Explainer: Could Ukrainian ‘neutrality’ help end Russia war?
Geneva – In talks between Russia and Ukraine toward a possible cease-fire after three weeks of intense fighting, negotiators are exploring prospects of possible “neutrality” for Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that has been moving closer to NATO in hopes of membership – to Moscow’s chagrin.
The discussions this week have brought a glimmer of hope of a possible way out of the bloody crisis in Ukraine – and followed an acknowledgment from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the most explicit terms yet that Ukraine is unlikely to realize its goal of joining the Atlantic alliance.
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An official in Zelenskyy’s office said the talks have centered on whether Russian troops would remain in separatist regions in eastern Ukraine after the war and where borders would be. Ukraine also wants at least one Western nuclear power involved in the talks, and a legally binding document on security guarantees.
In exchange, Ukraine was ready to discuss a neutral military status, the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Vladimir Medinsky, the chief Russian negotiator, first mentioned publicly on Wednesday that the issue of a “neutral” status for Ukraine was on the table, sparking a guessing-game about what that might mean.
But even should a deal be struck, there’s no assurance it would hold: Russia, many critics say, has gravely violated international law and its own commitments by invading Ukraine in the first place. In the view of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the West has breached what he considered its obligation not to expand NATO into Eastern Europe.
What is neutrality today?
It’s about not picking sides, keeping out of binding alliances, and trying to stay out of conflict – but even supposedly “neutral” nations have their limits. European countries often mentioned when the concept of neutrality comes up are Switzerland – which like Austria has codified neutrality into its constitution – as well as Sweden, Finland, Ireland and, once upon a time, Belgium, which is today the home of NATO.
Switzerland has generally resonated as the leading emblem of neutrality. The Swiss have shunned alliances, refused to join the European Union, acted as an intermediary between opposing countries, and only joined the United Nations 20 years ago – even though it has hosted the U.N.’s European headquarters for decades.
But the Swiss lined up with European Union sanctions against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Other countries too have strayed from neutrality in the strictest sense: Swedish forces are taking part in NATO’s winter-weather exercises in neighboring Norway; Finland has long resisted joining NATO, but Moscow’s actions in Ukraine have been changing the dynamic.
Some countries – particularly those close to Russia in Central and Eastern Europe – have gravitated close to NATO and become members, and eschewed neutrality out of concern it would convey weakness and vulnerability, and that Moscow could seize on that.
What alternatives are on the table for Ukraine and Russia?
Historian Leos Muller held up Austria – which has kept its distance from NATO – as a conceivable model for Ukraine.
After World War II, Austria – which before the war had been united with Nazi Germany – was occupied by forces from four Allied powers: Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1955, those four powers decided to pull out their occupying forces and let Austria be independent, but only after Moscow insisted that Austria’s parliament first write into its constitution a guarantee of neutrality.
“I think that’s the solution that they are thinking about at the moment, because it worked for Austria,” said Muller, a history professor at Stockholm University and author of the book, “Neutrality in World History.”
Still, Muller doubted whether a diplomatic exit ramp can be found just yet, after so much blood has spilled on both sides in the conflict.
Would 'neutrality' offer an exit route to the crisis?
Enshrining the “neutrality” of Ukraine into any deal could help diminish the military threat that Russia perceives from it – especially as a possible NATO member. Ukraine insists it has no hostile intent toward Russia, but has been sidling up to the alliance to ensure its security.
For years, Russian authorities, from Putin on down, have bristled about NATO’s gradual creep eastward after the Cold War, when the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact alliance disappeared. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are the former Soviet republics now in NATO.
A brief war in 2008 between Russia and Georgia, which led to the de facto excision of two Georgian territories from its national map, put Georgia’s own ambitions to join NATO into a deep freeze.
As Ukraine gravitated closer to the West, in 2014, Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and pro-Russian separatists seized control of parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014 – boosting Kyiv’s desire to join NATO, even if it was admittedly a long way off. After a continued cozying-up between NATO and Ukraine, including with weapons and advisers, Russia reached a boiling point last year.
How did other countries come to accept neutrality?
The European countries that are most associated with neutrality got to that in different ways. Sometimes it was made easier by geography – such as in the case of Sweden and other Nordic states that were above the fray of wars south of the Baltic Sea. Sometimes, it was imposed.
Muller noted Finland. During the Cold War, Finland – which had sided with Nazi Germany during World War II and has a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) border with Russia – was strong-armed by the Soviet Union into not opposing its foreign policy rules.
“They always had to take in consideration what Soviet reactions would be,” Muller said.
Switzerland, at the end of the wars of conquest by French emperor Napoleon in the early 19th century, had its neutrality guaranteed by the great powers of the day in Europe at the Vienna Congress in 1815 – who recalled many armies were “tromping across” Swiss territory during those wars that followed the French Revolution, Muller said.
Over subsequent generations, Swiss neutrality became ingrained and has now become “part of the national identity,” he added.
Just how far back does the idea of neutrality go?
While the concept traces its origins back millennia, such as when some Greek city-states sought to avoid getting entangled in the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BC, neutrality in the modern sense in Europe dates to the 18th century, after the Treaty of Westphalia – which ended the Thirty Years War and exemplified the emergence of international law, said Muller.
Some countries began choosing neutrality out of self-interest, but also as a moral choice, he said.
When it’s not clear how to choose “who is the good guy, and who is the bad guy,” said Muller, “then, it’s morally OK to be in between.”
Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau, in Lviv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.