As the death toll mounts and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its fourth week, the two countries’ negotiating teams claim to be trying to hammer out a possible solution, even as Russian bombs hammer cities like Mariupol into rubble. Currently the front-running solution seems to be Ukrainian “neutrality.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has suggested that Russia might accept a “compromise” in which Ukraine does not become a NATO member. An increasing number of international commentators are also arguing neutrality might be a reasonable way to end the bloodshed quickly, by offering Putin a face-saving “off-ramp” for the invasion. Ostensibly progressive voices like former Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis have called for the “Finlandization” of Ukraine, referring to Finland’s quasi-forced neutrality during the Cold War; the Russians have suggested Austria, which was formally neutral but maintained trade relations with both the United States and the Soviet Union, as a model for Ukraine.
The growing popularity of this solution is understandable: In the face of the strong defense mounted by Ukraine and widespread international sanctions on the Russian economy, Putin’s hope of a quick victory has shattered, and the Russian armed forces have shifted to indiscriminate shelling of infrastructure and civilians. Many want to end the bloodshed as quickly as possible. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appeared to concede, last week, that Ukrainian exclusion from NATO might be inevitable.
But while there is a very simple definition of neutrality in international law—that a neutral country does not participate in any way in the military conflicts of other countries—there is no single political model for neutrality. Put differently, neutrality is not a neutral concept but a complex political one, with major implications for countries’ international and domestic policies and development.
The rationale for neutrality goes something like this. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization expanded into Eastern Europe in the 1990s and 2000s, despite having assured Russia that it wouldn’t do so. Then, in 2008, at a summit in Bucharest—the capital of former Soviet satellite and recent NATO and EU member Romania—the EU announced that Georgia and Ukraine might be eligible for membership. Since Russia perceives NATO as a potential existential threat, NATO’s expansion into Russia’s sphere of influence forced Russia’s hand, leading to its invasion of those countries in 2008 and 2014, respectively, and eventually to the current war. Satisfying Russia’s security concerns and de-escalating the current situation would require ensuring the future neutral status of Ukraine, with the country serving as a nonaligned buffer between Russia and the West, just like Finland and Austria did during the Cold War. Some commentators have even suggested—both before the war and after its outbreak—that if Ukraine had simply committed to neutrality earlier, this could have been avoided.
But this story is too simple. Part of the problem is that Ukraine was a neutral country when Russia first invaded it.
When Ukraine gained independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, its declaration of sovereignty included a commitment to both neutrality and nuclear disarmament (the country having inherited a nuclear arsenal from the USSR). In 1994, it formally joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and relinquished its nukes. In exchange, the signatories of the so-called Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurance, including nuclear superpower Russia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom, agreed to respect Ukraine’s 1994 borders and to protect Ukraine if it were invaded (or at least seek U.N. Security Council action on the matter). The agreement, however, is not legally binding. So the actual effect of the agreement was that powerful countries with nuclear capabilities shored up their nuclear power status in exchange for little more than goodwill. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s 1996 Constitution contained the principles of neutrality.
Over the next decade, Ukraine oscillated between leaning toward Russia and toward the West. In the latter case, the country made a few overtures toward the EU and NATO, including when President Leonid Kuchma sent Ukrainian troops to support America’s illegal invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, both the West and Russia tugged Ukrainian policy toward their spheres of influence, perhaps most notably when Russia sponsored the 2004 election fraud that triggered the Orange Revolution. It was only after this that NATO membership started being talked about in earnest, but it was hardly imminent; public support for NATO among Ukrainians was tepid at best, even after Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and after Vladimir Putin decried Western influence in the country in his now-infamous, minatory speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007.
This all changed after the Euromaidan protests of 2014. The protests, sparked by then-President Viktor Yanukovich’s pro-Kremlin turn and fed by both Russian and U.S. influence, and which featured the president ordering riot police to open fire on unarmed protesters, brought Oleksandr Turchynov to the presidency. Vladimir Putin, who refused to recognize the validity of the new president’s office, launched an invasion of Ukraine, annexing the regions of Donbas and Crimea and holding sham referendums that purportedly showed support for Russian occupation.
