Why Neutrality Is a Trap for Ukraine

Foreign Policy, 22.04.2022
Natia Seskuria, académica (Royal United Services Institute)

Putin’s goal isn’t halting NATO enlargement—it’s destroying Ukraine’s sovereignty and democratic future

Despite the early failure of the Russian military to gain ground in the face of Ukraine’s extremely effective resistance, peace talks between Russia and Ukraine have not gone far. As Russian troops retreated from the Kyiv region, the world was shaken by the evidence of a massacre in Bucha, making diplomacy more difficult as Western leaders rightly accused Moscow of war crimes.

Despite the Kremlin’s desperate attempts to portray mass murder as an inside job, accusing Ukraine of staging the massacre, the mass killings of civilians were a deliberate move. The Kremlin wants to demonstrate that it is willing to cross all redlines to achieve considerable gains and then negotiate with Ukraine from a position of power. This way, Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to gain maximum concessions that would cover up Russia’s military failures and enable him to sell these gains as a glorious victory at home.

One of the key Russian demands is that Ukraine declare neutrality and demilitarize. This would allow Russia to claim a propaganda victory in successfully averting the nonexistent threat of NATO enlargement on its southern border, while leaving Ukraine defenseless in the face of future Russian aggression.

Faced with a high number of battlefield deaths (according to Ukraine, some 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, and even the Kremlin has acknowledged significant losses) in conjunction with overwhelming sanctions that are due to expand further and no major territorial gains so far, there is no incentive for Putin to negotiate an end to the war yet.

On the contrary, due to Putin’s zero-sum approach, the war seems to be entering its most dangerous phase. Russia’s unsuccessful military performance so far increases the possibility of Moscow opting to use chemical weapons, which would bring the world one step closer to the use of nuclear weapons.

Due to Putin’s obsession with destroying Ukraine and killing civilians, the Western allies are slowly but increasingly changing their stance on sending Ukraine heavy weapons. However, time is running out, and, unless confronted by a swift and unprecedented response by Ukraine’s allies, Putin could interpret any Western hesitancy as a green light to go ahead with the use of his nuclear arsenal to achieve his end goal.

Russia has hardly been interested in engaging in any meaningful diplomatic conversations since the war began. Last month, the first high-level meeting in Ankara, Turkey, between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, ended with no progress. Russia could not even agree to grant a temporary cease-fire to enable Ukraine to open humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of trapped civilians from the besieged city of Mariupol. It was hardly imaginable that top officials would achieve any breakthrough on ending the war.

Following the Bucha massacre, enraged by war crimes allegations, Lavrov has accused Ukraine of proposing an unacceptable peace deal. In reality, Lavrov is using an old Russian trick. Moscow remains formally engaged in the negotiations process without being ready to make any concessions. Peace talks can be used to justify Russia’s further aggression toward neutral countries by portraying Ukraine as an irrational actor, unwilling to take the offer that would supposedly end the war—even though a fragile peace may come at the expense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Russia used the same strategy in December 2021: coming up with nonstarter security demands toward NATO and the United States, knowing in advance that the allies would have never accepted Russia’s terms. Even though this strategy is no longer effective for external consumption, internally a considerable number of Russian citizens still believe that NATO and the United States are responsible for sparking the war by ignoring Russia’s so-called security concerns. While Ukraine’s entry into NATO was never on the agenda for the foreseeable future, it is clear that the NATO threat has only served as a pretext to invade and create an external enemy that would unite Russians around the flag.

Similarly, in the latest rounds of diplomatic talks, Russia demanded that Ukraine become neutral, which would entail formal rejection of NATO membership aspirations. Other demands included Ukraine’s demilitarization, accepting the annexed Crimean Peninsula as a Russian territory, and recognizing Ukraine’s Russian-occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has a principled stance when it comes to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. However, he has cautiously expressed willingness to discuss neutral status. On March 15, Zelensky stated that despite NATO’s open-door policy, he believes Ukraine will not be able to walk through that door. Zelensky has all the rights to express his disappointment toward the alliance that has denied Ukraine (and Georgia) a formal Membership Action Plan, only offering an abstract premise of NATO membership in the distant and unclear future.

Putin saw a window of opportunity to first punish Georgia in 2008, followed by Ukraine in 2014, for moving away from Russia’s orbit, while harboring far-reaching plans for future aggression. The decision of the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008 and subsequent vagueness about these countries’ membership prospects have given Russia a free hand.

However, Ukraine’s neutrality would not deter any future Russian aggression. The idea of neutralizing pro-Western states in Russia’s neighborhood has always been Putin’s favorite antidote to Western influence in its perceived sphere of influence. Putin knew Ukraine was not going to join NATO; however, his main goal has always been to see an undemocratic, failed Ukraine that is politically reliant on Russia. Putin dreads the prospect of ordinary Russians seeing a Westernized, stable, developed, peaceful, and successful Ukraine that he will no longer be able to hide from his own citizens.

The examples of Swiss or Austrian neutrality may sound appealing, but Ukraine has a different history. Both Austria and Switzerland have been able to build prosperous democracies and strong economies while remaining outside of NATO. But for Putin, Ukraine’s neutrality is not about depriving Kyiv of the prospect of joining NATO—it is about destroying Ukraine’s sovereignty and democratic future.

As innocent as it may sound, neutrality is a code word for going back into the Russian orbit. Having witnessed Moscow’s wanton brutality, Zelensky knows that the Russian version of neutrality cannot bring peace. Nor can Russia be trusted to abide by the formal commitments that it makes. Russia has violated dozens of international agreements that it has signed since 1991, including the Budapest Memorandum, the European Union-brokered cease-fire agreement with Georgia, as well as the Minsk agreements with Ukraine.

In fact, Ukraine had already tried to remain a neutral state after it regained independence in 1991. However, neutrality did not deter Russian aggression in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. It was precisely due the painful experience of 2014 that eventually boosted popular support for NATO, leading Ukraine to formally abandon neutrality and enshrine a commitment to EU and NATO membership in its constitution.

Zelensky is rightly asking for guarantees requiring foreign protectors such as Britain, the United States, or the EU to come to its aid if Russia attacks again, the likelihood of which will remain high as long as Ukraine seeks closer ties with the West. In some way, gaining formal Western protection resembles NATO’s Article 5 guarantees, and, should Putin fail to comply with the deal, the protectors would likely have to intervene and defend Ukraine. As appealing as it sounds, Putin would never accept such a deal. On the other hand, should Ukraine be forced into accepting the Russian deal on neutrality, followed by Kremlin demands for demilitarization, Ukraine would remain extremely vulnerable to any future Russian threat.

In a recent interview with Russian state media, Lavrov clarified that Russia is not going to pause its military operation for the next round of peace talks. The increasing references to nuclear war demonstrate that Moscow is exerting psychological pressure on NATO allies and waiting for Western unity to crumble. As much as some Western allies may be tempted to push Ukraine into accepting concessions to end the war, after the Bucha massacre they have no moral grounds to throw Ukraine under the bus and fall into the Russian neutrality trap.

So long as Russia refuses to back down and engage in meaningful diplomacy, it seems like the outcome of the war will be decided on the battlefield rather than at a negotiating table.

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