What would a neutral Ukraine look like?

For more than two decades, from the end of the Soviet Union until the Russian invasion of Crimea, Ukraine was officially non-aligned – or neutral – in international affairs.

This meant that while the country often oscillated between pro-Russian and pro-European governments, it did not formally take sides in the geopolitical to-and-fro between East and West.

All that changed in 2014, when Russia seized Crimea. Ukraine officially discontinued its neutrality and MPs cheered as they voted to abandon the country’s non-aligned position by 303 votes to just eight.

This decision pushed the country towards NATO membership and was immediately denounced by Moscow as “unfriendly” and “counterproductive”.

In 2019, Ukraine’s constitution was amended to include a new line in the preamble declaring the country’s “irreversibility of the European and Euro-Atlantic course”.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine continues, this legally binding clause could be up for grabs.

Last March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “Security guarantees and neutrality, the non-nuclear status of our state. We are ready to go. This is the most important point.

Zelenskyy stressed that any peace treaty would require a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops to pre-invasion lines, and refused demands for the country’s demilitarization.

And the final chord, he notedshould be put to a referendum.

A high price to pay

According to international practice, countries that declare themselves neutral are expected to stay away from present and future armed conflicts and deny assistance and territorial access to all belligerents, with the exception of humanitarian aid.

Therefore, participation in any sort of military alliance – regardless of its size and mission – is considered a violation of neutrality.

For Ukraine, that would mean giving up its long-held aspiration to join NATO, a concession the Kremlin would welcome warmly and which Zelenskyy has hinted he could accept in exchange for peace.

But the Ukrainians may find it hard to swallow this hard pill after resisting the advance of the much larger and better equipped Russian army.

“He probably won’t be well received by the Ukrainian people right now,” Anton Nanavov, deputy director for international relations at Kyiv National University, told Euronews.

“I can certainly tell you what the reaction will be. We will probably need to feel, as a nation, that we have succeeded in obtaining something in replacement of this status. We would need to have very strong guarantees that it [the war] will never happen again.”

A recent survey carried out by Rating, an independent pollster from Ukraine, showed that 68% of residents supported the idea of ​​joining NATO, a figure similar to pre-war surveys.

The poll excluded Crimea and the two breakaway regions in the east.

Swapping NATO dreams for a lasting peace might be doable, but would depend on Russia’s willingness to stick to the deal, a big demand right now, Nananov notes.

“[Neutrality could be] a possibility if this will be the last Russian demand from us and they will tell us this is a free Ukraine and they will withdraw their deployed troops and they will return Crimea,” he said.

“It can possibly be considered, but I’m not sure it will be very pleasantly accepted by people.”

Serhiy Kudelia, an assistant professor at Baylor University in Texas, said Zelenskyy’s “sudden about-face” on NATO would represent an “explicit acquiescence to one of Russia’s key demands”.

“Rather than a strategic choice made voluntarily by Ukraine, neutrality would become a policy imposed on Ukrainian society and its elites through the use of force. Indeed, the prospect of neutrality lacks political legitimacy deeper and is likely to be immediately challenged,” Kudelia said. wrote in an article for Open Democracy.

“It would be a permanent risk of inversion by one of Zelenskyi’s successors. It would undermine the effectiveness of neutrality as a tool of international relations. Instead, it would probably become a permanent source of internal instability. .”

Power and interests

Neutrality is a concept that dates back centuries and has been gradually codified in international law, starting with the benchmark Haye Convention V and XIII of 1907.

Today, only a handful of countries are recognized as neutral, ranging from G7 members to microstates. Some, like Japan, Finland, and Switzerland, maintain modern, well-funded militaries while others, like Panama, Monaco, Liechtenstein, and Vatican City, have little or no military capability.

In practice, neutrality is quite flexible and countries have a great deal of discretion in interpreting their status as long as there is no direct involvement in war.

For example, Finland sends rifles and anti-tank weapons to Ukraine while Switzerland broke precedent for imposing sanctions on Russia. For its part, Japan preserves a decades-old treaty of mutual cooperation and security with the United States.

Nevertheless, their neutrality is considered a fait accompli by the international community.

“Neutrality works when the balance of power is in place. It works when it’s in everyone’s interest for it to work,” said Pascal Lottaz, a Tokyo-based professor of neutrality studies at the University. Waseda.

“Between 1991 and 2014, Ukraine was more or less in a sort of political equilibrium. Under some governments, Ukraine was more pro-European. Under other governments it was more pro-Russian. remain neutral and he would not join either side. This was turned upside down in 2008 when NATO promised Ukraine membership.

A new balance of power should emerge from the peace talks to maintain Ukraine’s neutrality and ensure that the country is protected against further unprovoked acts of aggression. Austria’s neutrality and security were guaranteed by the Allied Powers after World War II and the ten years of occupation that followed.

Reports of Ukrainian media launched the idea of ​​a coalition of guarantors which would include countries such as Russia, China, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland and Israel, although it remains to be seen how many of these countries would agree to take on such a responsibility.

Turkey and Israel have acted as moderators in the conflict while China has taken a deliberately ambiguous stance, calling for peace and restraint but lashing out at the West’s flurry of sanctions and the “mentality of the cold war”.

“There should be an agreement between Ukraine, Russia, and it should also include Washington, because, let’s face it, the war is between Russia and Ukraine, but the conflict is between Russia and NATO, and above all, it would therefore require an agreement from all parties that everyone is better off if Ukraine remains neutral,” Lottaz told Euronews.

“Ukraine has asked, for example, for security guarantees if it agrees to be neutral. Now, who should give these security guarantees? It certainly couldn’t be a NATO member state, because that would be almost the equivalent of NATO membership, which Russia would never accept.”

Being deprived of both external guarantors and NATO membership could prove intolerable for the Ukrainians who, after February 24, will have to navigate a very uncertain and volatile geopolitical environment, the contours of which are yet to be drawn.

An alternative path could be found in EU membership: under the peace treaty, Ukraine could only be allowed to pursue European integration if it formally renounces its NATO aspirations. By doing so, Ukraine would become the sixth neutral country to join the EU, along with Austria, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden.

The prospect of EU membership has grown in popularity since the war broke out. The same Rating poll that showed support for NATO at 68% revealed support for EU membership at a record 91%.

President Zelenskyy has sent the official application to Brussels, which is currently being examined by the European Commission. Political appetite has grown dramatically across the bloc, with some Eastern European countries calling for a fast-track, an unheard of option.

But EU membership is a long term perspective, an inspiring project for the post-war years. Right now, the fighting persists and the focus is exclusively on the battlefield – and the negotiating table.

Difficult times lie ahead on both sides.

Days after Zelenskyy explicitly endorsed Ukraine’s return to neutrality, Russian President Vladimir Putin said peace talks were at an “impasse” and promised “the military operation would continue until its complete completion”. He then ordered an all-out assault to take over all of Donbass.

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