Becoming a permanently neutral and federal country is the most realistic way to end the war in Ukraine and re-secure Europe for decades to come.
The young Russo-Ukrainian war is a horrible tragedy for the people of Ukraine and a tremendous setback for the European post-Cold War security structure. There are signs, however, that the two sides are creating the basis for a negotiated end to hostilities, even as rocket salvos rain down across the entire Ukrainian territory.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded that Ukraine be “denazified,” “demilitarised,” and, most importantly, become a neutral state. His Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has signalled that he is willing to talk about a neutral status for his country.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price has called this diplomacy “at the barrel of a gun” – which it is – but a 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 Advisors Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, professors John Mearsheimer, Hall Gardner, Stephen M Walt and Renée Belfer, who explained why it was the West’s dogmatic belief in the liberal narrative winning over the entire world was the root for the conflict in the first place. Many scholars have also advocated for buffers that are not a part of Russia’s or the US’ 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 neutralised by the Great Powers in 1815 to keep Austria and France apart, Belgium and Luxembourg were neutralised later to put space between France and Germany, and Austria was neutralised in 1955 to regain its independence without becoming another NATO member that could threaten the USSR.
This worked because neutral buffer states deescalate the security dilemma. Permanently neutral states, even when they have militaries – which almost all do – pose no structural threats to great powers, while nuclear weapons or alliances like NATO do.
That is why Moscow, too, has been calling for a neutral Ukraine, and not just since the war started. Rank and file Russian foreign policymakers have suggested it on the highest levels, together with a federalisation of the state as foreseen in the Minsk II agreements.
Since December 17 2021, when Russia published two draft treaties, it has been clear that Moscow would agree to a neutral status for Ukraine. The treaties all but name the policy. Even if one rejects the demands of NATO’s withdrawal to 1997 borders (also a part of the proposal) the neutrality of Ukraine still comprises the core part.
Now we have the demand for the policy on the table also directly from Putin. Liberal pundits in the West dismissed this as the Kremlin’s wish for a “sphere of influence.” However, despite the clear upper hand in the conflict, Russia is still sticking to its demand for a neutral Ukraine. It is clear that Putin will also demand significant changes to Ukraine’s domestic political system — this is the “denazification” part of the ultimatum.
Let there be no misunderstanding. The unprovoked attack on Ukraine is a blatant infringement of international law and illegal, like many other previous Russian actions. There can be no excuse on the level of law or moral decency. But that is not the point.
For realists — and Putin is certainly one — the only thing that matters is what can be achieved and at what costs. One only needs a tiny bit of “strategic empathy” to understand why, from a Russian perspective, NATO looks like a pretty big threat on any map.
But what do the Ukrainians want? This question is also relevant because for a truly neutral solution to emerge, one needs three ingredients: the willingness of one side, the willingness of the other side, and the willingness 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 the government-controlled areas of the country favoured NATO accession. Nicolai N Petro, on the other hand, held that this only remains true as long as the populations of the Donbas and Crimea are not counted in the assessment.
A 2020 study found that overall, the opinion of Ukraine citizens was highly diverse, with a majority (more than 50 percent) favouring “good and positive relations” with NATO (not accession) while over 60 percent also favoured “good and positive” relations with Russia.
Ukraine has also, historically, had an on-and-off approach to neutrality as a foreign policy. In 1990, while still a Soviet state, the Ukrainian parliament passed 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, Kiev really adopted the foreign policy pillars of “neutrality, non-nuclear, and non-bloc status.” After receiving security assurances from Great Britain, Russia, and the US, Ukraine further consolidated its neutral posture by getting rid of the Soviet-inherited nuclear arsenal under the Budapest Memorandum in 1994.
However, the policy was never supported univocally in the domestic political process. Between 1994 and 2014, the degree of Ukrainian neutrality policy depended mainly on the government in power.
The tit-for-tat escalation among Russia, Ukraine, and NATO has been deteriorating the entire European security architecture, with the situation at its most dramatic now after Russia’s military assault.
Since Russia is willing to accept it, a neutral international position and an internal federal structure would be the most pragmatic way to bring peace back to Ukraine. This solution would not even cut Ukraine off from its central and western European ties.
A neutral Ukraine could still trade and cooperate with the West. Further trade integration with the EU would remain possible as long as it was matched with integration with the Russian economy to balance the two. NATO, Russia, and the neutrals are, as the Atlantic Forum said, “doomed to cooperate” if a working security structure is to be achieved.
For Russia, this means stopping the war without a permanent occupation, for Ukraine to accept a federal and neutral status, and for the West to understand that European security is more than a maximally large NATO.
A stable Europe necessitates a working structure that balances the security needs of all its partners and leads to law-based and internationally agreed-upon settlements of conflicts. A neutral Ukraine would remain an intricate part of that structure, but outside any “hard” military alliance, just like Switzerland and Austria. It would not be a loss for NATO, but a gain for Europe.
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