To reach a peace deal with Russia, Ukraine may have to give up its aim to join NATO. But it can only do that with some help from the alliance itself
In an article published in December last year, Ukraine's foreign affairs minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed neutrality as a policy that could "do nothing to abate Putin's appetite", but would rather feed it further. Kuleba also stressed that Ukraine would not abandon its stated ambition to join NATO, which has been enshrined in the country's constitution since 2019, "no matter how much pressure we face from Russia".
Three months later, faced with Russia's invasion, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi has already acknowledged that Ukraine "would not be able to join" NATO and that this "needed to be recognised."
Zelenskyi's response has fuelled speculations that a Ukrainian pledge of neutrality would be the centrepiece of a possible diplomatic settlement with Russia. However, after years of official repudiation of the idea, the sudden embrace of a permanently neutral status may be harder for Kyiv than it might seem. It may now be up to NATO itself to open the path to a Russian-Ukrainian settlement.
With Russia's military offensive stalled on all fronts, Zelenskyi's fiery rhetoric has been feeding public expectations of impending victory among Ukrainians. A recent opinion poll in Ukraine showed that at least half of respondents believed that the war would end in a matter of weeks. Ninety three percent of respondents were largely or fully confident that Ukraine would win.
By contrast, Foreign Minister Kuleba conceded in an interview on 18 March that a peace agreement is a more "realistic" scenario for the end of the war than a Ukrainian victory. This major gap between public expectations about how the war might end and the Ukrainian government's own assessment of the likely outcome may be a serious impediment for the successful resolution of the talks.
After all, any settlement will require major concessions on Ukraine's part. Compromise could be viewed by many in Ukraine as a reprise of the Minsk agreements, the ceasefire and political settlement signed under duress in 2014-2015 - and which have been criticised even by Zelenskyi.
A source of instability
Although neutrality was supported by at least a third of Ukrainians prior to the war, political elites and government officials have consistently dismissed the idea.
Days before Russia launched its military attack on 24 February, Ukraine's former US Ambassador Valeriy Chaly, who is close to former president Petro Poroshenko, characterised neutrality as "the Kremlin's plan." In mid-February, Ukraine's ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, claimed that Ukraine could consider its ambition for NATO membership to avoid war with Russia - but had to walk back his comments after a critical response from both the government and opposition parties. Zelenskyi's party, Servant of the People, has a consistent record of parliamentary support for cooperation with NATO and late last year argued for the provision of a NATO Membership Action Plan. Even after softening its pro-NATO rhetoric since the start of the war, the party has still suggested that NATO membership is impossible only in the short-term.
A sudden about-face by the president's faction and other NATO supporters in parliament, who would need to amend Ukraine's constitution to remove the country's commitment to NATO membership, would be an explicit acquiescence to one of Russia's key demands. Similarly, a country-wide referendum on the issue of NATO membership is unlikely to produce a unified response, even if it was carried out quickly. The latest Ukrainian opinion poll shows that a record number - 72% of respondents - support NATO membership. And why should Ukrainians give up on NATO aspirations if they feel confident in their eventual victory?
Rather than a strategic choice made of Ukraine's own accord, neutrality would become a policy imposed on Ukrainian society and its elites through the use of force. Indeed, the prospect of neutrality lacks deeper political legitimacy and is likely to be immediately contested. It would be at permanent risk of reversal by any of Zelenskyi's successors. This would undermine the effectiveness of neutrality as a tool of international relations. Instead, it would likely become a permanent source of internal instability.
Neutrality would also only be effective in ensuring the territorial integrity of a neutral state if it rests on the symmetry of security interests of all major powers. Once one of the powers suddenly finds it in its interests to violate the pledge, like Germany did with Belgium twice in the last century, neutrality status offers no effective mechanisms to prevent it.
