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The Meaning of Ukraine’s Coming Neutrality

History offers clear examples of what neutral status means—and what it doesn’t.

By , a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a meeting on Ukraine with German Chancellor at the Elysee Palace, on December 9, 2019 in Paris.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a meeting on Ukraine with German Chancellor at the Elysee Palace, on December 9, 2019 in Paris.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a meeting on Ukraine with German Chancellor at the Elysee Palace, on December 9, 2019 in Paris. ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

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At the end of director Jean Renoir’s great anti-war film, La Grande Illusion, a German patrol opens fire on two escaped French prisoners of war. One German soldier shouts to another, “Stop shooting! They’re in Switzerland!”

“So much the better for them!” is the reply.

I have often thought of this exchange in the context of the present debate on a treaty of neutrality for Ukraine. This is not just as an essential and unavoidable part of any agreement to end the present Russian invasion but one that may have prevented the invasion happening (since it was first on Russia’s list of demands). A declaration of neutrality has generally been treated, both in the West and in Ukraine itself, as a colossal and dangerous sacrifice by Ukraine.

At the end of director Jean Renoir’s great anti-war film, La Grande Illusion, a German patrol opens fire on two escaped French prisoners of war. One German soldier shouts to another, “Stop shooting! They’re in Switzerland!”

“So much the better for them!” is the reply.

I have often thought of this exchange in the context of the present debate on a treaty of neutrality for Ukraine. This is not just as an essential and unavoidable part of any agreement to end the present Russian invasion but one that may have prevented the invasion happening (since it was first on Russia’s list of demands). A declaration of neutrality has generally been treated, both in the West and in Ukraine itself, as a colossal and dangerous sacrifice by Ukraine.

But modern European history does not altogether bear this out. Being drawn into great-power rivalry may not be such a wonderful thing as the U.S. foreign and security establishment—safely isolated from any resulting horrors—tends to imagine. And if sufficient guarantees are in place, neutrality can be a great boon for a nation.

The essential guarantee is that the country concerned should be free to develop as a market democracy. This is exemplified by the experience of Finland and Austria during the Cold War. By treaty, these countries could join neither NATO nor the Warsaw Pact; I visited both countries during the last decade of the Cold War, and there was absolutely nothing to distinguish them from other prosperous Western democracies. Indeed, both countries have always scored close to the top of global indexes for quality of life.

The oldest formal neutrality pact guaranteed by international agreement, that of Switzerland, was officially created by the 1815 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Napoleonic wars, and was then written into the Swiss Constitution. Internationally recognized neutrality was intended to prevent Switzerland from becoming a dependency of French or German powers—and a battleground between them. So deeply did neutrality become part of Switzerland’s identity that it survived World War I and II, despite strong pro-German sentiments in Switzerland’s German majority and equally strong pro-French sentiments in its French areas.

Finnish neutrality was established by the 1948 Finno-Soviet Treaty, not in the form of constitutional neutrality but as part of an agreement that Finland would not ally with the West against the Soviet Union or allow Soviet troops to enter Finland except by the express decision of the Finnish government.

This treaty stemmed from the Finnish-Soviet peace agreement of 1944, by which Finland abandoned its alliance with Nazi Germany and left World War II. This agreement also confirmed and slightly extended the territorial concessions Finland made to the Soviet Union after its eventual defeat in the Winter War of 1939 and 1940. In accordance with this treaty, Finland did not join either NATO or the European Union during the Cold War. In 1992, the 1948 treaty was replaced by a new Finnish-Russian friendship treaty that did not contain a provision of neutrality, and in 1995, Finland joined the European Union. To date, however, Finland has retained its policy of military nonalignment and has not sought to join NATO.

Two features of Finnish neutrality are worth noting in the Ukrainian context. The first is that Soviet leadership was apparently convinced by the toughness of Finnish resistance in 1939 and 1940 that incorporating Finland into the Soviet Union (as it did in the case of Finland’s southern neighbors—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), would be more trouble than it was worth. Finland was therefore the only territory of the former Russian Empire not to be annexed to the Soviet Union by former Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin or Joseph Stalin.

