After four years of armed conflict, 10,000 casualties and 1.5 million internally displaced, the dangerous situation between Ukraine and Russia escalated again on Nov. 25. Russian military vessels rammed, shot at and seized three Ukrainian military ships that were routinely and legally passing through the Kerch Strait.
This represents a new dimension of the conflict. Unlike the covert operation in 2014, which led to the annexation of Crimea, or the Russian-supported militant uprisings in eastern Ukraine, the Russian military is this time visibly engaged in using force against Kiev.
Despite the blatant infringement on international law, common norms and the brutal strong-arming of Ukraine, one thing needs to be noted; to Russia, Europe has always been a security threat. European armies invaded it twice during the past century. In World War II alone the Soviet Union lost between 20 million and 30 million people, including 6 million and 7 million Ukrainian deaths. An unprecedented carnage.
Not to forget that also the demise of the U.S.S.R. came from Europe; first the loss of the Communist Eastern European satellite states, then the breaking away of the Baltic nations, and finally the declarations of independence from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. It was the “Europeanization” of its former territories that spelled the end of Moscow’s grand sphere of influence and its position as a world power.
The root cause for the Ukrainian conflict is therefore not the Kerch Strait; it is the security environment in the Eastern European region. Ever since the ousting of the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych during the violent uprising in Kiev in 2014, and the subsequent change to a pro-European government, Russia fears a Ukrainian rapprochement to the EU and NATO.
Any solution to the situation must satisfy Russian security needs toward Europe. Moscow’s armed conflict with neighboring Georgia in 2008 was a stark warning that a further eastward expansion of NATO is an unacceptable risk which it will try to prevent at any cost.
Russia’s best-case scenario for Ukraine would be a close security alliance under the umbrella of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). That, however, is currently not possible due to the strong Western leaning of a majority of the Ukrainian population. Under these circumstances, a feeble Ukraine is in the best interest of Moscow. Unable to move the balance of power toward NATO, Kiev will be met with Russian pressure until a regime change leads to Moscow’s desired outcome.
The only other option to solve the situation is to create a mutually beneficial outcome for all sides. That could be achieved through the “permanent neutrality” of Ukraine. Like Austria, which was neutralized through an international treaty agreement in 1955 that declared it off-limits for both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the Ukrainian quagmire could be solved by utilizing permanent neutrality. In fact, since its independence in 1991, Ukraine was itself flirting with the idea of declaring neutrality. That is the reason why it did not join Belarus and Russia in the CIS already.
A stable neutral solution would, however, only be achievable through an international treaty agreement between the major powers in the region. The EU, the United States and Russia would have to declare their willingness to recognize Ukraine as a permanently neutral state. For Ukraine, this would mean a renewed guarantee for its rights as a sovereign nation, including self-determination and territorial integrity.
On the other hand, that would come with the obligation not to join any military alliance and not to provide support for foreign militaries. Ukraine would still be able to buy weapons from whichever sources it pleased, and it could also maintain its armed forces — neutrality is not pacifism.
A permanently neutral Ukraine would be a guarantee to Russia and NATO that it never became part of a hostile alliance. That would stabilize the region and inverse the security logic for Russia. The unstable situation in the Donbas and around the waters of Crimea would suddenly not be in Moscow’s best interest anymore. It would make more sense to foster an institutionally strong buffer zone to the rest of the continent.
The Crimean Peninsula could also be included in a neutrality agreement as a neutral territory which could serve as the basis for a negotiated solution of the annexation. At the same time, to Ukraine, permanent neutrality would serve as a guarantee and a purpose.
As a recognized neutral, Kiev would be in a position to mediate in crisis, provide humanitarian services in war zones, protect civilians, and join peacekeeping activities like Switzerland, Austria and Sweden have been doing for decades. Therefore, a permanently neutral Ukraine should be discussed seriously among the policymakers in Moscow, Kiev, Berlin, Paris, London and Washington.
• Pascal Lottaz is a professor at Temple University, Japan Campus. Herbert R. Reginbogin is a fellow of the Catholic University of America. They are the editors of “Notions of Neutralities” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).