Kiev, Ukraine: Monument of Independence — a column with a figure of a woman with a branch of a guelder-rose on her hands. (shutterstock/Andreas Wolochow)
Ukrainian neutrality: a ‘golden bridge’ out of the current geopolitical trap

It may just be the ultimate agreement that neither the US or Russia can refuse.

Whether deliberately or not, the Russian government has left the United States and NATO a perfect “golden bridge” out of the trap that is developing in Ukraine. In diplomatic parlance, this means finding the other side a way of abandoning an untenable position without excessive loss of face or sacrifice of truly important interests.

In the present crisis between Russia and the West, the golden bridge is Ukrainian neutrality, along the general lines of the Austrian State Treaty of 1955, by which Western and Soviet occupying troops withdrew from that country, allowing it to develop as a successful free-market democracy. The Biden administration, either directly or through German and French mediation, should seek to “own” the idea of Ukrainian neutrality as its response to Russia’s demands.

The Russian demand that Ukraine be excluded from NATO and that NATO and Washington promise not to station troops or conduct military exercises near Russia’s borders is clearly unacceptable as it stands. It asks for concessions from the West without offering anything in return. It is also, however, only an initial bargaining move. If the West in return proposes Ukrainian neutrality, it will be very difficult for Russia to refuse. The issue of European Union membership can be shelved, since — let us be honest — there is no chance of Ukraine joining the EU in any foreseeable future.

There are several good reasons why it would be advantageous for the West, and America in particular, to make this proposal. The first is that the West sacrifices nothing in strategic terms. For the truth is that the West has no intention whatsoever of fighting against Russia to defend Ukraine.

President Biden and other leaders have made it clear that they will not do so, any more than the Obama administration fought for Ukraine in 2014 or the Bush administration for Georgia in 2008 — despite all the previous talk of partnership. The idea that Germany, France or Italy would do so is simply ludicrous. In these circumstances, to insist on holding the door open to future NATO membership for Ukraine is absurd, deeply unethical, and extremely dangerous both for Ukraine and NATO’s existing members.

For what after all is the point of NATO membership without the Article 5 guarantee of collective defense? And what is the point of Article 5 if everyone knows that it would not in fact be fulfilled in a crisis? The result of keeping this half-promise to Ukraine on the table is not to strengthen NATO against Russia; it is to undermine faith in NATO’s core raison d’etre. Far from defending Ukraine, it would raise even more serious doubts about whether the United States and NATO can be relied on to defend the Baltic States — which are NATO members covered by Article 5.

With the possible exception of Poland, NATO’s European members wholly lack the will to fight Russia unless NATO itself is directly attacked. As far as the United States is concerned, it lacks both the will and the means to fight Russia on land in Ukraine. There are at present only four U.S. combat brigades stationed in Europe – not remotely enough to stop a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Of course, they could be massively reinforced in order to try to drive Russia out again; but that would mean dispatching the bulk of the U.S. armed forces to Europe, and preparing the American public for a war involving tens of thousands of U.S. casualties at the least, and nuclear annihilation at worst. It is not hard to imagine how China would take advantage of this.

There is an additional reason for the West to agree to Ukrainian neutrality: as with the Austrian Treaty, it would also block a Ukrainian alliance with Russia; and the loss this would cause to Russian interests vastly outweighs damage to those of the West. This is an aspect of the issue that has been assiduously and inexplicably ignored by Western analysts — just as all the pejorative condemnation of “Finlandization” ignores the fact that the Soviet-Finnish treaty of 1948 establishing Finnish neutrality in the Cold War also ruled out Communist rule in Finland , allowed Finland to develop as a successful free-market democracy — and incidentally, led to an early Soviet withdrawal from the military base of Porkkala, which by treaty the Soviets could have held for another 40 years. The Ukrainian government should consider itself very lucky indeed if it could get a treaty like this.

For after all, Ukraine brings the West nothing in either strategic or economic terms. On the contrary, it is a colossally expensive and dangerous liability. That is why American commentators urging the arming of Ukraine have had to resort to arguments that have nothing to do with Ukraine itself – that a failure to defend Ukraine will damage U.S. “credibility” with China (whereas the truth, as noted above, is that a confrontation between America and Russia over Ukraine would be the greatest strategic gift imaginable to Beijing).

Even more foolish is the argument that if the West does not defend Ukraine the next step will be a Russian attack on Poland – an idea that simply does not exist in the minds of the Russian establishment, for the obvious reason that it would bring no benefit whatsoever to Russia while creating enormous risks and requiring great costs in blood and treasure. As one Russian official remarked to me, “Why on earth does anyone think we would want to invade Poland? Do they think we are crazy? We’ve done that often enough in the past. It was like swallowing a hedgehog.”

By contrast, for the Russian establishment, Ukraine is by far Russia’s most vital external interest, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has studied Russian and Ukrainian history, culture, economics and demography. In particular, until 2014 bringing Ukraine into the Eurasian Union with Russia was the centerepiece of Putin’s grand strategy; and, without Ukraine, the Eurasian Union is hardly serious as an international bloc. The defeat of Putin’s plan by the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 therefore marked a terrible geopolitical setback for Russia, which a treaty of Ukrainian neutrality would cement. At the same time, having stated so often and so categorically that NATO expansion is what Russia opposes, it would be impossible now for Putin and the Russian government to reject neutrality for Ukraine.

A treaty of neutrality would also open the way to a settlement of the Donbas conflict on the basis of the Minsk II agreement of 2015, which France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine have signed and the United States and United Nations have endorsed. Successive Ukrainian governments and parliaments have thus far failed to implement its key provision, a guarantee of autonomy for the Donbas within Ukraine — and Western governments have failed to put any pressure on Ukraine to do so. 

Their key reason for this failure has been a belief that special status for Donbas would prevent Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO. With that issue off the table, this solution — an entirely democratic one, which in any other circumstances the West would wholeheartedly support — can take effect. These agreements would end the threat of a war that would do catastrophic damage to both Ukraine and to Western prestige; end the military tension that has done so much to undermine Ukraine’s economic growth in recent years; rule out renewed Russian hegemony over Ukraine; and remove a huge geopolitical asset from Beijing. For goals like these, it is worth sacrificing a little Western amour propre.

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