The Ukrainian State Treaty: An Offer Putin Can’t Refuse

Why a 1955 neutrality agreement might be the perfect model for a strategic and successful deal for Moscow, Washington, and Kiev.

MISNK, BELARUS - FEBRUARY 11: (L to R) Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko,  Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin  during peace talks over Eastern Ukraine on February 11, 2015 in Minsk, Belarus. The European leaders are meeting to discuss a cease-fire in the Ukraine. (Photo by Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images).
MISNK, BELARUS - FEBRUARY 11: (L to R) Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin during peace talks over Eastern Ukraine on February 11, 2015 in Minsk, Belarus. The European leaders are meeting to discuss a cease-fire in the Ukraine. (Photo by Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images).

In late June, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu surprised Western observers when he announced the removal of 50 top naval officers, including both the commander of the Baltic Fleet and his chief of staff, for “dereliction of duty” and “distortion of the real state of things.” Alexey Arbatov, a member of the research council of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responded to the news with a cautionary note for Russian President Vladimir Putin: “NATO deploys a battalion, we respond by deploying an army. If we want to make Sweden and Finland join NATO, there is no better way to do it.” 

In considering what Putin’s true and ultimate goals really are — and whether this culling of senior officers is an indication that he’s changed his tune about confronting the United States and its NATO allies or his domineering plans for Ukraine — the real question for Washington is this: Do these changes provide an opening for a new, more mutually beneficial relationship with Moscow?

While on the one hand, it would be a mistake for Washington and its NATO allies to assume that Putin has abandoned his long-term goal of dominating Russia’s “near abroad,” particularly the Baltic littoral and Ukraine — he’s already paid a high price at home and abroad to prevent Ukraine from slipping any further into NATO’s orbit. But it would also be wrong to conclude that Putin’s recent personnel changes in the Baltic military command structure are not meant to scale back the escalating tensions in the Baltic region. These very tensions have inspired an unprecedented level of military cooperation among Swedes, Finns, Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians, not to mention the United States.

Moreover, Russia’s deteriorating economy, its costly defense buildup, and unrelenting war with Turkic Islamists in the Northern Caucasus may now incline Moscow toward a strategic accommodation with the West. If so, Ukraine may be a good place to begin.

In contrast to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Ukraine is not a NATO member; it’s currently a political no-man’s land wedged uncomfortably between NATO and Russia. Putin justifies his actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine by insisting that, “if we do nothing, then at some point, guided by the same principles, NATO will drag Ukraine in.” Putin’s statement makes clear that Russia does not want to lose control of the southeastern half of the oil-rich Donbass along with access to the Caspian Sea and Moscow’s ally, Iran. More important, many of Putin’s comments at news conferences and in public speeches equate NATO’s threat with NATO expansion, implying that he may be receptive to a guarantee from the United States (and NATO’s 28 member states), that the West will not insist on incorporating 35-40 million incurably anti-Russian Ukrainians into NATO.

In considering strategic solutions that would satisfy Western, Ukrainian, and Russian strategic interests, and guarantee both Ukrainian independence and Russian national NATO security interests, few examples of successful agreements on territorial and political governance come to mind. Yet one stands out: the Austrian State Treaty.

Signed in 1955, the Austrian State Treaty was designed to reestablish Austria as a separate, independent state. To attain this goal, representatives of the governments of the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, United States, and France agreed that in exchange for the restoration of Austrian national sovereignty and political independence, the Austrian Republic would declare its total and unconditional neutrality. (Additional provisions in the treaty prohibited unification with Germany or the restoration of the Habsburg monarchy ensuring both Austria’s sovereignty and democratic future.) Specific language safeguarding minority rights for Austria’s Croatian and Slovenian citizens was also included. Though Austria’s neutrality was not explicitly promised in the text of the treaty, the Austrian government agreed to declare neutrality in October 1955 after all four Allied countries withdrew their troops from Austrian territory, which had been partitioned into occupation zones since the end of World War II. Austria’s parliament enacted neutrality, as well as a ban on all foreign military bases, on Oct. 26, 1955.

