Main Image Credit False start: Russian and Ukrainian negotiators meet for face-to-face talks in Istanbul on 29 March 2022. Image: Turkish Presidential Palace / Alamy
Neutrality has failed to prevent war in the past, and it cannot provide a long-term security solution for Ukraine.
Calls for Ukraine’s neutrality, such as the recent one by Samuel Charap, have appeared with some frequency. But this does not mean that they are workable.
Usually, when we talk about neutrality, what we mean is the sovereign right of a state to remain neutral in a war between other states. Some, like Italy early in the First World War, remain neutral while making up their mind which belligerent side to join. Others, like Denmark and Norway early in the Second World War, try to stay neutral only to have their territory overrun. Yet others manage to successfully maintain their neutrality policy and even turn it into ‘permanent neutrality’: a guiding principle for their foreign policy in peacetime. This is still the case with a few small European states like Ireland and Austria.
But occasionally, neutrality is more than just a sovereign decision of the affected state itself. Some states have had permanent neutrality imposed on them by an international agreement between other states. This is called neutralisation and is now being suggested for Ukraine.
For Ukraine’s precarious security situation, the argument goes, internationally guaranteed neutrality would be more likely to ensure peace than any other security policy option. Such neutrality would not only, or even primarily, mean a commitment to stay out of wars involving others. It would also involve a commitment not to join military alliances (such as NATO) and maybe even a commitment to demilitarisation. In exchange, other states (perhaps the whole UN Security Council, as suggested by Charap) would commit to respecting and even defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Charap’s abovementioned article draws particular attention to the so-called Istanbul communiqué (IC), a document leaked after talks in Istanbul on 29 March. The IC suggests a scenario under which Ukraine would embrace permanent neutrality and commit to not joining any military coalitions in exchange for security guarantees from both the West and Russia. These would include, if necessary, the use of armed force ‘with the goal of restoring and then maintaining Ukraine’s security as a permanently neutral state’.
This idea that some states could be neutralised by international agreement stems from the early 19th century. At the Congress of Vienna (1815), the European great powers imposed permanent neutrality on Switzerland, guaranteeing its territorial integrity in return for its pledge to remain neutral in all future wars on the continent. Later, the same happened with Belgium (1839), Luxembourg (1867) and Albania (1913).
All these states were small, newly independent, and in danger of being invaded by more than one great power. They were also not credibly capable of self-defence, and there were no collective security organisations they could join. This made permanent neutrality their best hope for peace.
An aggressor cannot credibly guarantee the neutrality of a country it has already invaded. Russia has gravely violated Ukrainian sovereignty, so it cannot be trusted to maintain it
Their neutralisation took place in peacetime (ongoing tensions notwithstanding) and was carried out by a Europe-wide club of great powers happy to make agreements over the heads of small states. Finally, what they all (except for Switzerland) also shared was that their neutrality did not stand the test of the First World War, in which the unity of the great powers broke down.
That a similar war might happen again is perhaps not a great argument against the idea. More relevantly, however, it is not certain that unity exists in the first place. Will the members of the UN Security Council agree to neutralise Ukraine when they have failed to agree on most other issues of comparable importance? There are reasons to be sceptical, not least because Russia has turned itself into a pariah state that cannot be trusted to keep its word.
Furthermore, the pre-First World War guarantors of neutrality never included powers that had already invaded the relevant country and occupied parts of its territory. In all cases, neutralisation was a way of averting war, not ending one. Clearly, an aggressor cannot credibly guarantee the neutrality of a country it has already invaded. This is Russia’s situation: it has gravely violated Ukrainian sovereignty, so it cannot be trusted to maintain it.
What is more, previous neutralisations all dealt with cases in which the interests of two possible aggressors needed to be counterbalanced. But Ukraine is not a battleground of two great powers. Regardless of Russian propaganda narratives, there are no two sides here: Ukraine has been invaded by one country alone, and that country is Russia.
Far from being another aggressor, the West is a non-belligerent bystander. While it does have a stake in Ukraine’s victory, it is taking major efforts to drive home this fact in Western capitals. With their track record of half-heartedness, Western countries would not be credible guarantors of Ukraine’s neutrality either. If they will not go to war now to defend Ukraine, then why would they take on obligations to do exactly that in the future? And would such obligations be credible?
Another suggestion that Charap makes about the IC is that it ‘has already received at least preliminary support from both sides’ (Ukraine and Russia), even if the West has not fully appreciated it because of its novelty. But it does lack novelty in one respect, which is that Ukraine was already neutral when first invaded by Russia in 2014. This experience has left a mark, even if it was different from the kind of neutralisation that Charap is talking about.
Russia will see any Ukrainian neutrality as a weakness and an invitation for aggression, rather than a basis for lasting peace
Ukraine’s neutrality policy in the 1990s and early 2000s was originally self-initiated: a pragmatic way of distancing Ukraine from Russia’s attempts at reintegrating the post-Soviet space. Yet by about 2005, neutrality had become a liability for Ukraine’s pro-Western leadership, because Russia turned it into a propaganda weapon to undermine Ukraine’s attempts to move closer to NATO. This strategy worked for almost a decade. Only after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity was Ukraine finally able to abolish its neutrality policy.
Today, Ukraine remembers the lesson of the previous attempt at neutrality very well. And the lesson is that Russia will see any Ukrainian neutrality as a weakness and an invitation for aggression, rather than a basis for lasting peace. Until now, Russia has done everything to undermine the idea of a permanently neutral Ukraine. It therefore stands discredited.
Finally, unlike the previously neutralised European countries, Ukraine is eminently capable of self-defence, not least as demonstrated over the last three and a half months. It is also neither small (in fact, it is 20 times larger than Belgium, which Charap considers a similar case) nor newly independent. What Ukraine needs against Russia is therefore not security guarantees of doubtful value, but concrete assistance: matériel, money and political support. Indeed, this is what Ukraine is asking for.
And it matters what Ukraine is asking for. Most Western commentators are guilty of denying Ukrainians agency, instead seeing their fate as something to be decided by the great powers of our time. Charap’s suggestion of the IC having preliminary Ukrainian support is insufficient, even if true, because fundamental security decisions need a broad societal consensus. There is currently no evidence that most Ukrainians would agree with what the IC proposes. And we no longer live in pre-First World War times, when empires could decide such things without consultation.
In conclusion, Russia is emphatically not a credible guarantor of Ukrainian neutrality. The West is not an especially credible guarantor either. And the best way to defend Ukrainian independence is to provide it with the kind of assistance that it is asking for.
More broadly, the reason why we have collective security organisations is exactly because neutralisation and other similar practices were already discredited a century ago. They failed to prevent war back then and would fail to prevent it again. While it is true that our collective security system is largely defunct, the real solution is to fix it. Until then, the West must do what it can to help Ukraine defeat Russia on the battlefield. This is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, the best available security guarantee.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.