The 2014 invasion revealed that the Budapest Memorandum’s security assurances from the U.K. and USA (and obviously Russia) weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. It was also the start of a troubling trend in Western discourse, with many talking heads in the U.S., including Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer, aligning with Putin’s positions by rushing to blame NATO for the invasion and calling for Ukraine to embrace neutrality and “buffer” status, meaning specifically not joining NATO. This explanation was even weaker then than it is now, given that Ukraine was formally neutral, a de facto buffer state, politically unstable, a major Russian trading partner, and hardly a security threat. The Russian invasion, meanwhile, succeeded in annexing territory but backfired by drastically shifting Ukrainian public opinion in favor of NATO. The country formally abandoned its neutral status in late 2014 and began actively campaigning for the protection from Russia that NATO membership might bring. NATO, however, vacillated, its so-called “open door” policy never quite open to Ukrainian accession.
Russia’s meddling in 2004, the 2014 invasion, and the current war make much more sense, however, when we shift away from focusing on NATO expansion to consider the imperial undertones of “Russian security concerns.” The so-called Putin doctrine boils down to two crucial elements. One is the self-given right to intervene in neighboring countries in order to protect the local Russian-speaking populations from what the Kremlin deems to be threats. The other is a very specific understanding of good neighborly relations: limiting the sovereignty of post-Soviet states as the condition of Russia respecting their continued independence. Russian-speaking populations have been used as a pretext for continuous meddling in Moldova since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and for the 2008 invasion of Georgia. NATO and the EU enter this equation less as direct threats to Russia’s sovereignty than as an impingement on imperial ambitions.
Now that this doctrine has driven a full-scale assault on Ukraine, we are living through a redux of 2014’s debate over neutrality, but this time with even bigger stakes. The key question is what neutrality for Ukraine would entail.
Clearly, Ukraine would give up any ambitions of joining NATO. Joining NATO was deemed an unshakable priority before the recent invasion. Both this and the goal of joining the EU were actually enshrined in Ukraine’s Constitution via an amendment introduced in 2019. So this would not be a minor concession for Ukraine. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s position seems to be that it might accept limited neutrality—while NATO membership is no longer an explicit goal, Andrii Sybiha, the deputy chief of staff of the Ukrainian president, made it clear that the country insists on its EU bid. But that’s only if Russia retreats completely and returns the annexed territories of Crimea and Donbas, both taken during its last invasion in 2014. Russia is probably not going to do that.
Beyond not joining NATO, details on what “neutrality” means have been vague. Comparisons to Austria and Finland are supposed to shed some light on what this might look like, but these historical shorthands aren’t that helpful.
The Finnish security scholar Tapio Juntunen, exploring the Ukraine-Finland analogy in particular, calls such comparisons cases of parachronistic reasoning: a reappropriation and application of ideas from the past to contexts they no longer suit. Finland’s neutrality was the result of two armed conflicts with the USSR in 1939 and 1941, leading it to accept neutral status to avoid occupation. It practice, this meant that after World War II, in deference to the USSR, Finland did not accept Marshall Plan funds and, until the collapse of the USSR, Finnish politics and public debates were weighed down by the need to avoid anti-Soviet sentiment. Because of economic ties and military threat, the Soviet Union maintained an important influence on Finnish domestic policy. The term “Finlandization” has for years been a pejorative term, referring to a smaller country needing to bow to foreign influence under the guise of neutrality.
There are also important details that make the Ukraine-Finland analogy flawed. Finnish neutrality was agreed to after the country’s participation in World War II, which saw it fight against first the USSR and then Germany. In this context, its neutrality was aimed at ensuring its postwar security in a polarized Europe. Second, this neutrality was the result of a treaty signed with the USSR after fighting had ceased and was never formalized in its constitutions. (This, incidentally, is why the country can now push for fast-track accession to NATO.) Last but not least, although Finland used to be a part of the Russian Empire, it does not belong to the same ethnolinguistic sphere that the Putin doctrine claims as its domain.
The Austrian analogy is also a victim of parachronistic reasoning. Austria’s neutrality was enshrined in its constitution in 1955. However, this decision was taken after a decade of foreign military occupation by the USSR, the U.S., France, and the U.K., which was the country’s punishment for fighting alongside Germany in World War II. When the occupiers fragmented into hostile blocs, Austria was given the opportunity for limited self-determination if it remained a buffer state with the agreement of both the USSR and Western powers.
Both the Austrian and Finnish examples show that ideas like rights and self-determination are largely meaningless when they are not backed by force that can protect them. Finland was not left alone just because of its neutral status but because of the reparations it was forced to pay to the Soviets after the war and because it accepted Soviet influence. Austria, by virtue of geography and cunning politics, was protected by the West even as it maintained close trade relations with the USSR. Countries left to deal with Moscow on their own, on the other hand—like post–World War II Poland and Czechoslovakia, for example—almost immediately suffered the fate of turning into the USSR’s vassals.