Austria’s model of neutrality restored Austrian independence and provided the Soviets and the western Allies with security arrangements that both sides considered to be essential. The Soviets incorporated its conquered territories into the Warsaw Pact alliance while the West German state became part of NATO. War was avoided and today, the Warsaw Pact’s former members are in the European Union and Austria has 18 representatives in the European Parliament. Under the circumstances it seems reasonable to ask whether a similar, contemporary “Ukrainian State Treaty” modeled on the Austrian precedent could perform a similar service for Europe.

Ukrainian neutrality would certainly provide Putin with the conditions he insists Russia actually wants — a permanent barrier to NATO’s eastward advancement. A Ukrainian state treaty that includes provisions banning all foreign bases and all foreign forces on Ukrainian territory should allay Moscow’s fear that Ukraine could become a platform for the projection of Western military power into Eastern Europe. New territorial arrangements that allow Ukraine to shed territory it no longer controls — territory populated with ethnic Russians — in return for Moscow’s commitment to end hostilities and recognize the inviolability of Ukraine’s borders would allow Ukraine to focus its efforts on building a free and prosperous society. A free, independent Ukraine at peace with Russia would likely attract massive investment from the West.

For its part, Moscow would have to agree to demilitarize its border with Ukraine and promise not to interfere with the conduct of Ukraine’s internal affairs. Moscow would also have to commit itself to the regulated, but free and uninterrupted movement of commerce and people across the Russo-Ukrainian Border. Russians or Ukrainians who opt to move to new locations as a result of the territorial arrangements could be assisted and compensated by the parties to the agreement. Specific language guaranteeing minority rights to Ukraine’s native Russians and to its many other minorities could be modeled on the language in the Austrian State Treaty.

Once a Ukrainian state treaty is signed and hostilities are ended, the West’s economic sanctions could be lifted. Moreover, Moscow could withdraw its forces from its western borders and concentrate instead on defeating Islamist terrorism inside and along Russia’s periphery. The treaty would also enable Moscow to influence the deteriorating situation around Christian Armenia and keep pressure on Islamist Turkey.

Strategically, it’s an offer Putin might well accept. Putin gets to keep what he already controls and neutralizes an alleged threat to Russia. He can present the outcome as a “win” for Russia. For the West, a Ukrainian state treaty provides a more profound strategic bargain; it creates the foundation for enduring regional stability when viewed in the context of Moscow’s current minimal requirements — that Ukraine pass a constitutional amendment on the special status of the Russian-controlled territory, an amnesty of the crimes of Russia’s armed proxies, and a special law on elections in that territory.

These points notwithstanding, if Moscow rejects Washington’s and NATO’s willingness to forgo the notion that “all nations have the right to freely associate with EU or NATO” in favor of Austrian-style neutrality for Ukraine, then, Moscow is effectively demonstrating its malevolent intentions towards Ukraine, Moldova and, for that matter, toward any state along Russia’s borders that seeks to maintain its political independence. Perhaps even more important, Moscow’s rejection of Ukrainian neutrality would constitute a severe slap-in-the-face for the German left as well as NATO’s southern European allies. These actors insist that Washington, not Moscow, is the source of trouble in Kiev and that Moscow’s interests are being treated unfairly.

Kiev’s reaction is more difficult to gauge. No doubt some Ukrainians will regard the treaty proposal as a concession to Moscow that puts Ukrainian independence at risk. Unfortunately, there is no certainty that NATO’s leaders will be any more willing to risk a direct military confrontation with Russia in the future than they are today. In fact, the opposite may well be the case.

There is, of course, no certainty that a future president can stand up to the forces of Washington’s neo-Wilsonian internationalists who want the United States and its allies to press for Ukrainian membership in NATO. These liberal internationalists will dismiss the “Austrian” alternative to eventual Ukrainian membership in NATO as a de facto acceptance of “spheres of influence,” a concept that Moscow and Beijing advocate.

Timing may turn out to be right for an accommodation between disputing parties — in this case, Moscow, Washington, NATO, and Kiev — that avoids war and allows life to go on. However, unless the next president is willing to explore the possibility, the West will not know just what Putin is prepared to accept — at least not until Russian ground forces move west across the Dnieper River.

Photo credit: Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images

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