LONDON - London and Washington knew of the overwhelming desire of Crimeans to re-unite with Russia from the early days of Ukraine’s independence. UK and US diplomats predicted that Ukraine would split and that Crimea would look to Russia, British Cabinet papers released to the National Archives in London reveal.

In 1994 the British got a chance to learn first-hand about the strength of pro-Russian sentiments in Crimea. A visit by Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to Ukraine and Russia coincided with a crisis in relations between Kiev and Simferopol, Crimea’s capital. In May 1994, the Foreign Office informed Prime Minister John Major that the Crimean parliament, the Supreme Soviet, had “decided to renew the validity of the Crimean Constitution adopted in 1992”. This, the FCO memo said, meant ending the legal status of Crimea as part of Ukraine.

Crimea had been an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation; in 1945 it was downgraded to a region within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and was in 1954 transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in what the Foreign Office described as an “administrative fiat of [Communist leader — NG] Kruschev”.

The Crimean head at the time was sacked for opposing the move. Most Crimeans never accepted the transfer, which many saw as a “virtual deportation from Russia to Ukraine”, and in early 1991 over 80% of them voted in a referendum to restore Crimea’s autonomy. The Ukrainian Supreme Soviet acquiesced. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the Crimeans began a relentless campaign to reunite with Russia. In May 1992, the Crimean parliament adopted the republic’s constitution, which declared Crimea’s right to self-determination. Kiev threatened to open criminal proceeding against the Crimean leaders and hinted at military action to stamp out “separatism”.

“Kiev insisted that the Crimean parliament should rescind anti-constitutional measures, particularly attempts to take over the command of interior ministry forces, the security services and demands for dual citizenship — Ukrainian and Russian”. [About 70% of Crimeans are ethnic Russians — NG]

Crimea, the FCO brief continued, “has always had a special status in the Ukrainian constitution and enjoys considerable autonomy under existing legislation”. In fact, Crimea had its own constitution that gave the republic sovereign powers.

The Foreign Office saw the potential for even greater devolution for Crimea, particularly on economic matters, which the central government in Kiev had neglected, despite all the financial assistance it was receiving from the West. 

“Crimean demands for autonomy or re-integration with Russia will not go away. 70% of the population are ethnic Russians. They only became Ukrainian by administrative fiat of Kruschev in 1954. Their historic, linguistic and cultural ties are all with Russia and at present Russia looks to have a more prosperous future. The two parliaments may be able to come to a compromise, probably involving Crimea gaining further economic autonomy.

While in Ukraine, Douglas Hurd was told that Kiev was open to international help in settling the dispute with Crimea. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) agreed to establish a resident Mission to Ukraine, to be based in Kiev with an office in Simferopol. The Ukrainians have subsequently unofficially claimed that they were able to handle Crimea without the CSCE’s help. “Some might see it [CSCE involvement] as internationalizing a purely internal Ukrainian problem”, an FCO memo said.

“Deputy [Ukrainian] Foreign Minister Tarasyuk, said that president Kravchuk had informed president Yeltsin of Ukraine’s intention to resolve the situation strictly in accord with the Constitution and to treat it as an internal matter. Yeltsin had raised no objection. This had encouraged the Ukrainians to think that action up to normal law enforcement measures need not necessarily induce a Russian reaction.

The Americans were also doubtful about the chances of a peaceful resolution of the Crimean issue, but what most concerned them at the time was Ukraine’s accession to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ukraine had inherited Soviet-era nuclear weapons, and Washington — as well as London — was eager for it to give them up for good. However, the issue of Crimea threatened to derail the denuclearization of Ukraine. Ukraine had signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty but its parliament was delaying ratification, demanding extra security guarantees from nuclear powers, on top of the standard negative security assurance offered by established nuclear powers to states that had joined the NPT regime.

A negative security assurance is a guarantee by a state with nuclear weapons that it will not use or threaten to use them against a non-nuclear state. Unlike a positive security assurance, it does not require a state with nuclear weapons to come to the aid of a non-nuclear state if it is attacked by another state with nuclear weapons.

The Ukrainians insisted on positive security assurance, but neither London nor Washington was prepared to offer this. In April 1994, the British Foreign Office reassured Prime Minister John Major that the negative security assurances that Britain, alongside the US and Russia, had agreed to give Ukraine in return for her giving up nuclear weapons “does not bind us to any significant new commitments”.

“A new paragraph which states ‘the sides will consult in the event this situation arises which raises a question concerning these commitments’ does not require us, we believe, to go beyond the steps which we would anyway wish to take in such a situation”. The assurance was less than the Ukrainians would like, the FCO admitted. Kiev had repeatedly asked for a legally binding treaty, something which London and the other depositaries of the NPT had firmly resisted. To counter Ukraine’s pressure for more binding guarantees, the US suggested offering the same common assurance to Kazakhstan and Belarus. Both had agreed to get rid of their share of Soviet-era nukes and ratified the NPT in exchange for national guarantees given separately by each of the NPT depositary states. But Ukraine was insisting on a joint guarantee by all three depositaries [Russia, Britain and the US], hence this post-dated offer of a joint guarantee to Kazakhstan and Belarus was designed to “serve as an example to Ukraine” and “help persuade doubters in the Ukrainian Government that this is really the best offer they are going to get”.

The FCO advised the PM that a joint assurance to Kiev would add “nothing in substance” and would not “open the flood gates to similar demands from other states”.

London and Washington were so worried that Ukraine would have second thoughts about agreeing to give up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal that they were looking for ways of luring Kiev into ratifying the NPT by promising partnership with the EU.

EU Commissioner for Trade Sir Leon Brittan went to Ukraine to discuss a Ukrainian request that President Kravchuk sign a Partnership Cooperation Accord with the EU in Brussels in the end of May or early June 1994. The request was clearly linked to the timing of the snap presidential election in June-July 1994 [which Kravchuk lost to Kuchma — NG].

Sir Brittan “had been obliged to reply that some member states wanted accession to the NPT [in other words, getting rid of nuclear weapons — NG] before the PCA was signed”. The trade commissioner admitted that such strict conditions might be hard to accept, but it was apparently the only way forward to ratify the NPT and then move on to a PCA with the EU.

Finally, Western efforts bore fruit and in November 1994, the Ukrainian parliament ratified the NPT, albeit with “awkward provisos” in the view of British diplomats. Nevertheless, London and Washington told the new president, Kuchma, that they considered Ukraine’s accession to be unconditional. Ukraine was given a joint negative security assurance by Britain, the US and Russia at the Budapest CSCE summit in early December 1994.

“…the situation in Ukraine merits particular attention and it is in the clear interest of the West for us to make every effort to promote Ukrainian independence and stability. This is a major security interest for the UK, perhaps second only to what happens in Russia. We must take a long term view of our interests”.

Kiev took its own view of the way forward having obtained the security assurance by the nuclear states. Four months after the Budapest summit, it unilaterally abolished the 1992 Crimean constitution and deposed the popularly elected president of Crimean Republic, Yuri Meshkov.

His supporters claimed that Ukraine had effectively annexed Crimea through a coup d’etat. They made further attempts to uphold their constitutional rights in 1995, 1998 and 2006, but to no avail. However, as British diplomats opined in 1994, Crimean demands for autonomy or re-integration with Russia would not go away.

An American forecast for the long term developments around Crimea turned out to be prescient: “Ukraine could eventually split into more than two parts”, the State Department predicted in 1994. Fast forward to 2014, and it looks like Washington knew all along what would happen if Ukraine was forced to make an existential choice between the East and West.