The second is that Moscow stuck to the letter of the treaty with Finland. It did not seek to promote a communist revolution in Finland or to turn Finland into a militarily dependent country by indirect means. The Soviet Union even withdrew from the Porkkala Naval Base in 1956; although under the 1944 agreement, it had leased it for 50 years. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has sometimes disagreed with Finnish policies, but it has never threatened Finland militarily.

Austrian neutrality was established in 1955 by an agreement (the Austrian State Treaty) among the former victorious allies that had occupied Germany and Austria at the end of World War II. As a result, Soviet, U.S., British, and French occupation forces left the country and Austrian sovereign independence was restored. As in the case of Finland, Moscow strictly observed the terms of the Austrian treaty.

Since the Russian government issued their démarche to Ukraine and the West in December 2021, Ukrainian neutrality has always been first on Moscow’s list of demands. This marks a recognition that the Russian strategy prior to 2014—that of bringing Ukraine into close alliance with Russia as part of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization—has failed utterly. Something that too much of the Western commentary on this issue forgets is that a treaty of neutrality also bans Ukraine from entering a Russian-dominated alliance.

A treaty of neutrality for Ukraine would have to include certain essential conditions guaranteeing Ukrainian sovereignty and independence. The first is that Ukraine should have the complete ability to develop its own armed forces to defend itself. NATO bases and exercises in Ukraine would be excluded, but Ukraine would be free to buy all necessary weapons systems, with the possible exclusion of intermediate-range missiles capable of hitting Moscow. If Russia insisted on a ban on NATO tanks or warplanes, Ukraine would be able to buy these from Sweden, a NATO ally in all but name. Russia must reciprocate for any limits on Ukrainian weapons by limiting its own forces stationed in Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, possibly as part of a new arms limitation agreement with NATO.

Secondly, Ukraine must retain the right to develop close links with and eventually join the European Union. This is, in fact, a much stronger factor in democratization than NATO membership—remember the example of Turkey, which has been a member of NATO almost since the treaty’s beginning without ever really developing into a stable and successful democracy. Russia has reportedly already agreed to this.

After the war, the West should give maximum possible support for Ukraine to move toward EU membership. However, this will also require deep reforms in Ukraine, including moves to curb corruption and the power of extreme nationalist groups, for there will be strong opposition within the EU to admitting any more members with the public ethics of Romania and Bulgaria or the political cultures of Poland and Hungary.

Finally, a treaty of neutrality must include a commitment by all the signatories and members of the United Nations Security Council to Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity (with a proviso, suggested by Ukraine, that the status of the disputed territories of Crimea and the Donbas be subject to future negotiation while the use or threat of force by either side to resolve these disputes be banned). NATO and the EU should write into the treaty formal and detailed commitments to resume full economic sanctions against Russia if it violates the terms of the treaty and once again attacks Ukraine; although for this threat to be effective, it presupposes that the West is willing to lift its new sanctions against Russia as part of a peace agreement.

Ukraine has demanded that the West and the international community commit themselves to going to war to defend Ukraine if such a treaty is violated. This demand exposes the full hypocrisy and irresponsibility of NATO in its dealings with Ukraine, for it would mean a NATO commitment to fight to defend Ukraine—which is precisely what NATO has always refused to do. British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab has already ruled out any such promise from Britain. One can assume other NATO governments feel similarly.

The demand for absolute guarantees that such a treaty would be respected by Moscow is likely pointless. No international agreement has ever been absolutely certain for all time. Ultimately, faith in a treaty’s maintenance can only rest in it meeting the basic interests of both sides and being preferable to a resumption of conflict.

From this point of view, the greatest assurance of future Ukrainian security has already been achieved by the Ukrainian forces themselves (with considerable help from Western weaponry). The heroic fight put up by the Finns in 1939 and 1940 was the best guarantee that the Soviet Union would respect its treaty of neutrality and Finnish independence. The tough resistance of the Ukrainians has fought the Russian invaders to a standstill on most fronts, inflicted huge losses on their elite troops, and frustrated the Kremlin’s plan to subjugate Ukraine. Meanwhile, unexpectedly harsh Western sanctions have devastated the Russian economy. If Russia can achieve an agreement that meets basic Russian conditions, it seems highly unlikely that any future Russian government would wish to repeat the awful experience of that war.

Correction, April 5, 2022: A previous version of this piece incorrectly referred to Sweden’s experience during the Cold War.

Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry and Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World, with John Hulsman.

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