April 04, 2022

The problem with a neutral Ukraine: Putin is as bad as his word

Originally published in The Hill

The search by the West for “off-ramps” that would allow Russia’s Vladimir Putin to save face while backing out of his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has hit upon the idea of Ukrainian neutrality. If Ukraine committed to not joining NATO, so the argument goes, Putin and the West could somehow guarantee Ukraine’s independence going forward.

Of the many problems with this theory, one stands out: Russia, the U.S. and Great Britain already guaranteed Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity — in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. And Putin has been violating that since 2014.

Why on earth should Ukraine — or the world — repose greater confidence in any Russian promise today?

The U.S., the U.K. and Russia committed in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum to “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” in return for which Ukraine gave its Soviet-era nuclear weapons arsenal to Russia. Discussions of this agreement in the West have hitherto largely focused on the fact that it did not commit the U.S. to defend Ukraine against Russian attack in a binding way.

The agreement did, however, bind Russia not only not to invade or occupy Ukrainian territory, as it has done since 2014, but also to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine,” which it has done for nearly a decade.

Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. solemnly committed, moreover, “to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind.” Russia has used economic coercion against Ukraine for two decades, undermining its independence and hindering its ability to exercise its sovereign rights despite this commitment.

A binding agreement committing Ukraine to neutrality would suit Putin just fine — bymodifying the Budapest Memorandum as follows:

Ukraine itself would have to commit not to join NATO or any of the various organizational webs Russia has spun around itself, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). It would presumably have to promise not to host Western or Russian forces or weapons on its territory or allow its territory to be used to attack either side. In other words, Ukraine would have to abandon some of the “right inherent in its sovereignty” guaranteed by the Budapest Memorandum — and by international law — by giving up its ability to associate freely with other states and collective security organizations as it chooses.

Neither Ukraine nor the West should be comfortable demanding that Ukraine accept such a truncated sovereignty imposed at gunpoint by Russia’s military.

The bigger problem with this idea, however, is this: Why should anyone believe that Putin would abide by a new commitment — when he has so egregiously violated the one Russia already made to Ukraine in 1994?

If the threat of Ukraine’s accession to NATO had, in fact, been the primary motivation for Putin’s invasion, one might imagine that a binding Ukrainian commitment not to seek admittance to the alliance would be enough to secure Ukraine in the future.

This premise is false, however. Ukraine’s commitment to seeking NATO accession was only one of many grievances that Putin has cited as his justification for his illegal invasion. He also has denied repeatedly that Ukraine has any right to exist as a sovereign state. He has falsely accused Ukraine of preparing a “genocide” against its Russian-speaking citizens and otherwise mistreating people to whom Putin unilaterally gave Russian citizenship and over whom Putin claims transnational rights of protection. He has invented a multitude of Western threats emanating from Ukraine, ranging from the deployment of hypersonic missiles that the U.S. has not yet even fielded, to the existence of fictitious bioweapons labs that the U.S. supposedly maintained in Ukraine and other states around Russia. He has illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region and unilaterally recognized the independence of the proxy republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which Russian forces created in 2014-2015.

The Kremlin’s various grievances and demands go far beyond any desire for Ukrainian neutrality. They amount to a consistent demand for de facto Russian control over Ukraine’s internal affairs as well as its freedom to associate with other states and alliances.

There is no reason whatsoever to believe that a Ukrainian commitment to neutrality would end Putin’s drive for Russian control over Ukrainian affairs.

There is every reason, on the other hand, to believe that Putin would simply violate any new commitment — at a moment of his choosing — as he has violated others, including the Budapest Memorandum itself. (He also committed in 2015, we should recall, to prevent Syria’s Bashar al Assad regime from using chemical weapons — but then covered for and defended that regime as it did so.) Putin’s own agents violated the Chemical Weapons Ban Treaty, to which Russia is a signatory, by using nerve agents against Russian defectors in Britain. He violated international law and the agreements that broke up the Soviet Union by invading Georgia in 2008 and carving off its regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (from which he is now drawing forces to support his invasion of Ukraine).

There is no commitment Putin could make to accept Ukraine’s independence in return for Kyiv’s neutrality that any rational person should rely upon.

Putin’s word is worthless.  

His objectives, however, are clear; his worldview and aims are obvious. An independent Ukraine is not part of them — and neither Kyiv nor the West should fool themselves into thinking that some new document Putin might sign to the contrary will keep Ukraine free.