Becoming a permanent neutral and federal country is the most realistic way to end the war in Ukraine and secure Europe again for decades to come.
The young Russian-Ukrainian war is a horrific tragedy for the Ukrainian people and a huge setback for the post-Cold War European security structure. There are signs, however, that the two sides are laying the groundwork for a negotiated end to hostilities, even as salvoes of rockets rain down across Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded that Ukraine be “denazified”, “demilitarized” and, above all, become a neutral state. His Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has signaled his willingness to talk about a neutral status for his country.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price called this diplomacy “a gunshot” – which it is – but neutral status for Ukraine is nothing new, and has even been proposed by many realist thinkers in the West. The most influential proponents include former national security advisers Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, professors John Mearsheimer, Hall Gardner, Stephen M Walt and Renée Belfer, who have explained why this was the West’s dogmatic belief in the liberal narrative that was winning over the whole world. for the conflict in the first place. Many academics have also argued for buffers that are not part of Russia’s or the United States’ security network, simply because it makes strategic sense.
Permanent neutrality is a very European solution to a very European problem: mutual geopolitical threats. Switzerland was neutralized by the Great Powers in 1815 to separate Austria and France, Belgium and Luxembourg were neutralized later to put space between France and Germany, and Austria was neutralized in 1955 to regain independence without becoming another NATO member that could threaten the USSR.
It worked because neutral buffer states defuse the security dilemma. Permanently neutral states, even when they have armies – which almost all have – pose no structural threat to major powers, unlike nuclear weapons or alliances like NATO.
This is why Moscow too has been calling for a neutral Ukraine, and not only since the beginning of the war. Grassroots Russian foreign politicians have suggested this at the highest level, as well as a federalization of the state as foreseen in the Minsk II agreements.
Since December 17, 2021, when Russia published two draft treaties, it was clear that Moscow would accept a neutral status for Ukraine. Treaties only name politics. Even if one rejects the demands of NATO’s withdrawal to the 1997 borders (also part of the proposal), Ukraine’s neutrality is still the central part.
Now we have the demand for politics on the table also directly from Putin. Western liberal pundits have dismissed this as the Kremlin’s wish for a “sphere of influence”. However, despite the obvious advantage in the conflict, Russia still sticks to its demand for a neutral Ukraine. It’s clear that Putin will also demand significant changes in Ukraine’s national political system – that’s the “denazification” part of the ultimatum.
Let there be no misunderstanding. The unprovoked attack on Ukraine is a flagrant violation of international law and illegal, like many other previous Russian actions. There can be no legal or moral decency excuses. But that’s not the point.
For the realists – and Putin is certainly one of them – the only thing that matters is what can be achieved and at what cost. All it takes is a bit of “strategic empathy” to understand why, from a Russian perspective, NATO looks like a pretty big threat on any map.
But what do Ukrainians want? This question is also relevant because for a truly neutral solution to emerge, three ingredients are needed: the will on one side, the will on the other, and the will of the state in question to start playing a neutral role.
Regarding the situation before the war, experts like Olga Oliker pointed out that a majority of Ukrainians in government-controlled areas of the country were in favor of NATO membership. Nicolai N Petro, on the other hand, argued that this only remains true as long as the populations of Donbass and Crimea are not counted in the assessment.
A 2020 study found that overall the opinion of Ukrainian citizens was very diverse, with a majority (over 50%) favoring “good and positive relations” with NATO (not membership) while that more than 60% also favored “good and positive” relations with Russia.
Ukraine has also historically had an intermittent approach to neutrality as a foreign policy. In 1990, while still a Soviet state, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a “Declaration of Sovereignty”, which specified that if it became independent, the new country intended to be a permanently neutral state.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyiv truly embraced the foreign policy pillars of “neutrality, non-nuclear and non-bloc status”. After receiving security assurances from Britain, Russia and the United States, Ukraine further consolidated its position of neutrality by getting rid of the nuclear arsenal inherited from the Soviets under the Budapest Memorandum In 1994.
However, the policy was never unequivocally supported in the national political process. Between 1994 and 2014, the degree of Ukrainian neutrality policy mainly depended on the government in power.
The tit-for-tat escalation between Russia, Ukraine and NATO has deteriorated the entire European security architecture, with the situation being most dramatic now after Russia’s military onslaught.
Since Russia is ready to accept it, a neutral international position and an internal federal structure would be the most pragmatic way to bring peace to Ukraine. This solution would not even cut Ukraine off from its ties with Central and Western Europe.
A neutral Ukraine could still trade and cooperate with the West. Further trade integration with the EU would remain possible as long as it is accompanied by integration with the Russian economy to balance the two. NATO, Russia and neutrals are, as the Atlantic Forum put it, “didded to cooperate” if a functioning security structure is to be put in place.
For Russia, this means ending the war without permanent occupation, for Ukraine to accept federal and neutral status, and for the West to understand that European security is more than a NATO of maximum size.
A stable Europe requires a working structure that balances the security needs of all its partners and leads to law-based and internationally agreed conflict resolutions. A neutral Ukraine would remain a complex part of this structure, but outside of any “hard” military alliance, just like Switzerland and Austria. This would not be a loss for NATO, but a gain for Europe.
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Source: World TRT