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Failed Black Sea Treaties - then and now


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The 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances for Ukraine committed Russia, the US, and the UK 'to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine'. When in 2014 Crimea broke away from Ukraine and joined the Russian Federation, it could be argued that Russia had broken its promise to respect Ukraine’s existing borders. But the Memorandum replicated the fatal weakness of a treaty of 1856 designed to prevent Russian expansion in the Black Sea area: the signatories did not foresee separatist movements. This was a greater failing in 1994 than it had been in 1856, when it was still possible to believe in the permanence of empires and to value their role in restraining ethnic nationalism. The danger that the badly drafted treaty will lead to large scale conflict is also more acute today than it was 150 years ago.

The Triple Treaty of 1856 committed France, Britain, and Austria to guarantee that they and Russia would 'respect the independence and the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire', and to enforce this and other concessions made by Russia in the Treaty of Paris which had just ended the Crimean War. It foresaw the use of military force if necessary, but did not say that the signatories could compel each other to take part. Its greatest weakness was that it did not specify what should happen if Turkey’s ‘territorial integrity’ were to be compromised by secession, whether constitutionally sanctioned or otherwise.

Problems began ten years later, when the Romanian revolution united Turkey’s two Danubian Provinces and elected a foreign prince as head of state against Turkey’s wishes.  Romania became increasingly independent with varying degrees of support from the Triple Treaty’s signatories, allowing Russia to claim in 1871 that they had violated the Treaty of Paris. Russia therefore abrogated that Treaty altogether, and in 1877 invaded Turkey’s European Provinces in support of local independence movements. World War I did not then break out forty years early, because neither Britain nor France was spoiling for a fight with Russia and the nearest and most threatened signatory, Austria, could not compel the others to act. The Triple Treaty became an embarrassment to Britain because of the implications of revoking it. Foreign Secretary Lord Derby commented in 1877 that terminating it would “be understood by Europe - and not unreasonably – as a formal announcement of our indifference to what might occur.” According to historian W. E. Mosse, the Triple Treaty ‘sneaked out of existence’ because ‘like other carefully negotiated instruments before and since, it had failed signally to achieve its object or, in fact, to serve any useful purpose whatever’. Britain formally repudiated the forgotten treaty only at the outbreak of World War I.

The Budapest Memorandum has similarly failed to protect the Ukraine, which agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a supposed guarantee of territorial integrity. As in 1877, Russia has suggested that the western powers first violated the Memorandum by instigating the Maidan anti-Russian revolution in Kiev in early 2014. Although Maidan was the proximate cause of Crimea’s separation, dissolution of the Ukraine was foreseeable. It was a composite entity of relatively recent formation. The Donbass region in eastern Ukraine had belonged to Russia from the time of Peter the Great, but Russia had conquered western Ukraine from Poland in the seventeenth century and Crimea from Turkey in the eighteenth. Russia incorporated Crimea into Ukraine as late as 1954. Deportation of local populations after the Crimean and Second World Wars led to ethnic russification of the Crimean population and a pro-Russian political climate.

Is the Budapest Memorandum destined to sneak out of existence as quietly as the Triple Treaty? Probably not, because of today’s mutual hostility between Russia and the other signatories and their rivalry for influence in the Black Sea region. In 1877, in contrast, Britain and France were enjoying good relations with Russia, which was reforming and opening up to trade. Turkey’s slow progress in reforming civil liberties had disappointed Europe and there was little public enthusiasm for defending its empire.

According to Stephen MacFarlane, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, the Budapest Memorandum 'gives signatories justification if they take action, but it does not force anyone to act in Ukraine'. The resulting unpredictability of western reaction must have been a factor in Crimea’s flight into the arms of the Russian Federation, against its own economic interests, after its brief day of independence in 2014. The unpredictability persists: US Assistant Secretary John Kirby has said, 'Sanctions related to Crimea will remain in place as long as the occupation continues. We again call on Russia to end that occupation and return Crimea to Ukraine.' This doesn’t make it clear whether secession without 'occupation' would end the US sanctions. Unless sanctions have an achievable, clear, and measurable goal they will only increase the already dangerous uncertainty created by the historically naïve Budapest Memorandum.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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