On May 10, Ukraine’s current president Volodymyr Zelenskyy paid homage to its first. Leonid Kravchuk “was the man who knew how to find wise words and say them so that all Ukrainians could hear them,” Zelensky said in tribute to his late predecessor. “This is especially important in difficult crisis moments when the future of an entire country may depend on the wisdom of one person.”
Here was a man, Zelensky continued, who “knew what freedom costs.”
But what about his Western allies?
Twenty-eight years ago, when Kravchuk was fighting a fierce reelection battle, it appears they did not. Then, Ukraine’s disarmament was a hotly debated campaign issue. Although Washington strongly favored Kravchuk in the 1994 presidential race, American officials shunned the president when he resisted giving up his country’s nuclear weapons, which at the time represented the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. His opponent, a “pragmatist” and native Russian speaker, prevailed on the second ballot.
As president, Kravchuk’s final gift to his nation was a peaceful transition of power. His ambivalence over, but eventual acceptance of disarmament remains an equally weighty legacy. As Zelensky told global leaders in Munich, just days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Ukraine was persuaded to exchange its nuclear weapons for security. It wound up with neither.
Vladimir Putin’s war does not necessarily prove that Kyiv made the wrong decision in 1994. But it does call for a thorough evaluation of why the Ukrainians disarmed and what Western officials should learn from their experience. For any such exercise, an examination of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances is key.