At the end of World War II, Austria was occupied by France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union. It might have remained divided like Germany. Instead, Austria and the four powers agreed to Austrian neutrality in 1955, which has proved remarkably successful. Today, Vienna hosts well-respected international organizations like the United Nations and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The city was deemed the “most livable” for 10 years running on a survey that compared world cities on political, social and economic climate, medical care, education, and infrastructure conditions.
As Russia bears down on Ukraine, Austria’s experience warrants examination. Could Ukraine follow Austria’s lead to resolve the current crisis? To be sure, the circumstances of post-World War II Austria differ from the current moment. In 1955, Austrians were defeated, disarmed, and desperate to recover. By then, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States possessed nuclear weapons, and Cold War tensions were palpable. Today, Ukraine is besieged by Russia but strengthened by support from Western military powers. Ukrainian citizens are desperately preparing—for what? No one knows, given the uncertain course of the current crisis.
Would Ukrainian citizens accept neutrality? The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was founded in 1922 and, following the end of World War II, became an integral part of the Soviet Union’s nuclear force structure.
But many Ukrainians wanted a different future. Months before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic declared “its intention of becoming a permanently neutral state that does not participate in military blocs and adheres to three nuclear free principles: to accept, to produce and to purchase no nuclear weapons.” The declaration made clear that it was “the basis for a new constitution and laws of Ukraine and determines the positions of the Republic for the purpose of international agreements.”
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine seized the opportunity to declare its independence. Over 4,000 Soviet nuclear weapons were orphaned in Ukraine, making it the third-largest nuclear power in the world at the time. Some Ukrainians wanted to keep some of those weapons for security. But Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom exerted pressure to relinquish the arsenal, and newly independent Ukraine caved to their wishes. The orphaned weapons were returned to Russia or destroyed with Russian assistance under the watchful eye of US and UK military observers.
In 1994, Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom signed the Budapest Memorandum in which they reaffirmed their commitments to respect the independence, sovereignty, and existing borders of Ukraine. President Putin refused to be bound by what former Russian president Yeltsin had accepted. Instead, he supported insurrections and brazenly seized Ukrainian territory, while neither the United States nor the United Kingdom were prepared to act on their Budapest Memorandum commitments.
What should Ukrainian neutrality include? Any bid for Ukrainian neutrality must be mindful of Ukraine’s history and relevant geopolitics. Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States are nuclear weapon states of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They have permanent seats on the UN Security Council and veto rights over any of its deliberations. This means that these four countries would be central to Ukrainian stability, energy security, and peace.
Ukraine’s borders will need to be defined, including those with Crimea and Moldavia. Some pro-Russian and pro-European Ukrainian citizens will need resettlement options.
No foreign military forces should be allowed on Ukrainian territory, and the military forces of neighboring countries should be deployed away from the borders. Ukraine’s military personnel and weaponry should be limited to that which is necessary to address its domestic security concerns: assist in national emergencies and possibly support UN peace keeping missions.
A neutral Ukraine could join the European Union (like Austria) but not NATO.
Ukraine’s energy security must also be robust and reliable. Currently, Ukraine has 15 operating nuclear power reactors on its territory, together with 30,000 kilometers of gas and oil pipelines. Ukraine should have adequate energy reserves to meet all of its domestic energy requirements for at least one year. Also, much of the Russian gas and oil that Europe depends upon today is shipped through Ukraine. For this reason, provisions for Ukrainian neutrality must guarantee its energy sources and fuel transshipment rights.
How might Ukrainian neutrality succeed? As Austria drafted its post-war constitution, it secured commitments from the four powers to protect its neutrality. When all signed the Austrian State Treaty, Austria set a path toward stability and peace.
Ukraine should draft a new constitution that proclaims perpetual neutrality and outlines the rights and obligations of all Ukrainian citizens.
Similar to the Austrian State Treaty, Ukraine will need a regional framework treaty in which all relevant parties commit to support and defend Ukrainian neutrality. In this treaty, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, NATO, the European Union, and the United States should articulate their intention to protect the sovereign rights of Ukraine for as long as its people honor their constitution. All countries bordering Ukraine should also agree to this framework. Other countries wishing to demonstrate support should be encouraged to join as well.
This regional framework treaty should establish a commission to monitor compliance. In the event of non-compliance, the commission could call an emergency conference of the treaty’s parties and refer breaches to the UN Security Council for resolution. That said, no Security Council deliberations on Ukraine should be subject to any veto.
Both the new Ukrainian constitution and the regional framework treaty must be resilient and durable to work. If so, Ukraine would have a chance—despite its troubled history and despite concerning geopolitics—to find peace, security, and prosperity.
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