Fabrizio Napoli, MA student in Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe (MIREES) at the University of Bologna, Italy
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents the greatest international conflict in Europe since WWII, and the closest we have been to a nuclear escalation since the end of the Cold War. As Putin himself clarified during his address to the nation on February 24, this, what he calls a ‘special military operation,’ aims to de-militarize and ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine. The full demilitarization of Ukraine, combined with a regime change, would ensure that Kyiv will never again seek membership in NATO, exactly according to Russia’s interests.
With negotiations ongoing, Ukraine’s permanent neutrality is being discussed as a requirement for Russia’s withdrawal.
Needless to say, the present circumstances brought back to Western debate the case against NATO’s enlargement, opponents of which have included various authoritative figures from the US, among them late diplomat George Kennan, former national security advisers Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and world-renowned scholar John Mearsheimer.
Drawing from their thinking, it has been argued that a neutral Ukraine modelled on Switzerland, Austria, or Finland could serve as a buffer state between Russia and the West, thus de-escalating the security dilemma which allegedly triggered the conflict. Though such a solution may sound viable, those who propose a neutral status for Ukraine, therefore condoning Russia’s concerns, seemingly neglect or ignore other facts which are worth considering.
First and foremost, Kyiv was not offered formal membership in NATO, and the US was never planning to install in Ukraine any surface-to-air missiles targeting Russia. Joint military exercises between the country and NATO started in the mid-1990s.
Secondly, there are no nuclear warheads deployed on the territories of NATO member states who joined the Alliance after 1997. Moreover, the number of US military personnel stationed in Europe has steadily decreased since the end of the Cold War, and its number on NATO’s eastern flank is unequivocally low in comparison with longstanding country members, such as, for instance, Germany or Italy.
What the abovementioned seems to suggest is that Russia’s worries about NATO lay in perceptions rather than concrete existential threats. As early as 1993, then-head of Russia’s foreign intelligence Yevgeny Primakov, who was later appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, warned against the broadening of the Alliance. However, he did not consider it as a premise for a strike on Russia, but rather as a source of irritation that could mobilize anti-Western forces among the military and security agencies.
Moreover, Putin himself did not oppose NATO’s eastwards enlargement in the early 2000s, and dismissed any security concern when asked for his views on Ukraine’s adhesion to the Alliance. As such, Putin’s attitude towards the West has significantly changed over time.
Scholar Paul D’Anieri, who extensively explored the matter, argues that geopolitical explanations for the Ukrainian crisis are not exhaustive, as they underestimate the role of domestic considerations in the Kremlin’s decision-making. Accordingly, changes in Russia’s foreign policy followed democratic breakthroughs in the former Soviet space, and Putin’s utmost fear is not Ukraine’s integration into defensive military alliances, but that the demand for democracy will spill over the Russian borders. It is noteworthy that as early as October 11, Russia’s former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev compared Ukraine’s pro-Western attitude to that of Hungary and Czechoslovakia prior to the Soviet repression.
Furthermore, Putin’s increasing obsession with national security signals that Russia’s electoral authoritarianism is shape-shifting into a totalitarian regime which needs to amplify external threats to justify its incessant grasp on power. As Primakov accurately observed in the early 1990s: ‘Public opinion in the Russian Federation has long been formed in the anti-NATO spirit, and it cannot change in an hour.’
However, let us assume that, regardless of such considerations, Russia’s request for a neutral Ukraine is legitimate and should be well-received. Would it be feasible?
It is worth bearing in mind that Kyiv pursued a ‘non-bloc’ foreign policy in 2010-2014, but this did not prevent the annexation of Crimea or the conflict in Donbass, which blatantly contradicts Moscow’s earlier commitments to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and leaves little hope that it would accept the ‘Finnish model’ within its alleged sphere of influence.
Moldova is a neutral state under its constitution since 1994. However, its neutrality is routinely violated by Russia’s military presence in Transnistria, which persists regardless of Moldova’s appeals for its termination. On March 1, during an address to his security council, Belarusian president Lukashenko accidentally disseminated a map detailing Russia’s war plan. It indicates Moscow’s intention to attack Moldova through southern Ukraine.
Belarusian officials have regularly referred to neutrality and non-proliferation as inspiring principles. The country is also a member of the Non-Aligned Movement. Prior to the outbreak of this war, experts compared Belarus’ regional role to that of Belgium before WWI, meaning a buffer state whose potential as an invasion corridor has long been neglected. Indeed, the Russian troops used Belarus as a staging ground to enter Ukraine, and they are not expected to leave Minsk anytime soon. Following the invasion, Belarus’ longstanding nuclear-free status was revised, suggesting that Russian nuclear warheads will be deployed on its soil.
Azerbaijan is another member of the Non-Aligned Movement which has emerged from the former Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Russians have provided separatist forces in the country with training, military equipment and manpower since the 1990s, so undermining Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity as they do in Georgia.
Previous examples suggest that when Putin resorts to violence and coercion against neighbors, he does so regardless of the threat they pose, or their neutral status. The criterion he uses is a country’s distance from what he labels as ‘Russia’s sphere of influence.’ Following several rounds of peace talks, Russian officials stated that Ukraine’s regime change is as important a negotiation chapter as neutrality. Lukashenko has also admitted that what Putin is offering Ukrainians is the chance to embrace Belarus’ pro-Russian orientation.
Meanwhile, Putin made an appearance at a huge pro-war rally that he himself organized. The show included a performance by artists who support the Kremlin and its security demands. One of them, Oleg Gazmanov, was caught singing: ‘Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova: that’s my country. Kazakhstan and the Caucasus, and the Baltics too: that’s my country,’ which speaks volumes about Moscow’s understanding of neutrality.