World leaders, including presidents Obama and Putin, are scheduled to meet in the Netherlands later this month for a summit on nuclear security – as the Ukrainian government accuses Russia of breaching a key agreement under which it gave up its Soviet-era weapons in 1994.
The 58 leaders will travel to The Hague with the aim of enhancing co-operation against nuclear terrorism and underpinning existing non-proliferation agreements, just as the crucial Budapest Memorandum between Ukraine, Russia, the US and the UK looks set to fall apart.
The memorandum was signed by presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, as well as by then Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, and British prime minister John Major, in what was regarded as a diplomatic breakthrough in December 1994.
Over the next two years, Ukraine gave up the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons stockpile, including 1,080 long-range cruise missiles – as part of the tactical “denuclearisation” of former Soviet republics, including Belarus and Kazakhstan.
In return, Ukraine received written non-intervention assurances from the other three signatories, guaranteeing its sovereignty and territorial integrity as an independent post-Soviet state – plus an assurance that they would never use "economic coercion" to promote their interests.
Although they were not signatories, China and France later gave individual statements supporting the memorandum, and both Chinese president Xi Jinping and French president François Hollande will attend the summit – as Ukraine claims the deal has effectively been torn up by President Putin.
In 2009, President Obama described nuclear terrorism as “one of the greatest threats to international security”, placing it at the top of the international political agenda.
The following year – when the first nuclear security summit was held in Washington – Mr Obama reaffirmed the memorandum’s security assurances to Ukraine.
However, as tensions mounted this week, Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called on Russia "not to violate the Budapest Memorandum" as it became apparent that was what President Putin was ready to do.
Diplomats believe Russia has now breached the memorandum by putting pressure on Kiev not to sign agreements with the EU on closer economic integration and political co-operation, and, in the first days of the Crimean confrontation last week, by ordering its troops to patrol Ukrainian territory outside their barracks.
However, even if Russia has breached the memorandum, there may be very little that even a summit as globally representative as The Hague nuclear security summit on March 24th and 25th can do.
“Yes, the memorandum is binding under international law, but that doesn’t mean it has any means of enforcement,” said Prof Barry Kellman, director of the International Weapons Control Center at DePaul University in the United States.
The Dutch counter-terrorism co-ordinator, Dick Schoof, says the summit will involve the biggest security operation ever mounted in the Netherlands, with four times the number of police on duty as for the investiture of King Willem-Alexander, and air defence batteries stationed along the coast.