Considering the long history of Ukraine and Russia, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine factored in Kyiv’s desire to join NATO, bringing NATO close to Russian borders. The desire to join NATO not only extended the conflict, which stretched to more than 100 days, but it also caused one of the major humanitarian crises in recent times. With the West continuing to aid Ukraine through military aid, the relevance of Ukraine adopting neutrality still stands valid, as Russia continues to occupy more Ukrainian territory with no scope of peace in the forefront.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, the EU and NATO argued that it impacted peace in the European continent as the Russian action contradicts the 2014 Minsk Agreement. However, to understand the current Ukraine crisis, there is a need to look back into the Sino-Soviet relationship, the present Russia and the US-led NATO in the recent past. Russian President Vladimir Putin, on various occasions, like during the 2007 Munich Security Conference, has argued that the US has breached the verbal assurance given to Russia on the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe. As Vladimir Putin argued, at the end of the Cold War on 9th February 1990, it was verbally agreed between the US and Russia that NATO wouldn’t expand once when Mikhail Gorbachev approved the unification of Germany. However, since this unification, NATO has grown to include 14 East European countries. Let’s look into some more facts pertaining to the significance of neutrality for Ukraine.
In the mid-1990s, Ukraine’s geo-location in Europe became a centre of confrontation between the US-led NATO and Russia. As NATO continues to expand, Russia sees it as a betrayal; such a betrayal theory isn’t only supported by Putin but was also endorsed by Boris Yeltsin. Even during the post-Cold War period, the West always pushed to expand its influence in Central and Eastern Europe to induct new states as NATO members and subsequently address the Russian threat. Since the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine continued to do political balancing between 1991 and 2014. During this period, Ukraine continued to be neutral by balancing its position between the pro-Russian and the pro-European stands, which got impacted when Ukraine was promised membership in NATO in 2008. The 2014 annexation of Crimea further pushed Ukraine to incorporate its commitment to becoming a NATO member in its Constitution in 2019.
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Should Ukraine become a neutral state like Sweden and Finland?
The annexation of Crimea allowed Russia to get hold of Sevastopol city – a strategic city and harbour facing the Black Sea. It ignited the separatist movement in Donetsk and Luhansk in Donbas – a coal-rich Russian majority-speaking region. It resulted in an eight-year-long war between the Ukrainian forces and the Russian separatist groups, killing around 14,000 people. Meanwhile, the Russian government initially claimed its recent actions in Ukraine to overthrow the Ukrainian leadership, “demilitarize and denazify – act against the Banderites – and stop eight-year-long genocide in the Donbas region” through a “special military operation”.
The current crisis highlighted the need to understand why neutrality is being focused on, how it assists a state and why Russia is pushing the idea as part of the peace process. As United Nations (UN) Charter Article 2 obligates its member states to resolve their international dispute in a peaceful manner and refrain from using threat or force. Being neutral assists a state to remain away from any war by keeping an impartial attitude in all situations, as they are protected under the law of war against a belligerent state. A state has the choice to select or adopt one form of policy of neutralism. There are six forms of neutrality available to a state itself based on its geography, international politics, and the leader’s vision for a state. Since the emergence of the Cold War in 1945, the neutral foreign policy has been acknowledged and accepted by many countries, especially the newly independent countries worldwide to ensure their survival and security.
During the Cold War, the Berlin Wall and Ukraine were the major strategic priorities for the Soviet Union in Europe. As Russia believes, NATO’s control of these regions threatens its survivability in its great power politics with the US. Meanwhile, Ukraine adopted neutrality after gaining independence in 1991, but the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 pushed Kyiv to enshrine its dream of joining NATO in its Constitution in 2019. For the West, Ukraine always wanted to be a NATO member, and such desires assisted them in addressing their security concerns by squeezing out Ukraine of Russia’s orbit.
The invasion resulted in the West imposing sanctions on Russia with the latter accusing the US of secretly developing biological weapons in Ukraine and the UNSC Resolution 2623 against Russia. Further, the West continued to provide military aid to Ukraine, and Russia used flamethrowers, thermobaric weapons, Kinzhal (hypersonic) missiles, and the 2S7M Malka weapons, to name a few. The deployment of Bayraktar and Kamikaze drones further intensified the war. Amid all this, peace talks are also going on between Russia and Ukraine. The current Ukrainian crisis highlighted the need to ponder and analyze why Russia always objects to the expansion of NATO in East Europe. In East Europe today, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which share a border with Russia, became a part of NATO in 2004. The West’s re-consideration and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call to make it a part of the NATO alliance put NATO again at Russia’s door. Ukraine becoming a NATO will bring NATO across Russia’s western border with an exception for Belarus, a Russian ally.
