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In his address to the U.S. Congress this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for expanded U.S. support, including additional weapons and a NATO-imposed no-fly zone, as his country continues its fight against Russian invaders. But even as they fight, the Ukrainians are also exploring off-ramps to end the conflict—including possibly accepting the idea of neutrality. Neutrality is a status in international law under which a country commits not to enter international security alliances; for Ukraine, it would likely mean renouncing a future in NATO and not allowing foreign military bases on Ukrainian soil.
While neutrality would carry risks, it need not be a death sentence for Ukraine. It may, in fact, be the best possible outcome, given where things stand after more than three weeks of war. The key to making neutrality work for Ukraine is shaping it in a way that ensures that renunciation of NATO membership does not come at the expense of the country’s self-defense or its prospects for an economic and political future in the West. Such an outcome is possible thanks to the leverage that Ukraine’s doughty military performance will give Zelensky at the negotiating table; it may become increasingly acceptable to Moscow if the Russian military continues to prove incapable of securing its objectives on the battlefield.
The concept of neutrality emerged as a way of bringing peace in situations that risk sparking conflict between great powers, very much like the one in Ukraine today. Other European states have used neutrality in order to avoid absorption by a larger neighbor and gone on to become thriving members of the European community. Switzerland and Belgium were given neutrality after the Napoleonic Wars to prevent renewed French military expansion. Austria and Finland, fearing absorption or partition at the hands of the Soviet Union, took on a similar status after World War II. All four share the distinction of inhabiting strategically vital real estate that is too valuable for one power to cede to others yet too difficult to hold for very long.
The Finnish and Swiss cases are perhaps most relevant for Ukraine, because both countries have pursued what might be termed “fortified neutrality” (not to be confused with armed neutrality, which refers to a state that stays out of a conflict between two warring parties but is willing to defend itself against both). A fortified neutral is a state that maintains an insurance policy in the form of a strong military in a perpetual state of high readiness, and a reputation, on the basis of terrain or national élan, for inflicting stinging defeats on an aggressor.
Fortified neutrality could be a viable and attainable end state for Ukraine today. It could adopt a document similar to the Austrian State Treaty of 1955, stipulating that it will forgo membership in international security organizations, contingent upon the departure of Russian troops from its territory. For good measure, it could also allow for international custodianship of its 15 nuclear reactors, given the obvious danger that they pose to neighboring countries in the event of renewed conflict. Yet the country could still maintain a large army supplied with Western weapons and enhanced by training, and it could eventually become a member of the European Union.
For fortified neutrality to work, Ukraine would need three things. The first is some guarantee of its continued existence once it accepts neutrality. A guarantee could take the form of a framework treaty in which Ukraine’s neighbors, along with the United States and other Western powers, commit to defend it if it is invaded. But an even more important guarantee—given Ukraine’s experience with the now-defunct Budapest Memorandum, which ensured Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for Kyiv relinquishing nuclear weapons after the dissolution of the Soviet Union—would come in the form of a large military, bristling with defensive weapons supplied by the West. The framework treaty, accordingly, would need to enshrine not just Ukraine’s right to self-defense but also a commitment to support its military development with foreign assistance and weapons procurement.
A second requirement is physical space. Space is to Ukraine what mountains are to Switzerland and lakes are to Finland: the geographic feature that gives it a chance to defend against larger powers. In the absence of natural obstacles, Ukraine’s expanse allows its army to conduct a defense in depth and to trade space for time against a stronger Russian attacker. Moreover, Ukraine’s large land mass allows it to sustain the demographic and fiscal base for a large standing army. It would thus be imperative that Ukraine retain the bulk of its territory in a negotiated settlement. That would mean that Russia’s gains would have to be restricted largely to territories it controlled before the war—that is, to Crimea and the breakaway eastern territories of Luhansk and Donetsk. Zelensky has indicated openness to such an outcome, which would probably entail agreeing to recognize Crimea as Russian territory and granting self-governing status to Luhansk and Donetsk, pending a UN-administered plebiscite that would ascertain the wishes of the local population and provide protections for the rights of Ukrainians living in these territories. The United States and the EU could strengthen Zelensky’s hand by conditioning the lifting of sanctions on Russia’s withdrawal from all territories it occupied during the war.
