For two decades, from the dissolution of the Soviet Union to the Russian invasion of Crimea, Ukraine was officially a “non-aligned” – or neutral – country in international affairs.
In practice, this meant that while the country often vacillated between pro-Russian and pro-European governments, it did not formally take a side in the geopolitical back-and-forth between East and West.
All that changed in 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula. Ukraine officially dropped its status as a “non-aligned” country and MPs applauded as they voted to overturn the country’s neutral position with 303 votes in favor and just eight against.
The move brought the country closer to NATO and was immediately denounced by Moscow as “hostile” and “counterproductive.”
In 2019, the Constitution of Ukraine was amended to include a new line in the preamble declaring “the irreversibility of the European and Euro-Atlantic course” of the country.
As the Russian offensive continues in Ukraine, the legally binding clause could be disputed.
In March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “security guarantees and neutrality, the non-nuclear status of our state. We are ready for that. This is the most important point.”
Zelenskyy stressed that any peace treaty would require a ceasefire, along with withdrawing Russian troops to pre-invasion lines, and refused demands for the country’s demilitarization.
The final deal, he said, would have to be put to a referendum.
A high price to pay
In accordance with international practice, countries that declare themselves neutral are expected to stay away from the present and future armed conflicts and to refuse assistance and territorial access to all belligerents, with the exception of humanitarian aid.
Consequently, participation in any kind of military alliance – regardless of size and mission – is seen as a violation of neutrality.
For Ukraine, that would mean giving up its old aspiration to join NATO, a concession the Kremlin would warmly welcome and which Zelenskyy has hinted he might accept in exchange for peace.
But Ukrainians may struggle to accept that after resisting the advance of the much larger and better equipped Russian army.
“This is probably not going to be well received by the Ukrainian population right now,” Anton Nanavov, deputy director of International Relations at the Kyiv National University, underlined in an interview with Euronews.
“I can tell you for sure what the reaction will be. We’ll probably need to feel, as a nation, that we’ve managed to get something as a substitute for that status. We’d need to have very strong guarantees that [the war] will never happen again.”
A recent poll conducted by Rating, an independent Ukrainian polling company, showed that 68% of residents supported the idea of joining NATO. A similar number to pre-war studies.
The poll excluded Crimea and the two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine.
Trading NATO’s dreams for lasting peace might be feasible, but it would depend on Russia’s willingness to abide by the agreement, a big issue at this point, Nananov noted.
“[Neutrality may be] a possibility if it is Russia’s last demand of us and if they tell us that Ukraine is free if they withdraw the deployed troops and return Crimea,” he added.
“It can be considered, but I’m not sure it will be very well accepted by people.
Serhiy Kudelia, an assistant professor at Baylor University in Texas, said Zelenskyy’s “sudden turnaround” on NATO would represent “explicit consent to one of Russia’s key demands.”
“Instead of a strategic choice made by Ukraine’s own will, neutrality would become a policy imposed on Ukrainian society and its elites through the use of force. In fact, the perspective of neutrality lacks deeper political legitimacy.” and will likely be challenged immediately,” Kudelia wrote in an article for the non-governmental organization Open Democracy.
“It would be at permanent risk of reversal by any of Zelenskyy’s successors. It would undermine the effectiveness of neutrality as a tool of international relations. Instead, it would likely become a permanent source of internal instability.”
Power and interests
Neutrality is a concept that dates back several centuries and was progressively codified in international law, starting with the historic Hague Convention V and XIII of 1907.
Currently, only a few countries are recognized as neutral, from G7 members to micro states. Some countries, such as Japan, Finland, and Switzerland, maintain a modern, well-funded army, while others, such as Panama, Monaco, Liechtenstein and Vatican City, have little or no military capability.
In practice, neutrality is quite flexible and countries have a large margin of discretion in interpreting their status, as long as there is no direct involvement in the war.
Finland, for example, is sending firearms and anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, while Switzerland has broken precedent by imposing sanctions on Russia. Japan, on the other hand, maintains a decades-old mutual security and cooperation treaty with the US.
However, neutrality is considered a fait accompli by the international community.
“Neutrality works when the balance of power is in place. It works when it’s in everyone’s interest that it works,” said Pascal Lottaz, a professor of neutrality studies at Waseda University in Tokyo.
“Between 1991 and 2014, Ukraine was more or less in a kind of political balance. With some governments, Ukraine was more pro-European. With other governments, it was more pro-Russian. But the country always maintained a stance of remaining neutral. and not joining either side. This was disrupted in 2008 when NATO promised Ukraine membership.”
A new balance of power would have to be born out of peace talks to maintain Ukraine’s neutrality and ensure that the country is protected from further unprovoked acts of aggression.
Austria’s neutrality and security were guaranteed by the Allied powers after World War II and the ten years of occupation that followed.
Ukrainian media reports circulated the idea of a coalition of guarantor countries that would encompass states such as Russia, China, the US, UK, France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland and Israel, although it is not yet known how many of these countries would be willing to take on such a responsibility.
Turkey and Israel have acted as moderators in the conflict, while China has taken a deliberately ambiguous stance, calling for peace and containment but attacking sanctions and the West’s “Cold War mentality”.
“There would have to be an agreement between Ukraine and Russia, and it would have to include Washington as well, because, let’s not kid ourselves, the war is between Russia and Ukraine, but the conflict is between Russia and NATO, and especially the US. So, there would have to be an agreement from all sides that everyone is better off if Ukraine remains neutral,” Pascal Lottaz told Euronews.
“Ukraine has asked, for example, for security guarantees if it agrees to be a neutral country. But who should give those security guarantees? It certainly could not be a member state of NATO because that would be almost the equivalent of joining the NATO, which Russia would never accept.”
The deprivation of external guarantors and of NATO integration at the same time can be intolerable for the Ukrainians, who, since February 24, are navigating a highly uncertain and volatile geopolitical environment, the contours of which are still shaping up.
An alternative path may be found in membership of the European Union (EU): under a peace treaty, Ukraine could be allowed to continue the path towards European integration if it officially abandons its aspirations to join NATO. In doing so, Ukraine would become the sixth neutral country to join the European Union, along with Austria, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden.
The prospect of EU membership has gained enormous strength since the beginning of the war. The same poll that showed support for NATO of 68%, showed support for EU membership of 91%, a record number.
The President of Ukraine sent the formal membership application to Brussels, which is now being analyzed by the European Commission. Political appetite has increased considerably across the bloc, with some Eastern European countries calling for an accelerated procedure, an unprecedented option.
But EU membership is a long-term prospect, an inspiring project for the post-war years. Right now, the struggle continues and the focus is exclusively on the battlefield – and the negotiating table.
Hard times are ahead on both ends.
Days after Volodymyr Zelenskyy explicitly endorsed Ukraine’s return to neutrality, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the peace talks had reached a “dead end” and promised that “the military operation will continue until its full conclusion.” He later ordered an all-out attack to gain control of the entire Donbas region.