While the West has failed to utilize diplomatic channels effectively with Russia, for Moscow the Southern and Eastern regions in Ukraine are important, and dominated by the Russian-speaking people. Further, to keep Crimea within its control, Russia has called on Ukraine to adopt neutrality and become a buffer between NATO and Russia. As argued, such developments will ensure Russia’s easy access to the Black Sea, which will assist Moscow in projecting its power unhindered in the Mediterranean region. Meanwhile, if Ukraine becomes a NATO member, it could restrict Russia’s access to the Black Sea and impact its dominance as a major supplier of oil and gas to the countries of Southern Europe. It will further hamper Russia’s security architecture and narrative in the Black Sea, impeding its Mediterranean advantage. Such neutrality development comes when European countries like Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Switzerland, and Austria are considering joining a military alliance.
The issue of neutrality has once again put Sweden and Finland into the limelight. They remained a buffer for a long, kept a neutral stand, and avoided joining NATO. Finland, since 1945 maintained political and economic ties with Moscow and always acted as a neutral buffer state between the East and the West. On the other hand, Sweden has 200 years of history as they kept themselves away from any military alliance. Concerning Russia, they have a conflict-ridden history they experienced between 1939 and 1944. Recently, Swedish PM Carl Bildt tweeted, “The unthinkable might start to become thinkable”, and after 1939, Sweden once again offered military aid to another country at the time of conflict. It reflects a shift in the Nordic countries’ foreign policy – they should secure their security and national interest vis-à-vis the aggressive Russia they see today.
Today, Norway and Sweden are considering joining NATO, which Russia strongly objected to as its Foreign Ministry cautioned them of retaliatory measures. As John Mearsheimer argues, the US should be blamed for the current Ukrainian crisis instead of blaming Russia alone as the cause of the current crisis. Meanwhile, the chance of Ukraine joining NATO remains uncertain, which is highlighted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s statement to European leaders on March 15th, 2022, when he referred to NATO as ‘those doors that are open but can’t be entered when needed’. On the other hand, Russia argued that they didn’t want to topple the government and only wanted Kyiv to adopt neutrality. Moreover, they recently reiterated of having achieved the key objective of their ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. Further, John Mearsheimer argues that it is unclear as to how a truce will be achieved, and if the conflict isn’t resolved, it could not only destroy Ukraine completely, but with the continuation of the conflict, we also come closer to a full-blown nuclear war.
Considering Kyiv’s geo-location, adopting neutrality shouldn’t be sidelined at a time when the great power politics has once again re-ignited between the US-led NATO and Russia. With growing hostility between the US and Russia, Europe and the Eurasian region have begun witnessing instability. Recently NATO’s Chief has argued that Ukraine cannot become a member of the alliance in such a situation; neutrality seems an appropriate option for Ukraine to ensure its survival and secure its strategic interests. Meanwhile, Turkey isn’t only assisting in the peace process but also playing strategically in the Ukraine crisis as its geopolitical balancing act.
Currently, India enjoys a cordial relationship with Russia and the US and could play an important role in the Ukrainian crisis. When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Ukrainian President V. Zelenskyy called India to assist them and help them in their current crisis. In its recent visit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lauded India’s stand and asserted Russia is open to India playing the mediation role in the Ukrainian Crisis. While India and Russia continue to enjoy a healthy relationship, covering various strategic aspects and their bilateral defence relationship, India also has had friendly relations with Ukraine since 1991. In current circumstances, a neutral Ukraine will ensure India’s strategic interests are secured and protected. The current Ukrainian crisis has placed India in a tense security environment while also giving it a window of opportunity to utilize its diplomatic skills and global position in international politics.
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Further, the acknowledgement of neutrality by Ukrainian President Zelenskyy as part of the Moscow-Kyiv peace talks is a move in the right direction, as any extension of conflict isn’t a viable option. To become neutral, Ukraine has to amend its Constitution and give up its dream of becoming a NATO member. Still, on the other hand, it will also give Ukraine a window of opportunity to position itself strategically in the geopolitical tussle between Russia and the US-led NATO.
- The Guardian, “Russia’s belief in NATO ‘betrayal’ – and why it matters today”, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/12/russias-belief-in-nato-betrayal-and-why-it-matters-today, accessed on April 5th, 2022.
- Euronews, “What would a neutral Ukraine look like?”, https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2022/04/19/what-would-a-neutral-ukraine-look-like, accessed on April 25th, 2022.
