Here’s How Ukraine Can Take Charge of its Fate: By Declaring Neutrality

After a March 3 conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously described him as "having lost touch with reality." But looking at the Ukrainian crisis from Moscow’s perspective sheds a different light on Putin’s behavior in the crisis. Moscow watched as NATO expanded up to Russia’s borders following the breakup of ...


After a March 3 conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously described him as "having lost touch with reality." But looking at the Ukrainian crisis from Moscow’s perspective sheds a different light on Putin’s behavior in the crisis. Moscow watched as NATO expanded up to Russia’s borders following the breakup of the USSR, and now, Putin justifiably fears that Western-oriented Ukraine would ultimately join NATO. That’s a "red line" for the Kremlin. As Putin noted in his speech announcing the annexation of Crimea, "Russia found itself at a line from which it could no longer retreat. If you press a spring to the maximum, it will someday uncoil forcefully."

If the West hopes to stop the drift towards a new Cold War while simultaneously ensuring a long-term solution for Ukraine, it must acknowledge Russia’s legitimate security interests regarding its Western neighbor. Luckily, Cold War history offers a solution that protects both Russia’s security interests and Ukraine’s sovereignty: military neutrality.

Consider Finland. After World War II, Finland faced a Soviet superpower determined to ensure a buffer zone along its western border. Joining NATO was not an option. The Soviets also maintained the Porkkala military base on Finnish territory. To protect its sovereignty, in 1948, Finland signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance (FCMA) with the USSR. The FCMA forbid both the Soviets and the Finns from joining a military alliance directed against the other, and Finland also agreed to prevent foreign powers from using its territory in an attack on the Soviet Union. 

While Finland never legally defined its neutrality, over the years, Finland took several steps to reassure the Soviet leadership that it posed no threat. The Finns did not join NATO; did not participate in the Marshall Plan; proposed the creation of a Nordic nuclear free zone; and took an active role in various arms control initiatives, including hosting Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) on a number of occasions.

Over the years, Finnish neutrality became accepted by both the East and the West. In 1956, Finland regained its full geographic sovereignty when the Soviets evacuated  Porkkala a full 40 years before its lease actually expired. Finland also developed a close economic relationship with its giant neighbor, while simultaneously joining various international organizations such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Bank and the United Nations. Finland’s post-war foreign policy even spawned a new term — "Finlandization" — which was roughly defined as a decision by one country to maintain its sovereignty by not challenging a more powerful neighbor in foreign affairs. Although criticized by many as appeasement, from a Finnish perspective, "Finlandization" was the ultimate expression of realpolitik, and provided an ideal solution for maintaining its sovereignty while still playing an active role in non-defense related international affairs.

A second Cold War precedent to consider is Austria. At the conclusion of World War II, Soviet and American troops each occupied a substantial part of Austrian territory. After the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, the United States was loath to leave Austria to the Soviets. Likewise, the USSR did want to see an independent Austria join NATO and the Western bloc. To solve this dilemma, Austria also proposed official neutrality, and on April 15, 1955, during a visit of the Austrian Chancellor to Moscow, the Soviets signed the Moscow Memorandum, undertaking to withdraw all troops from Austria by the end of the year in exchange for an Austrian neutrality modeled on Switzerland’s. The Austrian Parliament passed a Declaration of Neutrality that was incorporated into Austria’s constitution, which likewise prohibited Austria from entering into any military alliances or allowing any foreign military bases on its soil. Accordingly, the four occupying allied powers — the USSR, the United States, Britain, and France — signed the Austrian State Treaty and all foreign troops withdrew from Austria.

Could military neutrality based on Cold War precedents — legally codified as in Austria or publicly committed to in Finland — work for Ukraine? Interestingly enough, after his election in 2010, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — yes, that Yanukovych — proposed just this idea. Unfortunately, in a visit to Kiev shortly thereafter, the European Union’s then Foreign Minister Javier Solana publicly rejected neutrality as a solution for Ukraine and noted that NATO would "continue to evolve."

Critics were quick to take down Henry Kissinger’s recent suggestion that Ukraine embrace neutrality. But they shouldn’t reject it out of hand. The United States, European Union, Russia, and Ukraine should jointly explore the possibility of establishing a neutral Ukraine. To be clear, reaching agreement would not be easy, and both Russia and Ukraine will need to make compromises. (In the photo above, the Ukrainian interim force’s new recruits undergo combat training.) As Ukraine has already signed an Association Agreement with the European Union, Russia will have to accept that Ukrainian neutrality is limited to military neutrality only, and that Ukraine remains free to develop any economic or trading relationship with Europe it wishes. Likewise, the new government in Kiev will need to accept that Crimea is lost, and cannot make the return of Crimea a condition of Ukraine’s neutrality. Kiev’s priority at this point should be to ensure that Ukraine’s east-west divide does not cause the country to split apart. Kiev should jump at the chance to unite the country, even if it means losing Crimea.

Ukraine is a classic example of Robert Kaplan’s notion of the "revenge of geography," forever destined to be caught between the tug of East and West. Such states inevitably must take into account their neighbors’ security concerns. Not only would Ukrainian neutrality take Russia’s historical fear of encirclement into account, but it would also be a nod to many in eastern Ukraine who maintain close economic and cultural ties to Russia. Indeed, the new Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk seems to understand this, and has already publicly ruled out joining NATO, which indicates Kiev may be amenable to negotiations on this issue. Russia or Ukraine might ultimately balk at the compromises necessary to make a deal, but to paraphrase Churchill, to jaw-jaw surely beats the alternative of a new Cold War.

Josh Cohen is a former U.S. State Department Project Officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union.

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union. He contributes to a number of foreign policy-focused media outlets and tweets at @jkc_in_dc.

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