We knew in 2011 Putin would attack Ukraine, says Bill Clinton

Revelation raises questions about whether US and Europe should have been more prepared for 2014 invasion

Julian Borger in Washington. Fri 5 May 2023 18.42 BST

Vladimir Putin told Bill Clinton three years before his 2014 attack on Ukraine that he was not bound by the Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing the country’s territorial integrity, according to the former US president.

The revelation raises questions about whether the US and its European allies should have been more prepared for the 2014 attack, when Russia annexed Crimea and attacked the Donbas.

Clinton said he had talked to the Russian president at the 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos, where Putin brought up the issue of the memorandum, under which Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan agreed in 1994 to give up the nuclear arsenal they inherited on their territory from the Soviet Union, in return for assurances their sovereignty would be respected “within existing borders”.

It was signed by Boris Yeltsin on behalf of Russia, Clinton for the US, and John Major on behalf of the UK, acting as a third guarantor nation.

“Putin told me in 2011, three years before he took Crimea, that he did not agree with the agreement I made with Boris Yeltsin, that they would respect Ukraine’s territory if they gave up their nuclear weapons,” Clinton said on Thursday at a public discussion at 92nd Street Y, a Jewish cultural and community centre in New York.

“Putin said to me: ‘… I know Boris agreed to go along with you and John Major and Nato, but he never got it through the Duma [Russian parliament]. We have our extreme nationalists too. I don’t agree with it and I do not support it and I’m not bound by it.’

“I knew from that day forward, it was just a matter of time,” the former president said of Putin launching an attack.

The Russian leader had already launched an invasion of Chechnya in 1999, and Georgia in 2008.

After the seizure of Crimea in 2014, Putin claimed Russia was not bound by the Budapest Memorandum because the Maidan revolution and change of government in Kyiv earlier that year meant Ukraine had become a different state. “In respect to this state, we have not signed any obligatory documents,” he said.

However, his conversation with Clinton suggests Putin had decided not to honour the agreement years before the Maidan uprising.

Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said Putin’s remarks to Clinton were not made widely known among members of the Obama administration, but added he assumed the former president must have told his wife, Hillary, who was secretary of state.

Fried, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Putin had threatened Ukrainian territorial integrity three years before the Davos meeting with Clinton, at a Nato-Russia council meeting in April 2008, during the Bush administration. Putin declared that when Crimea had been transferred from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 “not all legal procedures were followed”.

Fried said: “I was present, sitting next to the then Polish national security adviser, Mariusz Handzlik. We both stood up in alarm and turned to each other, saying, ‘Did you just hear what I heard?’

“From that moment, I thought Putin would turn on Ukraine and said so to Condi Rice and Steve Hadley,” he added, referring to the secretary of state and national security adviser respectively in the Bush administration.

“The US government was surprised by the Crimean operation but should not have been, given the warnings,” Fried said.


  1. “From that moment, I thought Putin would turn on Ukraine and said so to Condi Rice and Steve Hadley,” he added, referring to the secretary of state and national security adviser respectively in the Bush administration.”

    Why didn’t Daniel Fried follow this up with much more vigour? What was the response of Rice and co?

    “I knew from that day forward, it was just a matter of time,” the former president said of Putin launching an attack.

    For once in his rotten, self-serving career, Clinton is probably telling the truth.
    Bush 1 in his pig ignorant, utterly disastrous “Chicken Kiev” speech (their spelling at the time), set the tone for a sequence of disastrous Russia policy failures.

    A supposedly degenerate drunk; Yeltsin, managed to get everything he wanted out of Budapest, whilst slick Willie was able to portray himself as a statesman and Ukraine surrendered her security for precisely nothing. John Major went along with it. He himself at the time was distracted by “affairs of state”, which in his case meant putting wood to a junior minister.

    Clinton, whose only known skill was convincing interns that providing him with the type of oral “services” that he wasn’t getting from his hideous wife would help their career, nevertheless was able to portray Budapest as a success.
    I don’t recall him him giving an urgent warning to Obama in 2011 or 2014. He seems to have come out with it now as an arse-covering exercise.

    Who was it who framed the Memorandum so that the legalese in it was merely masquerading as a security guarantee to the Ukrainians?

    That person or persons was acting in precisely whose interests?

  2. I’d like to know if this was ever passed on to Ukraine and what they did with the information.

    Sure it’s chatter, but that isn’t always actionable. Russia has said it would nuke London if it continues support, but is that really actionable?

    In any case, if Ukraine could have turned those nukes into a workable defense and maintained the system, it could have come at a real cost. If Ukraine really believed their defense needs were met in perpetuity by the US, why wouldn’t they have been obligated to remit that estimated cost to the US to offset the costs of defense?

    As an American, I don’t get it. Ukraine had Soviet nukes pointed at the US. Then there was a split and Russia retained the launch codes. Why could the US step in to backstop Ukraine in the Crimea issue which Russia had already raised in ’92 (despite commenters here saying that didn’t happen it’s a matter of record) simply because there were fewer nukes pointed at the US?

    My understanding is that US was worried the warheads would be sold to terrorists as the cost of Ukraine bringing it to a working state and maintaining the system would have been too much.

    The US spends a fortune on its nuke and also a fortune on its military. Nukes can never be used except as a deterrent to and retaliation against a nuclear strike. Conventional weapons are needed for everything else.

    Would Ukrainian nukes have deterred a Russian conventional attack? I don’t know but nukes couldn’t be used to repel it without complete destruction.

    Surely Ukraine knew that a NATO style protection agreement would require Senate ratification. A US president’s signature alone can not do it.

    I do not think the US is obligated to or will enter the war. I do think Russia needs to return the temporarily occupied territories and that Ukraine needs to get in to NATO immediately after that.

    • Russia doesn’t get to decide who Crimea belongs to. Why is that so hard for you to understand? Every international organization disagrees with you. Please stop with the Russian propaganda.

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