- CNN, “Why Donbas is at the heart of the Ukraine crisis”, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/02/19/europe/donbas-ukraine-russia-intl-cmd/index.html, accessed on March 17th, 2022.
- NPR, “Putin’s claim of fighting against Ukraine ‘neo-Nazis’ distorts history, scholars say”, https://www.npr.org/2022/03/01/1083677765/putin-denazify-ukraine-russia-history%20See, accessed on March 15th, 2022. Also See. BBC News, “Why has Russia invaded Ukraine and what does Putin want?”, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56720589, accessed on March 16th, 2022.
- United Nations, “International Day of Neutrality – The United Nations”,https://www.un.org/en/observances/neutrality-day, accessed on April 1st, 2022.
- Peter Hazelip Lyon, “Neutralism: Its Meaning and Significance in Contemporary International Politics”, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/16390602.pdf, accessed on April 2nd, 2022.
- John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W Norton & Company, 2003), pp. 119-120.
- Global News, “Could a neutral status help guarantee Ukraine’s safety? Experts weigh in”, https://globalnews.ca/news/8690690/ukraine-russia-war-neutral-status-nato/ accessed on March 25th, 2022. Also See, Al Jazeera, “Ukraine: What does neutrality mean, and could it lead to peace?”, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/15/ukraine-what-does-neutrality-mean-and-could-it-lead-to-peace, accessed on March 26th, 2022.
- CNN, n. 5.
- Oleksandr Danylyuk,Why the Donbass is the Key to Putin’s Gambit in Ukraine, Politico, February 02nd, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/02/02/putins-gambit-donbas-ukraine-west-doesnt-understand-00004616, accessed on March 22nd, 2022.
- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “What Is Russia Doing in the Black Sea?”, https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/05/20/what-is-russia-doing-in-black-sea-pub-84549, accessed on March 20th, 2022.
- DW, “Ukraine: Could neutrality really be an option?”, https://www.dw.com/en/ukraine-could-neutrality-really-be-an-option/a-61261793, accessed on March 24th, 2022.
- The Economic Times, “Neutral Finland, Sweden warm to idea of NATO membership”, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/neutral-finland-sweden-warm-to-idea-of-nato-membership/articleshow/89967187.cms?from=mdr, accessed on March 24th, 2022.
- John Mearsheimer, “John Mearsheimer on why the West is principally responsible for the Ukrainian crisis”, The Economist, March 19th, 2022, https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2022/03/11/john-mearsheimer-on-why-the-west-is-principally-responsible-for-the-ukrainian-crisis, accessed on March 22nd, 2022.
- Global News, “Could a neutral status help guarantee Ukraine’s safety? Experts weigh in”, https://globalnews.ca/news/8690690/ukraine-russia-war-neutral-status-nato/ accessed on March 25th, 2022.
- John Mearsheimer, John Mearsheimer on why the West is principally responsible for the Ukrainian crisis, The Economist, March 19th, 2022, https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2022/03/11/john-mearsheimer-on-why-the-west-is-principally-responsible-for-the-ukrainian-crisis, accessed on March 22nd, 2022.
- Chatham House, “Ukraine’s wider impact on Turkey’s international future”, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2022/03/ukraines-wider-impact-turkeys-international-future, accessed on March 23rd, 2022.
- European Council on Foreign Relation, “Why India’s silence on Ukraine is an opportunity for Europe”, https://ecfr.eu/article/why-indias-silence-on-ukraine-is-an-opportunity-for-europe/, accessed on April 25th, 2022.
- Shubhajit Roy, “No one will oppose if India backs such a process: Lavrov on Ukraine mediation”, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/russia-ukraine-crisis-india-jaishankar-sergey-lavrov-meet-7847735/, accessed on April 6th, 2022.
- BBC News, “Zelensky says Ukraine prepared to discuss neutrality in peace talks”, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60901024, accessed on March 28th, 2022.
- The Guardian,“Ukraine has offered neutrality in talks with Russia – what would that mean?”, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/30/ukraine-offer-neutrality-meaning-constitution-russia-what-does-neutral-status-country-mean-how-would-it-work, accessed on April 25th, 2022.
- Foreign Policy, “The Meaning of Ukraine’s Coming Neutrality”, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/04/04/ukraine-neutrality-nato-west-europe-russia-peace-ceasefire/, accessed on April 25th, 2022.
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About the author
Kashif Anwar completed his MPhil from MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia and currently working as a Research Associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies, Delhi. His areas of interest include military technology, geo-strategy, geo-economics, geopolitical development, the Indo-Pacific region, China, the USA, and the QUAD.