The tricky path toward Ukrainian neutrality

The tricky path toward Ukrainian neutrality

The tricky path toward Ukrainian neutrality
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Officials from both Russia and Ukraine expressed cautious optimism this week that peace talks were making progress. However, both sides stress the difficulty of the talks.

Among the key disagreements are concerns about what Ukrainian “neutrality” may mean, security guarantees, what this status means for the future of Ukraine and its territorial integrity, and, arguably, how the outcome of the talks will further clarify the future of the legal world order. 

Which model of neutrality could Ukraine adopt? Among those widely discussed as successful precedents are Finland, Austria and Belgium. 

Article 8 of the 1947 Peace Treaty with Finland and the 1948 Finno-Soviet Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance required Finland to ban any “organizations conducting propaganda hostile to the Soviet Union.” Article 8 that Finland must not “conclude or join any coalition directed against” the Soviet Union, but it does not specify demilitarization — a key issue in resolving the Ukraine conflict. 

By contrast, the 1955 Austrian State Treaty required that all allied occupation forces withdraw, and that Austria enshrine perpetual neutrality in its constitution. An act of parliament recognized that “in all future times Austria will not join any military alliances and will not permit the establishment of any foreign military bases on her territory.”

Similarly, under the terms of the London Conference of 1830, Belgium became a “perpetually neutral state.”The five great powers of the time — France, Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia — undertook to “guarantee to it perpetual neutrality, as well as the integrity and inviolability of its territory.” Despite this, Belgium’s neutrality was violated by Germany twice, at the beginning of each World War. This example might raise uncertaintyabout the behavior of great powers, despite any agreements.

For these reasons, none of these models accommodate the realities of the current conflict, so it is expected that a newly conceptualized “Ukraine model” will emerge. This will require guarantees from both sides, the most important of which will relate to security. 

Russia is interested in receiving formal recognition of Ukrainian neutrality. This has some parallels with Austria’s neutrality, in that it can include demands that Ukraine will not join any military alliances and will not permit the establishment of any foreign military bases on its territory. Moscow also insists on Kyiv’s demilitarization. Ukraine’s demands will include security guarantees that would mean signatories to any deal would have to “actively participate on the side of Ukraine” in any future conflict, and provide support and weapons. Ukraine is interested in a no-fly zone, which has so far been rejected by NATO. 

These priorities mean that the Bucharest Summit Declaration in 2008, which welcomed Ukraine and Georgia’s wish to join NATO, would be unacceptable. Any potential peace treaty will probably include the opposite, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has already conceded. “It is clear that Ukraine is not a member of NATO. We understand this. For years we heard about the apparently open door but have already also heard that we will not enter there, and these are truths and must be acknowledged,” he said last week. 

In addition, within such a neutrality treaty, there will be discussion of Ukraine’s future, including its territorial integrity. It is uncertain how Russia, Ukraine and the West will agree on territorial demands. Russia insists on the recognition as Russian of the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the annexed Crimean peninsula. This would at minimum violate the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia, the UK and US “reaffirmed their commitment to Ukraine … to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” 

Finally, a peace treaty may indirectly encompass relations between Russia and the West, which will characterize the future legal world order. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in an interview this week, took aim at the US and said the conflict in Ukraine was “not as much about Ukraine as it is about the legal world order.” He said: “The US has steamrolled all of Europe. This is an epochal moment in modern history. It reflects the fight for what the world order is going to look like.”

Accordingly, Moscow may also feel obliged and empowered to propose some demands regarding the post-Soviet space, such as Georgia’s neutrality. 

  • Dr. Diana Galeeva is an Academic Visitor to St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. Dr. Galeeva is the author of two books: “Qatar: The Practice of Rented Power” (Routledge, 2022) and “Russia and the GCC: The Case of Tatarstan’s Paradiplomacy” (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2022). She is also a co-editor of the collection “Post-Brexit Europe and UK: Policy Challenges Towards Iran and the GCC States” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).
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