NATO or Bust: Why Do Ukraine’s Leaders Dismiss Neutrality as a Security Strategy?
When Russia’s invasion of Crimea in spring of 2014 put Ukraine at the center of a renewed confrontation between Moscow and the West, leading U.S. strategic thinkers argued that Ukraine’s adoption of a permanent neutral status could defuse the crisis. These appeals, however, have been routinely dismissed in Ukraine by key government officials and foreign policy experts. At best they are branded as naïve. At worst, their proponents are accused of doing Moscow’s bidding. With Russian troops massed near Ukraine’s borders, neutrality will be an even harder sell in Kyiv. And, certainly, in order to make a more compelling case for the idea there needs to be a better grasp of the logic behind the anti-neutrality consensus within the Ukrainian policy and expert community. This logic is outlined below, preceded by a few more words about the Western calls for neutrality and the response among Ukraine’s elites.
Many of the prominent American scholars and policymakers who advocate a neutral status for Ukraine hail from the “realist” school of international relations and draw on historical precedent. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for example, suggested Ukraine take “a posture comparable with that of Finland,” associating with Europe politically and economically but avoiding “institutional hostility toward Russia.” Harvard’s Graham Allison argued that Ukraine should take note of Belgium, whose neutral status under the Treaty of London ensured its survival as an independent state. Other leading scholars—including the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, Harvard’s Stephen Walt and MIT’s Barry Posen, among others—have argued that Ukrainian neutrality could stabilize security in Europe. Most recently, Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft wrote that Ukraine’s neutrality, modeled on the Austrian State Treaty of 1955, would “remove the greatest motive by far for Russian interference in and intimidation of Ukraine.”
Over the past 20 years, however, the goal of joining NATO has become deeply ingrained in Ukraine’s foreign policy narrative and strategic culture. If, before, the reasons for this were largely political, they have now also become legal: In February 2019, just two months before Volodymyr Zelensky won the presidency, parliament enshrined Ukraine’s NATO aspirations in the country’s constitution. Now, the president must serve as a “guarantor of the country’s strategic course to acquire membership in the EU and NATO,” and any attempts by the head of state to consider alternative security policies for Ukraine would be unconstitutional—a far cry from Kyiv’s intention to “become a permanently neutral state” as articulated in its 1990 Declaration of State Sovereignty.
The arguments against neutrality revolve around five key points.
1. Neutrality has already proved ineffective for Ukraine
The most common argument against neutrality, and probably the least compelling, points to Ukraine’s prior experience with “neutrality,” which purportedly ended in disaster. After becoming president in 2010, Viktor Yanukovych amended Ukraine’s foreign policy doctrine, removing a clause about Ukraine’s NATO membership aspirations. Instead, the doctrine’s new guiding principle became the concept of “non-alignment” (pozablokovist’). NATO proponents equate non-alignment with neutrality and note that it failed to prevent Russian aggression in 2014. However, there are two flaws in this argument. First, Russia’s invasion happened at a time when Moscow could reasonably have assumed that the non-aligned status introduced by Yanukovych would soon be overturned: The pro-Western political forces that had captured power following the Euromaidan revolution openly rejected non-alignment and advocated to reinstate NATO membership as a foreign policy goal. Second, a key distinction between neutrality and non-alignment is the country’s commitment regarding future alliance choices: Permanent neutrality presumes the country’s obligation not to join any military alliances now or in the future; non-alignment is a statement about the country’s current stance and carries no forward-looking commitment. Non-alignment also does not have the same weight as neutrality in international law since it represents a unilateral declaration that may be unilaterally revoked. Permanent neutrality, by contrast, is based on multilateral treaties that extend recognition or guarantees by other states and could only be overturned with their acceptance.
2. Neutrality means surrender to Russia (and abandoning Euro-Atlantic aspirations)
Neutrality is no longer viewed in Kyiv as a stand-alone policy option but is seen as part of bargaining with the Kremlin, which has long demanded neutral status for Ukraine. The adoption of such a status, in this context, would mean a major concession by Kyiv to Moscow. For many this represents a net loss, since it would indicate a limitation of Ukraine’s sovereignty under Russian pressure rather than by choice. If Ukraine is coerced to surrender its core sovereign right to choose its own allies, the argument goes, what other new concessions would it be asked to make in the future? A legitimate question. Moreover, the path to NATO membership has been viewed as integral to Ukraine’s other strategic objective—membership in the EU. (In each of the post-Cold War waves of enlargement by the Western blocs, Central and Eastern European states became members of NATO prior to joining the EU.) With NATO membership off the table, Ukraine’s chances of joining the EU may become even slimmer than now. This could further weaken elite incentives to pursue any meaningful domestic reforms, which have been, so far, largely accomplished in response to the conditionality requirements from the West. Finally, since the mid-2000s the pursuit of NATO membership has become one of the main issues structuring political competition in Ukraine, defining partisan loyalties and creating a sizeable constituency group. All presidents since Leonid Kuchma, with the exception of Yanukovych, have pursued this goal and engaged in close cooperation with NATO in reforming Ukraine’s defense sector. The reversal of this pro-NATO course would, hence, represent a clear blow to one side of the political divide and could generate counter-mobilization akin to the Euromaidan protests of 2013.
