the United States, Britain, Russia and Ukraine. It promises to recognize Ukraine’s borders in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons at the time.

The memorandum signed by President Bill Clinton, Russian Prime Minister Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma came about following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was part.

The interim Ukrainian government has been calling on the U.S. and U.K. to honor what has been described as obligations under the 1994 memorandum to come to Ukraine’s assistance, since it upheld its end of the bargain.

The London Daily Mail called the Budapest Memorandum a treaty, claiming it could drag the U.S. and U.K. into war with Russia if Putin moved troops into Ukraine.

The memorandum, however, isn’t a treaty but a diplomatic document that does not obligate the U.S. or Britain to go to war against Russia to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

There was no U.S. Senate action on the memorandum, which would have been required had the document been a treaty obligating the U.S. to undertake military action.

The memorandum only agrees to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. There is no enforcement mechanism to it.

Efforts by WND to reach the U.S. State Department to comment on the legal status of the Budapest Memorandum as it relates to possible U.S. military action to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine went unanswered.

The memorandum was designed to respect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine and “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”

The signatories to the Budapest Memorandum also agreed to “refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantage of any kind.”

Russia essentially did exactly that by coercing now-ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to turn down a trade agreement with the European Union and instead go with a deal Russian President Vladimir Putin offered.

That offer included an immediate $15 billion, cut rates on Russian natural gas imports to the country and membership in Putin’s duty-free Eurasian Union, which he sees as competitive with the European Union.

“If indeed this is a Russian invasion of Crimea and if we do conclude the Budapest Memorandum is legally binding, then it’s very difficult to avoid the conclusion that we’re going to go to war with Russia,” Sir Tony Brenton, a British ambassador to Ukraine from 2004 to 2008, told the BBC.

But John Lough, associate fellow at the foreign policy think-tank Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, said there is no legal obligation for the U.K. or other Western powers to intervene militarily, but “they might feel morally obliged to.”

As a consequence, Ukraine may become embroiled in a shooting war with Russian troops, but there is no treaty obligation on the part of the U.S. or U.K. to use military force to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, which may have to go to war alone.

The Budapest Memorandum is unlike the August 1939 Polish-British Common Defense Pact, a military alliance in which Britain agreed to provide military assistance in the event either was attacked by some “European country,” namely Nazi Germany, just prior to World War II.

The defense pact followed an initial pledge by Britain and France to guarantee Polish independence “in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces.”

“His Majesty’s government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish government all support in their power. They have given the Polish government an assurance to this effect.”

No such assurance of military assistance was embodied in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum

While Putin has blamed the West for causing the turmoil in Ukraine, in turn prompting him to begin sending troops into the southern part of Crimea, regional experts believe he will limit such action to Ukraine’s autonomous republic of Crimea, where the Russians have a major military base.

Putin was pointing to the encouragement protesters received from the West in ousting the pro-Russian but democratically elected Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, who since has sought refuge in Moscow. As a consequence, Putin has declared action by the Western-backed protesters and installment of an interim government to be “illegal.”

Putin’s actions, backed by authorization from the Russian Duma, or parliament, not only gives him the “legal” basis to move in troops ostensibly to protect Russian citizens and interests but also to disperse his military forces throughout Ukraine.

The confrontation, in effect, has set up a challenge between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

As Moscow has begun rebuilding its military, NATO countries continue to feel the economic pinch and cannot devote money to build up their militaries as they’re required to do as NATO members. Also, the U.S. is facing a major military cutback of its own, with a trillion-dollar cut over 10 years, along with sequestration.

In recent months, the White House has announced major cuts for the Air Force, Navy and now the Army. Naval warships have been cut by more than half of the 600-ship strength during the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

Putin has read all this and sees that he has little to lose in using his military to protect his own strategic interest.

From a Russian strategic standpoint, it is essential to keep Ukraine under Russian influence and to halt the democratic wave that has swept western Ukraine.

If allowed to succeed, Putin will be concerned that such a movement will sweep into Georgia, Moldova and even pro-Russian Armenia and the Central Asian countries which Moscow sees as being in its sphere of influence.

Also, such a movement could encourage opponents in Moscow to begin chipping away at Putin’s autocratic rule, prompting a wave of democracy there with the threat of undermining his authority.

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