Russia demanded that Ukraine reject NATO aspirations and commit to “neutrality.” Ukraine’s unwillingness to do so served for Putin as a pretext for invasion. If and when the time comes to negotiate peace in Ukraine in earnest, neutrality might be on the table. What might neutrality in Ukraine look like?
The first and most important point to note is that Ukrainians are fighting and dying for their survival and the survival of their state. No Western armchair pundit should indulge in telling Ukrainians what they should and should not do. The Ukrainian people have already resolved to pay the highest price imaginable to live in a country whose destiny they alone can shape. Pontificating about some form of imposed Finlandization (as here, here, and here) is as historically anachronistic and geopolitically skewed as it is offensive to the dignity of the Ukrainian struggle.
The second point is that neutrality should not be the goal in and of itself. The term, if it’s used, might prove useful as a face-saving measure for Russian President Vladimir Putin who can brandish it to his domestic audiences. In substance, however, neutrality must be a solution that provides long-term sustainable security for Ukraine and, by extension, peace in Europe.
The third point is to allow that the Ukrainian leadership might consider a form of neutrality on their own accord. They could, for example, realize that Ukraine is better off that way, that NATO is too bureaucratic and risk averse, its consensus-based decision-making process too uncertain, encumbered as it is with veto voices (such as Hungary’s) to effectively provide for Ukraine’s security. Indeed, on March 28, in the lead up to the last round of Russian-Ukrainian negotiations in Istanbul, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine is prepared to discuss neutrality. This, however, would have to be confirmed in a referendum.
If so, the neutrality arrangement would contain Ukraine’s pledge not to join any military alliances, presumably for a specified time, with the option to review and extend. In return, Russia would withdraw troops from Ukraine’s internationally recognized territory and commit not to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The problem, of course, is that Russia had already pledged that much in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on security assurance in connection with Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament. The fatal flaw of the memorandum was that it contained no enforcement mechanisms and no effective provision that would deter its breach. It was a gentlemen’s agreement. And Russia’s behavior proved far from gentlemanly.
So, for any Ukrainian neutrality arrangement to be enduring and effective, it must include a set of provisions that spell out consequences for its violation in such a way as to make a violation undesirable and unlikely. That raises several questions: What should the consequences be? Who should threaten them? Who should enforce them? There is no other way but for the West to step into this role. Some combination of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Poland, and perhaps others might form a coalition to become parties to Ukraine’s neutrality agreement. These countries might pledge, in no uncertain terms, a formidable set of political, economic, and military consequences should Russia violate the deal. The military part could be conventional only—to take the nuclear dimension out the equation.
We now understand better than six weeks ago that Russia’s goal was never to just keep Ukraine out of NATO, as it might have been with Finland or Austria. Russia’s goal is to demolish Ukraine as a nation and as a state. If Ukraine agrees to anything termed “neutrality,” it must be neutrality that’s guaranteed in a most concrete and palpable way. Otherwise, the specter of war, refugee flows, and Bucha-like massacres will continue haunting Europe as a distinct and ever-present possibility as long as Russia, as the world knows it now, exists.
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