3. Neutrality cannot be enforced (and Moscow cannot be trusted)
This argument is perhaps the strongest of all. The neutral status of some European countries was established through treaties with major powers. For Austria, for example, the 1955 Moscow Memorandum—a precursor to the State Treaty that reinstated Austria’s independence—contained an explicit obligation by the Soviet Union to guarantee, jointly with other powers, the “inviolability and integrity of Austrian state territory” as long as Austria followed “the model of Switzerland.” Such treaties indicated that neutrality not only served the purpose of enhancing a country’s national security but formed an important component of strategic stability on the European continent. Ukraine has already once received security assurances from the U.S., U.K. and Russia based on a multilateral agreement, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. All these states committed to “refrain from the threat or the use of force” against Ukraine.1 Russia’s violation of the memorandum 20 years later undermines the credibility of any new formal guarantees that Moscow could offer Ukraine in exchange for embracing neutrality. Russia also took on an obligation to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the inviolability of its borders under the 1997 Russian-Ukrainian Friendship Treaty. From this standpoint, until Russia returns Crimea to Ukraine’s control and ceases military and other assistance to separatists in Donbas—an inconceivable demand for the Kremlin—Moscow’s new commitments to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty cannot be trusted. On the other hand, if Kyiv signs a treaty with Moscow while Crimea remains under Russian control, it would effectively be giving up its territorial claim to the peninsula—an inconceivable proposition for any Ukrainian leader. This makes it all but impossible to model a new security treaty establishing Ukraine’s neutrality on the international agreements signed by Finland and Austria, with the Soviet Union as one of the signatories. But without such international guarantees from the key interested party, a unilateral declaration of neutrality could not have the same stabilizing effect or accommodate Ukraine’s concerns.
4. Neutrality will only invite further Russian aggression
In a point related to the one above, permanently neutral status is effective only as long as it rests on the confluence of security interests of major powers willing to abstain from aggressive actions. However, the motives behind Russia’s actions toward Ukraine could extend far beyond traditional security interests. Unlike Ukraine, neither Austria nor Finland was viewed by Moscow as part of “the same historical and spiritual place” as Russia, as part of “a single whole.” Hence, it was easier for the Kremlin to accept their statehood, including their right to integrate with Europe politically and economically. It is unlikely that Moscow would ever acquiesce to the same latitude in Ukraine’s foreign policy. As Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed, “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” Without a common understanding of what neutrality means, Russia would then be even more likely to interfere in Ukraine as long as it interprets any of its foreign policy actions as hostile. Furthermore, in the absence of outside security guarantees or military cooperation with the West, Ukraine could be perceived as sufficiently weak to be coerced to Russia’s liking. Ultimately, the Soviet Union honored neutrality agreements with Austria and Finland since it viewed them through a defensive lens—as a barrier to NATO encroachment to its borders. Although the current Russian leadership raises the same defensive concerns with regard to Ukraine, its rhetoric indicates that it may still harbor expansionist designs. This raises a reasonable question about whether Ukraine’s neutral status will be sufficient to preclude Russia from any new intervention.
5. Neutrality is a minority preference among the Ukrainian public
This is not unequivocally the case at present. Since 2014 the level of public support for NATO membership in Ukraine has, indeed, increased substantially—from 34% in March 2014 to 54% in November 2021, according to IRI surveys. This may be the result of Ukraine’s loss of several staunchly anti-NATO regions, like Crimea and Donbas, and the acute sense of insecurity due to continued conflict with Russia. However, polling data can be shaped by the wording of questions: A survey conducted Nov. 28-Dec. 10, 2021, by the Social Monitoring Center showed that when faced with the choice between NATO membership and non-alignment 45.6% of respondents favored a “non-aligned” status versus 40.8% for joining a military alliance such as NATO. Given the absence of a public debate on the merits of neutrality, these results suggest that Ukraine’s neutral status could still become the majority choice just as easily as NATO membership, despite the near unanimity among experts and policymakers in support of the latter.
A Search for Viable Alternatives
Ukraine’s shift toward NATO in the 30 years since independence has drivers inside and outside the country. Domestically, it has resulted both from political calculation, as in the case of Kuchma, and from genuine ideological convictions, as in the case of President Viktor Yushchenko. Externally, Ukraine’s push for NATO membership was strongly embraced by the United States in the late 2000s, at the peak of Washington’s democracy-promotion efforts.
However, the shut-down of internal debates over Kyiv’s security strategy is particularly problematic at a time when Ukraine’s survival as a state may be at stake. The recent spike in tensions with Russia has made it clear that, despite recognizing Ukraine as “a highly valued partner,” NATO will not be fighting in its defense. More than 13 years after the 2008 NATO summit that declared Ukraine would become a member, there is still no timetable for Kyiv to obtain a Membership Action Plan. Even the U.S. now sounds much more non-committal about Ukraine eventually joining the alliance. With no clear NATO membership prospects, the obvious question is whether “wishful thinking” can serve as a reliable guide for Ukraine’s security policy.
Neutrality, however, poses its own challenges. The two most serious are the elites’ rejection of forced “Finlandization” of Ukraine and the lack of practical mechanisms for credible enforcement. For a productive debate, proponents of Ukraine’s neutrality need to stop rehashing questionable historical analogies from a bygone era or focusing on the exclusive security needs of “major powers.” Instead, they need to address Ukraine’s reasonable concerns about the viability of neutrality and its implementation in today’s context.
- American diplomats have recalled that Washington never saw the Budapest Memorandum as providing Ukraine with any new security guarantees, only old “assurances”; Ukrainian diplomats, on the contrary, have said they saw no meaningful distinction between the two terms, so the perception in Ukraine remains one of broken promises all around. For further discussion see Steven Pifer, “The Eagle and the Trident: U.S.-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times” (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2017).
Serhiy Kudelia is an associate professor of political science at Baylor University in Texas and a URIS fellow at the University of Basel in Switzerland.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by President.gov.ua shared under a Creative Commons license.