Zelensky’s confused neutrality plan is not the solution for Ukraine
The writer is a senior researcher at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
In his speech to the Israeli Knesset on March 20, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky cited Golda Meir, late Prime Minister of Israel: “We want to live, our neighbors want to see us dead.
For a president who characterizes Russia’s goals in these terms, Zelensky’s pursuit of a neutrality agreement is baffling. Even more puzzling is his belief that security can be guaranteed by a country whose interests are contrary to his own. Yet this is what the project of neutrality of Ukraine, presented last week.
Before the First World War, neutrality was a recognized legal status, carefully negotiated and widely respected. Belgian neutrality, enshrined in the London Treaty of 1839, lasted until Germany denounced it as a “rag of paper” and invaded the country in 1914. The Treaty of Paris of 1815 recognized “armed neutrality” , the basis of Switzerland’s status. France became guarantor of this arrangement and of the whole concert system after the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The fate of neutral countries in the 20th century, such as Belgium and Norway, was much less fortunate. Finland was an exception that proved the rule. Its neutrality held because the Soviet Union realized that Finland’s independence had become indestructible.
Can Ukraine ensure Finnish-style neutrality? Like Finland, it fought Russia to a standstill. But moving its forces is far from impossible, and Russia’s stakes in Ukraine go far beyond its interests in Finland. Without Ukraine on its side, the myth of a “Russian world” collapses. For Vladimir Putin, it is a personal obsession to undo what he considers the crime of the separation of Russia from “Little Russia”.
Given these factors, Zelensky’s motives for continuing negotiations remain a matter of speculation. But they are discernible. First, 14 years after NATO declared that Ukraine would one day join the alliance, its assurances have acquired all the majesty of the emperor’s garments. As for the defenses needed to prevent defeat, Ukraine’s NATO partners have provided them in abundance. As for those needed to stop the carnage, he hesitated. Clearly, Zelensky decided that Ukraine needed a different security base.
Second, the magnitude of Russia’s setbacks since February 24 is not lost on him. He concluded that tough negotiations can increase Russia’s willingness to compromise. Already, Russia has abandoned its insistence on “denazification” (regime change) and “demilitarization” (Ukrainian disarmament).
Third, the one goal that Russia has not abandoned – Ukraine’s recognition of the smaller breakaway states of Donbass (to the full extent of their “administrative” borders as opposed to temporary ones) and the annexation of Crimea by Moscow – is anathema to Ukraine. Zelensky did not hesitate about this.
At least four questions must be asked. First, with regard to NATO-Ukraine cooperation: the cross-fertilization of military networks and an extensive network of training and assistance have played an important role in Ukraine’s military culture and national security since the signing of the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership in 1997. Was Zelensky willing to give up those relationships in favor of a dubious peace with Russia?
Second, what is meant by “stronger than NATO Article 5” security guarantees given by countries as far apart as the United States, Russia and Israel? Individually or collectively? By what means? Article 5 derives its strength not from words but from common interests, tight integration, elaborate command and control mechanisms and habits of cooperation developed over decades. Without it, guarantees are little more than pieties.
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Third, why should countries that do not want to extend Ukraine’s NATO security guarantees extend them outside of NATO? The reason Ukraine is not being offered NATO membership is not because it is deemed unworthy – as Zelensky seems to believe – but because NATO allies are not willing to go to war with a nuclear-armed Russia in its name.
Finally, once Ukraine is officially at peace with Russia, who in the West will argue for increased military support for Ukraine, continued sanctions, or increased costs for Russia? Today, those who wish to wash their hands of Ukraine are confused and discredited. A Ukrainian proclamation of neutrality will bring them back to life.
It’s no secret that the Kyiv terms were drafted largely by Zelensky’s presidential office, with little input from the foreign and defense ministries. The stamp of amateurism is only too visible. Consolation can be derived from Zelensky’s assurance that the Ukrainian people will have the final say. He might be surprised by what they say.