Since Russia has engaged in repeated acts of aggression against Ukraine, it will have little incentive to abide by any future pledges of non-interference - unless its actions trigger confrontation with other major powers, or if it faces little prospects of success. Meanwhile, NATO's pledge to bring Ukraine into an alliance could continue serving as a convenient pretext for renewed Russian aggression. From this standpoint, the prospect of Ukrainian neutrality could be secure only if it quickly builds up a strong defensive capacity or receives credible third-party security guarantees from key NATO members.
Neither of these two options, however, has a realistic path forward. Russia's demand to demilitarise Ukraine and its sustained actions to degrade Ukraine's military infrastructure indicate that Moscow would only accept a deal that severely restricts the size of the Ukrainian army and imposes arms limitations.
By contrast, if the US gave security guarantees to Ukraine similar to its defence treaties with South Korea or Japan, this could prove problematic in light of American public opinion's aversion to any new foreign policy entanglements. Only about 35% of Americans (and 28% of Brits) support deploying their troops to protect Ukraine, given the risks of confronting a major nuclear power. Nor do Americans see the Russian-Ukrainian war as presenting the same urgent security challenge to the US as other threats, cyberterrorism or nuclear proliferation. Without public support and bipartisan approval, no US administration would be willing to extend tangible security guarantees to Ukraine.
The final, and most fundamental, obstacle to a Russia-Ukraine deal is the disagreement over Ukraine's borders. At the very least, Moscow expects Kyiv to recognise Crimea as part of Russia and accept the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk "republics".
Zelenskyi suggests approaching the issues of neutrality and the resolution of territorial disputes sequentially. For Ukraine, discussion of a territorial settlement can only start after a new security arrangement is reached. Russia, by contrast, has already linked progress in talks on the peace agreement to Kyiv's recognition of Ukrainian territorial losses. For Moscow, the agreement on neutrality thus serves a dual purpose: advancing its security interests and satisfying its territorial claims.
Once Kyiv signs an agreement in which Russia's neutrality pledge is limited to Ukraine's territory excluding Crimea and Donbas, it would also signal acquiescence to the redrawing of its borders. Given Moscow's experience with eight years of stalled Minsk talks over a similar sequencing dispute, another proposal to resolve differences through a sequence of steps is unlikely to be accepted. For Zelenskyi, however, an agreement would be even more difficult if it fulfils both Russia's security wishes and its territorial demands. This substantially narrows the available bargaining range and raises the likelihood of a diplomatic stalemate.
A path forward?
Five or ten years ago, neutrality could have been a viable stand-alone security alternative for Ukraine. Now its effectiveness is in doubt and its implementation requires the types of additional concessions that none of Ukraine's current leaders is willing to make. Zelenskyi, however, is also right in exposing NATO's lack of resolve and inconsistency in its engagement over Ukraine. Despite its vocal pledges of support for Ukraine's territorial integrity, NATO leaders appear to be powerless now to stop Russia's ongoing assault on Ukrainian statehood.
The one tangible contribution that NATO can still make, though, is to respond to Zelenskyi's repeated calls and clarify its stance regarding Ukraine's eventual membership. This would require scrapping its earlier promise to make Ukraine a member of the alliance issued during the 2008 Bucharest Summit (and reiterated, most recently, in the 2021 Brussels Summit Communique). Such a move would, at the very least, allow Zelenskyi to pivot from the need to justify abandoning NATO aspirations domestically to searching for a new security arrangement outside of existing alliances.
Neutrality would then no longer be viewed as a choice forced on Ukraine by Russia alone, but as an inevitable necessity. This decision could also change the broader context for ongoing talks with Russia and open the possibility for decoupling the discussion of Ukraine's security status from the disputes over Donbas and Crimea.
Finally, it would allow key NATO members, such as the US and the UK, to engage more directly in the diplomatic efforts to stop the war without being viewed by Russia as spoilers interested in prolonging it. Although a successful peace settlement would require multiple adjustments both from Ukraine and Russia, the initial step should be reducing what the current CIA director William J. Burns once characterised as "the brightest of all red lines" for the Russian elite: Ukraine's possible NATO membership.
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