Zelensky’s murky neutrality plan could prove a siren song for Ukraine

The author is a Senior Fellow at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute

In his speech to the Israeli Knesset on March 20, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Cited Golda Meir, the late Prime Minister of Israel: “We want to live, our neighbors want to see us dead.”

For a president who identifies Russia’s goals in such terms, the search for Zelensky’s neutrality treaty is confusing. Even more confusing is his belief that security can be guaranteed by a country whose interests are hostile to itself. Yet the blueprint for Ukraine’s neutrality presented last week has been proposed.

Before World War I, neutrality was a recognized legal status, was negotiated with diligence and was largely respected. Belgian neutrality, enshrined in the London Treaty of 1839, until Germany denounced it as a “scrap of paper” and invaded the country in 1914. The Paris Agreement of 1815 recognized “armed neutrality”, the basis of the situation in Switzerland. After the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, France became the guarantor of that arrangement and of the concert system as a whole.

In the 20th century, the fortunes of neutral countries like Belgium and Norway were much less fortunate. The rules proved that Finland was an exception. Its neutrality was maintained because the Soviet Union realized that Finland’s independence had become indestructible.

Can Ukraine secure Finnish-style neutrality? Like Finland, it has fought against Russia. But the routing of its forces is far from impossible, and Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has outweighed its interests in Finland. Without uniting Ukraine, the myth of the “Russian world” is shattered. For Vladimir Putin, the crime of secession between Russia and “Little Russia” is a personal obsession to undo what he considers.

For these reasons, Zelensky’s intentions for discussion remain a matter of conjecture. But they are notable. First, the assurance that Ukraine would one day join the alliance 14 years after NATO’s declaration has achieved all the glory of the emperor’s attire. When it comes to the defenses needed to prevent defeat, Ukraine’s NATO partners have provided them with ample supplies. When it comes to the need to stop the killings, it’s scattered. Clearly, Zelensky has decided that Ukraine needs a different foundation for security.

Second, the scale of Russia’s opposition has not been lost on him since 24 February. He concluded that tough bargaining could expand Russia’s willingness to compromise. Meanwhile, Russia has given up its insistence on “denizification” (regime change) and “demilitarization” (Ukrainian disarmament).

Third, a goal that Russia has not abandoned – the recognition of Ukraine’s isolated Donbass statutes (as opposed to their “administrative” full-fledged temporary borders) and the annexation of Moscow’s Crimea – is a curse on Ukraine. Zelensky was not upset about this.

You need to ask at least four questions. First, on NATO-Ukraine cooperation: Since the signing of the Individual Partnership Agreement in 1997, a huge network of cross-fertilization and training and assistance of military networks has played an important role in Ukraine’s military culture and national security. Is Zelensky ready to abandon these relations in the interest of dubious peace with Russia?

Second, what does it mean to say that security guarantees provided by distant countries like the United States, Russia and Israel are “stronger than NATO Article 5”? Individually or collectively? What? Article 5 derives its strength not from words but from common interests, strong consolidation, extensive command and control system and decades of cooperation. Without these, certainty is little more than righteousness.

Third, why should countries that do not want to increase Ukraine’s security guarantees as part of NATO be excluded from NATO? The reason why Ukraine is not offered NATO membership is not because it is considered ineligible – as Zelensky believes – but NATO allies are reluctant to go to war with a nuclear-armed Russia.

After all, once Ukraine is officially at peace with Russia, who in the West will argue the case for providing more military assistance to Ukraine, maintaining sanctions or increasing spending for Russia? Today, those who want to wash Ukraine’s hands are confused and disrespectful. A Ukrainian declaration of neutrality will bring them back to life.

It is no secret that Kiev’s terms were originally drawn up by Zelensky’s presidential office, with little input from the foreign and defense ministries. The stamp of amateurism is all very visible. The consolation can be found in the assurance that the Ukrainian people will have one last word. He may be surprised at what they say.

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