The West should aim to ensure that a sovereign Ukraine not only exists, but also endures.
Finally, fortified neutrality for Ukraine will require sustained economic assistance from the West. While Putin’s actions certainly warrant Russian reparations to Ukraine (which could be pursued indirectly by the Ukrainians from Russian assets seized in the West), formal reparations are unlikely, since even in the event of a military loss Putin is likely to remain firmly ensconced in power and, in any event, will preside over a wrecked economy. To have any hope of rebuilding economically, Ukraine will need long-term reconstruction aid, which can, among other things, ensure that the country is strong enough to defend against future Russian meddling. The EU should play the lead role in rebuilding Ukraine, with help from the United States and Japan; it will also need to develop a viable path to EU membership for Ukraine. Unlike NATO, the EU is not an international security alliance, which is why the framework treaty must acknowledge Ukraine’s right to pursue membership in political and economic organizations. Giving the Ukrainians the prospect of such a future, however distant, will help prevent them from simply giving up and consenting to a future in the Russian sphere, like Belarus.
In the case of all three guarantees—self-defense, retention of most Ukrainian territory, and economic reconstruction—the aim of Western statecraft should be to ensure not only that a sovereign Ukraine continues to exist but also that it has a fair prospect of durability. Otherwise, even the most inspired efforts will amount to little more than what the interwar Germans, describing the small states created at the Treaty of Versailles, called a Saisonstaat (a state for a season)—a fair-weather construct, fated to die once the aggressor recovers.
Arriving at a viable agreement on Ukrainian neutrality would not be easy, but there is good reason to think it may become possible. Already, Russian setbacks have forced Putin to downsize his demands, including by dropping his insistence on Ukrainian demilitarization and Zelensky’s removal from office. That is why arming Ukraine to the teeth and inflicting painful sanctions on Russia remains critical even when the ultimate objective is neutrality. Unless his military’s thus-far poor performance improves dramatically, Putin is likely to become increasingly amenable to a negotiated settlement.
How might we get to such a settlement from here? If direct Russian-Ukrainian efforts stall, then the most likely avenue would be via a mediator that both sides trust—such as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who maintains a close relationship with both Putin and, recent tensions notwithstanding, Zelensky. A possible opening could be provided by the need for discussions about securing Ukraine’s nuclear reactors, a meltdown in any one of which could be a catastrophe of international proportions, and begin with a cease-fire to allow international teams to take up positions at the reactors while civilians are evacuated from Ukrainian cities. Both measures would provide opportunities to assess Russia’s good faith; if it honors the cease-fire, the talks could proceed to a steadily widening political agenda, beginning with areas of agreement, which now appear to potentially include a status of neutrality and the future for the eastern territories.
For Ukrainians, neutrality is better than absorption into a new Russian empire.
Of course, it’s possible that Putin would violate this cease-fire, as he has with earlier ones. But the ongoing toll of war and the dangers of escalation give ample reason to try. Even if Putin does violate an attempt at such a cease-fire, it is likely he will eventually have no choice but to move toward accepting fortified neutrality for Ukraine, for the simple reason that his armies are unable to subdue the country by military means. It’s also likely that even if he reconciles himself to this outcome, Putin will try again in the future to subjugate Ukraine—which is, after all, geographically and historically more important to Russia than Finland and Austria were during the Cold War. That’s why it is crucial that Ukrainians, with the West’s help, not accept any version of neutrality that denies Ukraine the right it has earned, at great sacrifice, to maintain a large, Western-supplied army.
For Ukrainians, fortified neutrality is a better outcome than the alternative of absorption into a new Russian empire. Such an outcome would effectively leverage Ukraine’s remarkable military performance of the past three weeks into something of lasting value for its people. At the cost of eastern territories that were already effectively Russian satrapies and foreswearing a NATO membership that NATO itself was not inclined to grant, Ukraine would gain the withdrawal of Russian troops and the ability to rebuild its shattered economy. Only Ukraine can choose this future—but if it does it will be up to the West to give it the weapons, money, and diplomatic support required to make such a future truly viable.
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