The Reality and Myth of Ukrainian Neutrality

Russia’s war against Ukraine stubbornly and inconveniently rages on. Just when Western publics and pundits were preparing to forget about it, comforted by the thought that Russia is now an economic ruin due to sanctions and falling oil prices, the Kremlin stepped up its act by pouring fresh troops and arms into Ukraine, wiping out Ukraine’s “cyborg” army, and retaking the Donetsk airport, or whatever is left of it, in a bitter battle dubbed “the new Stalingrad.” Speaking at World Economic Forum in Davos, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko claimed that there are as many as 9,000 regular Russian troops in Ukraine. Russian-backed separatist troops, tanks, and armored vehicles intensified movements along the entire Donbas front, shelling is reported in a strategic port city of Mariupol.

Following the same pattern as last August, this new spiral of violence sent Western leaders rushing to the negotiating table. Russia’s initiative and tactical victories, now as in August, are meant to show the West that Russia is in a position to escalate and thus dictate the terms of engagement over Ukraine. The EU holds fast to its economic sanctions regime against Russia, but has nothing else up its sleeve for countering, to say nothing of deterring, further Russian aggression. Despite President Obama’s leave to do so, granted by Congress last month, the US has yet to provide lethal weapons or any meaningful military assistance to Ukraine.

Without Western resolve, any negotiations with Russia can yield only temporary solutions that change nothing. The Kremlin is ultimately interested in dictating terms, but not in keeping them, just like it was not interested in keeping the cease-fire agreed upon in Minsk following the August escalation. Showing the world that Russia can make rules at will and then break them with impunity seems to be the current modus operandi in the Kremlin.


Yet the bigger and infinitely more difficult question is: What must be done strategically to resolve the crisis in Ukraine? The obvious geopolitical fact is that Ukraine cannot simply pack up and move to a more amicable corner of the world. It is stuck next to a bigger and more powerful neighbor whom it is not in a position to resist militarily in a full-out war, certainly not alone.

One of the main Russian demands has been for Ukraine to remain neutral and under no circumstances join NATO or the EU. NATO has dismissed Russia’s right to veto the alliance’s expansion, but the reluctance of Western leaders to move beyond economic sanctions and extend military assistance to Ukraine seems to suggest that they are not ready to make strategic commitments to Ukraine in view of these Russian demands.

In the West this position has been elaborated as the “Finlandization” of Ukraine, or guaranteed neutrality modeled on that of Finland during the Cold War. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger have been the most prominent champions of Finlandization, arguing that it would both placate Russia by keeping Ukraine out of Western alliances and suit Ukraine by leaving it otherwise free to live its life as an independent state.

There are a number of reasons why this is a bad idea. James Kirchick, for instance, exposed Finland’s experience during the Cold War as far less agreeable than the proponents of Finlandization would like to admit: Finland endured much Soviet meddling in its domestic politics, which took a toll on its democratic institutions. Today, many Finns view this period of their history as a time of shameful servitude.

Yet there is another, more fundamental reason why Finlandization would not work for Ukraine—namely, that Ukraine was effectively neutral during the first 23 years of its existence and the strategy failed. At the time when unmarked Russian troops were grabbing Crimea in late February 2014, Ukraine’s neutrality was more robustly formalized than at any other time since it emerged as an independent state in August 1991.

Ukraine declared it intention to become a permanently non-aligned state in the July 1990 Declaration of Sovereignty. Fulfilling this intention, Ukraine did not join the Commonwealth of Independent States collective security arrangement signed in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in May 1992. Nor did Ukraine’s early leaders aspire to NATO membership, like their Visegrad and Baltic counterparts, and Ukrainian public opinion was consistently unfavorable toward NATO until last year.

In 1992–94, sensing a growing threat of border revisionism from Russia, Ukrainians pushed hard to have their neutrality guaranteed, much like Finland in 1948 and Austria in 1955, by the West and Russia. At the time they were negotiating security assurances in exchange for surrendering the nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union. Ukraine wanted these guarantees formalized in an international treaty that would commit its guarantors (read: the West) to impose sanctions and provide aid should Ukraine come under threat (read: by Russia). The West balked at undertaking any binding security commitments toward a new and little understood country. In addition, the concept of buffer zones was seen as a thing of the past, a relic of the Cold War that did not belong in the new global security framework.