So the real question, as civilians continue to be killed throughout Ukraine and negotiators try to hammer out a compromise, is this: What arrangement would preserve actual independence for Ukraine, while still being acceptable to the Kremlin?
It’s not clear to us that there’s any arrangement that would meet these terms. And there are three big reasons why.
First, there is the challenge of postwar reconstruction. Given the scale of the destruction, Ukraine will have to rely on foreign assistance. The EU has proposed creating a solidarity fund for Ukraine to help provide for immediate needs and support future reconstruction. But if Russia objects to such investment as a form of foreign influence, as the USSR did when Finland might have received Marshall Plan funds after World War II, then who can Ukraine turn to? Since 2014, Ukraine has been reorienting its trade policy, and Russia is currently the country’s third-largest trading partner after the EU and China. (If the EU is disaggregated into its individual countries, Russia falls behind Germany and Poland.) If the terms of neutrality reverse this trend, Ukraine might find itself dependent on Russia, the aggressor state, for both trade and aid.
Second is the question of future economic and political development—not just trading partnerships but also Ukraine’s EU membership. Ukraine has been moving away from the “Russian world” toward Western economic and political structures for several years. Moscow, however, views membership in any Western bodies, such as the EU, even if pursued voluntarily, as Western encroachment. If any alliance with the West is deemed unacceptable by Russia, be it NATO or the EU, this would facilitate Russia’s Finlandization of Ukrainian politics, in the original sense of the term. It might mean the already relatively unstable, corrupt, and oligarchic Ukrainian political economy moves even further toward the Russian model of authoritarian oligarchic capitalism, rather than some version of the capitalist liberal democracy associated with Western Europe. Despite the drawbacks of the latter—and its many failings in places like Poland—many Ukrainians might prefer the liberal democratic version of capitalism to the oligarchic authoritarian one.
Third and most crucial is the security issue. Ukraine’s post-USSR history is a painful lesson that relying on third parties’ goodwill can be disastrous. NATO as a defensive alliance does imply a specific pro-West alignment, but it also gives very concrete guarantees of security, allowing countries like Poland and Latvia not only to breathe easier but actively to participate in opposing Russian foreign policy. Deprived of this avenue under a potential neutrality agreement, Ukraine would have to look for security guarantees elsewhere. The clearest option would be massive investment in domestic military capacity and armament, but this would likely be seen by Russia as a threat. The second option would be a closer defensive alliance with Poland, the three Baltic states, Moldova, Georgia, and perhaps Finland, all of which perceive Russia as a potentially hostile power. However, four of these seven states are NATO members, the fifth might soon become one, and the other two are themselves dealing with Russian-backed separatism and the presence of Russian troops in their territory. Any such security alliance, therefore, would be a mess of fragmented interests and still seen as a threat by Russia. Ukraine, then, would probably have to look beyond its immediate neighbors for security guarantees. Given Russia’s influence, it’s not clear who would step up on this front. Whether, for example, China agrees to support Ukraine is dubious. But if the terms of neutrality were to hamper any of these security options, then Ukraine would be left at Russia’s mercy.
Ultimately, a careful look at Central and Eastern European history should remind us that neutrality is not as simple as impartiality or nonalignment. It is a fraught political reality affecting domestic politics, foreign policy, and the boundaries of a country’s future possibilities. It is also not a decision countries make in a vacuum. If John Mearsheimer—who has been widely cited as an authority on the current crisis despite a troublingly incomplete and parochial view of Eastern Europe—gets one obvious thing right, it’s that “abstract rights such as self-determination are largely meaningless when powerful states get into brawls with weaker states.”
Putin seems to have opted for bombing Ukraine into accepting something like neutrality, but on Russian terms. Whether to opt for neutrality, however, is up to Ukrainians. If it is a decision they make—perhaps, as President Zelenskiy has hinted, by referendum—it will not be under the conditions of their choosing. And it is a decision that they, and not armchair commentators, will have to live with for the foreseeable future. Despite heavy losses, Ukrainians may believe that the more they fight back, and the greater the damage they can inflict, the greater chance they’ll have of dictating terms in whatever happens next. And so, for now, Ukraine has chosen to fight.