During the third Republican presidential debate, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie explained that his support for Ukraine against the continuing Russian invasion traces back to promises made during the 1990s.
“In 1992, this country made a promise to Ukraine,” Christie said during the Nov. 8 debate in Miami. “We said, ‘If you return nuclear missiles that were part of the old Soviet Union to Russia, and they invade you, we will protect you.’”
This makes the U.S. obligation to defend Ukraine sound cut and dried. However, as we’ve previously written, it was anything but.
Christie’s campaign did not respond to an inquiry for this article.
The crack-up of the USSR and the 1994 Budapest agreement
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the rest of the world expressed concern over the fate of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, which was spread across not just Russia but also three newly independent states, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
Belarus and Kazakhstan agreed to dismantle or return to Russia what they had. But Ukraine looked at the roughly 1,900 warheads on its soil and began seeking something in exchange before it ceded them.
“Essentially, it was something that they traded off in order to encourage international recognition,” Brian Finlay, a specialist in nonproliferation at the Stimson Center, a military-focused Washington, D.C., think tank told PolitiFact in 2015.
According to a 2011 report by Steven Pifer, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, Ukraine wanted Russia to promise to respect its sovereignty and its borders, a promise that Russia made but has since broken. Ukraine also wanted money, and it knew that going non-nuclear would open the door to better ties with the West.
In early 1994, the United States agreed to provide money to dismantle Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure, while Russia agreed to forgive Ukraine’s debts. In December 1994, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances.
The agreement reaffirmed certain commitments among the parties:
Pifer described in his report the lengths to which Washington lingered over the precise phrasing of the U.S. security obligations to Ukraine.
State Department lawyers “took careful interest in the actual language … to keep the commitments of a political nature,” Pifer wrote. “U.S. officials also continually used the term ‘assurances’ instead of ‘guarantees,’ as the latter implied a deeper, even legally binding commitment of the kind that the United States extended to its NATO allies.”
Pifer wrote that American diplomats made sure that the Russians and Ukrainians understood specifically that the English meaning of “assurance” was not the same as a “guarantee.”
Has anything changed?
We asked several experts whether anything had changed since we last covered this topic eight years ago (which also came during a presidential election cycle, in comments by Republican candidates Ben Carson and Ted Cruz).
The experts agreed that although Russia has continued to break its promise to respect Ukraine’s borders, the U.S. obligations remain the same. The U.S. under President Joe Biden has supported Ukraine as it tries to fend off Russia’s invasion, including providing arms and money. But the U.S. has done this by choice, not because the Budapest agreement legally obligates it to do so.
Christie seems to be framing it as a pledge akin to NATO’s Article 5, which treats an attack on one member as an attack on all, obligating a response, said Erik Herron, a West Virginia University political scientist who specializes in Eastern Europe. But such an obligation “is not part of any written agreement,” Herron said.
Pifer, the former ambassador to Ukraine, told PolitiFact that when negotiating the language, “Ukrainian officials asked us, the U.S. officials, what the United States would do if Russia violated its commitments. We responded that the United States would take an interest and support Ukraine, but we made clear that we were not committing to send U.S. troops.”
And that is basically what has happened since Russia invaded in 2022, Pifer said.
“To my mind, U.S. support for Ukraine over the past two years has lived up to what we told Ukrainian officials in the early 1990s,” he said.
Christie said, “In 1992, this country made a promise to Ukraine. We said, ‘If you return nuclear missiles that were part of the old Soviet Union to Russia, and they invade you, we will protect you.’”
Setting aside that the agreement was signed in 1994, not 1992, Christie makes it sound as if the U.S. had an ironclad obligation to protect Ukraine if its borders were violated — that it had a “promise” to “protect” Ukraine.
But the United States carefully avoided making a strong promise. The agreement deliberately steered away from the term “guarantee” in favor of “assurances,” which entails a lesser degree of obligation.
The United States agreed to respect Ukraine’s borders and go to the United Nations if another power threatened Ukraine’s borders.
We rate the statement Mostly False.