Thus, the security assurances granted in the Budapest Memorandum in exchange for Ukraine’s accession to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty as a nonnuclear weapons state (signed by the US, the UK, and Russia at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe summit on December 5, 1994) only reiterated existing multilateral commitments found in the UN Charter and the CSCE Helsinki Final Act, but guaranteed nothing and imposed no costs for violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine, neutral or otherwise.

As the new global security framework proved increasingly illusive, Ukraine found itself living out the self-proclaimed neutrality as a precarious balancing act between Russia and the West. Ukraine did not formalize its non-aligned status in its new post-Soviet Constitution of 1996, yet any serious attempts to waiver from its de facto neutrality, like Ukraine’s bid for NATO Membership Action Plan in 2008 in Bucharest, were thwarted by Russia via Germany and France. Finally, in 2010 the Moscow-anointed regime of Viktor Yanukovych formalized Ukraine’s non-aligned status as a basic principle of Ukraine’s foreign policy. From this moment until the Euromaidan protests erupted in November 2013, Ukraine was essentially Finlandized.

The EU Association Agreement with Ukraine, due for signature in November 2013, would have changed none of that. Mired with expansion fatigue and careful not to provoke Russia, Brussels offered Ukraine the agreement not as membership-lite, certainly not as a path to NATO but rather as a consolation for the lack of a more substantive engagement. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, for whom NATO expansion became a favorite casus belli, said nothing of NATO when he pressured Yanukovych out of signing the EU deal. Instead, he simply stated that Ukraine’s economic alliance with the EU was not in Russia’s interests because its market would be flooded with cheaper, better-quality European goods.

In March 2014, after the Crimean annexation was a fait accompli and the Kremlin began to stir trouble in southern and eastern Ukraine, Ukraine’s then acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, in a clear signal to Moscow, declared that Ukraine would not seek NATO membership. Had Ukraine’s strategic neutrality been Russia’s true objective, this would have been the time for Kremlin to sit down at the table and commit Yatseniuk’s pledge to paper.

Yet, despite this very real opportunity to stop NATO expansion at Ukraine’s doorstep, Moscow was not interested. Instead, the Kremlin declared that it does not recognize the “fascist junta” in Kyiv and moved to effectively violate the very neutrality into which it had forced Ukraine in the first place. Since then, thousands of people have perished and more are dying every day.


The 1994 Budapest Memorandum was the moment to do Ukraine’s Finlandization right. Instead, the West’s lack of commitment and Russia’s disdain for commitment left a power vacuum in neutral Ukraine, which Kremlin finally moved to fill, by force. Today, Ukraine’s neutrality is too little, too late. Moreover, for Ukraine, neutrality is a strategy that had failed miserably to provide for its security. Ukraine’s new Parliament already revoked the Yanukovych non-aligned clause, opening the way for the country’s NATO membership bid.

Given the dire state of Ukraine’s economy and military and security infrastructure, the preparations may take a long time: Poroshenko has announced an intensive six-year plan to prepare the country for NATO membership. For the West, this is a welcome opportunity to delay having to make a difficult political decision about admitting Kyiv into the alliance. Yet, if Russian advances in Ukraine continue at the same rate as they have since March 2014, not much of the country will be left to admit in 2020.

Politics abhors a power vacuum. The West must resist the temptation to use Ukraine’s unpreparedness for NATO as an excuse to abandon it in a security no-man’s-land. Nor should it harbor a delusion that the current Russian leadership would be appeased with Ukraine’s neutrality. The time for neutrality had long since passed. Now is the time for decisions: If the West is not prepared to see Ukraine slowly bleed in a protracted undeclared war with Russia, then it must arm Ukrainians, train them, and provide them with all the military assistance they need to secure their territory and build a democratic state that so frightens the bosses in Moscow.

Mariana Budjeryn is a Ph.D. candidate at the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy, and International Relations at the Central European University, in Budapest, Hungary. Her research investigates politics of nuclear disarmament of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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