Ukraine was formally a neutral country from the collapse of the Soviet Union until 2014. —
For over two decades since the end of the Soviet Union until the Russian invasion of Crimea, Ukraine was officially non-aligned – or neutral – in international affairs.
This meant that while the country often swung between pro-Russian and pro-European governments, it did not formally take a side in the geopolitical to-and-fro between East and West.
All that changed in 2014, when Russia seized Crimea. Ukraine officially abandoned its neutrality and MPs cheered as they voted to drop the country’s non-aligned position by 303 votes to just eight.
The move swayed the country towards NATO membership and was immediately denounced by Moscow as «unfriendly» and «counterproductive.»
In 2019, Ukraine’s constitution was amended to include a new line in the preamble declaring «the irreversibility of the European and Euro-Atlantic course» of the country.
As Russia’s war in Ukraine continues, that legally binding clause could be up for grabs.
Back in March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: «Security guarantees and neutrality, the non-nuclear status of our state. We are ready to go for it. This is the most important point.»
Zelenskyy stressed any peace treaty would require a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops to pre-invasion lines, and refused demands to demilitarise the country.
And the final agreement, he noted, would have to be put to a referendum.
A high price to pay
Under international practice, countries that declare themselves as neutral are expected to stay clear from present and future armed conflicts and to refuse assistance and territorial access to all belligerents, with the exception of humanitarian aid.
Consequently, participation in any sort of military alliance – regardless of its size and mission – is seen as a violation of neutrality.
For Ukraine, this would mean giving up on its long-held aspiration to join NATO, a concession the Kremlin would warmly welcome and that Zelenskyy has implied he could accept in return for peace.
But Ukrainians might struggle to swallow that hard pill after resisting the advance of the much larger and better-equipped Russian army.
«It will probably be not well received by the Ukrainian population right now,» Anton Nanavov, deputy director of international relations at the National University of Kyiv, told Euronews.
«I can definitely tell you what the reaction is going to be. We will probably need to feel, as a nation, that we managed to get something as a substitute to this status. We would need to have very strong guarantees that it [the war] will never happen again.»
A recent poll carried out by Rating, an independent pollster from Ukraine, showed 68% of residents supported the idea of joining NATO, a figure similar to pre-war studies.
The poll excluded Crimea and the two separatist regions in the east.
Swapping NATO dreams for lasting peace could be feasible but would be contingent upon Russia’s willingness to respect the deal, a big ask at this moment, Nananov notes.
«[Neutrality could be] a possibility if it’s going to be the last Russian demand from us and they will tell us that it’s a free Ukraine and they will take away their deployed troops and they will give back Crimea,» he said.
«It can be possibly considered, but I am not sure that that will be very pleasantly accepted by people.»
Serhiy Kudelia, an assistant professor at Baylor University, Texas, said Zelenskyy’s «sudden about-face» on NATO would represent an «explicit acquiescence to one of Russia’s key demands.»
«Rather than a strategic choice made of Ukraine’s own accord, neutrality would become a policy imposed on Ukrainian society and its elites through the use of force. Indeed, the prospect of neutrality lacks deeper political legitimacy and is likely to be immediately contested,» Kudelia wrote in an article for Open Democracy.
«It would be at permanent risk of reversal by any of Zelenskyi’s successors. This would undermine the effectiveness of neutrality as a tool of international relations. Instead, it would likely become a permanent source of internal instability.»
Power and interests
Neutrality is a concept that dates back several centuries and that has been progressively codified in international law, starting with the landmark Hague Convention V and XIII of 1907.
Today, only a handful of countries are recognised as neutral, ranging from G7 members to microstates. Some, like Japan, Finland, and Switzerland, maintain a well-funded, modern army while others, like Panama, Monaco, Liechtenstein and Vatican City, have little to no military capacity.
In practice, neutrality is rather flexible and countries have a great margin of discretion to interpret their status as long as there is no direct involvement in warfare.
For example, Finland is sending rifles and anti-tank weapons to Ukraine while Switzerland has broken precedent to impose sanctions on Russia. For its part, Japan preserves a decades-long treaty of mutual cooperation and security with the US.
Nevertheless, their neutrality is considered fait accompli by the international community.
«Neutrality works when the balance of power is in place. It works when it is in everybody’s interest that it works,» said Pascal Lottaz, a Tokyo-based professor of neutrality studies at Waseda University.
«Between 1991 and 2014, Ukraine was more or less in a sort of political balance. Under some governments, Ukraine was more pro-European. Under some other governments, it was more pro-Russian. But it always maintained this stance that it would remain neutral and it would not join either side. This was upset back in 2008 when NATO promised membership to Ukraine.»
A new balance of power would have to be born out of the peace talks in order to uphold Ukraine’s neutrality and ensure the country is protected from new unprovoked acts of aggression. Austria’s neutrality and safety was guaranteed by the Allied powers after War World II and the ensuing ten years of occupation.
Reports from Ukrainian media have floated the idea of a coalition of guarantors that would encompass the likes of Russia, China, the US, the UK, France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland and Israel, although it remains to be seen how many of these countries would be willing to assume such responsibility.
Turkey and Israel have been acting as moderators in the conflict while China has adopted a deliberately ambiguous position, calling for peace and restraint but lashing out against the West’s rafts of sanctions and «Cold War mentality.»
«There would have to be an agreement made between Ukraine, Russia, and it would have to include Washington as well, because, let’s not kid ourselves, the war is between Russia and Ukraine, but the conflict is between Russia and NATO, and mainly the US. So this would need an agreement from all sides that everybody is better off if Ukraine remains neutral,» Lottaz told Euronews.
«Ukraine has been asking, for example, for security guarantees if it agrees to be neutral. Now, who should give those security guarantees? It could certainly not be a NATO member state because that would be almost the equivalent of NATO’s membership, which Russia would never accept.»
Being deprived of external guarantors and NATO membership at the same time could prove to be intolerable for Ukrainians, who, after February 24, are bound to navigate a highly uncertain and volatile geopolitical environment, the contours of which are still being designed.
An alternative path might be found in EU membership: under the peace treaty Ukraine could be allowed to pursue European integration only if it officially ditches its NATO aspirations. In doing so, Ukraine would become the sixth neutral country that joins the EU, together with Austria, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden.
The prospect of EU membership has gained enormous traction since the war broke out. The same Rating poll that showed support for NATO at 68% revealed backing for EU accession at 91%, a record-breaking figure.
President Zelenskyy has sent Brussels the formal application, which is now being reviewed by the European Commission. Political appetite has increased considerably across the bloc, with some Eastern European countries asking for a fast-tracked procedure, an unheard-of option.
But EU membership is a long-term perspective, an inspiring project for the post-war years. Right now, the fighting persists and the focus is exclusively on the battlefield – and the negotiating table.
Hard times lie ahead on both ends.
Days after Zelenskyy explicitly endorsed Ukraine’s return to neutrality, Russian President Vladimir Putin said peace talks had hit a «dead end» and vowed the «military operation will continue until its full completion.» He later ordered an all-out assault to gain control of the entire Donbas.