Ukraine has abandoned its aspiration to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and is seeking, instead, some form of neutrality under international guarantees. Kyiv aims to achieve this goal after the end of the ongoing war with Russia, but it is already at work on it, looking toward the post-war period. The results of this effort will, however, depend on the post-war political settlement, the shape and timeframe of which are currently unpredictable.
The goal of joining NATO commanded strong support in Ukraine at both the popular and the elite level, from the first Russian invasion in 2014 to date. The shift from NATO aspirations to neutrality has been forced upon the country. It is, in part, a result of influential NATO member countries firmly closing the purported “Open Door” to Ukrainian membership (the Joseph Biden administration moved the United States for the first time into the naysayers’ group in 2021—see EDM, May 6, 10, 27, June 1, 17, 2021) in spite of Ukraine’s decisive turn to the West since 2014. By January–February 2022, some major Western powers were asking Kyiv to desist itself from seeking NATO membership, in a serious concession to Russia with a face-saver for the North Atlantic Alliance.
Forcing Ukraine to give up its NATO aspirations and accept neutrality or nonalignment under some form of Russian supervision is a Kremlin top priority since 2014, reaffirmed with particular shrillness in the run-up to the February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine. This second invasion, now as a full-scale war, has determined Kyiv to search for guarantees of its security outside NATO, albeit with the hoped-for participation of some individual NATO member countries as well as non-members. Those guarantor countries would inevitably include Russia.
By Moscow’s definition, Ukrainian neutrality or nonalignment means staying out of any alliance, not only NATO. In the current war, moreover, Russia pursues the twin objectives of neutralizing and “demilitarizing” Ukraine—demilitarization implying strict limitations to be imposed on Ukraine’s own forces. Kyiv, therefore, attempts to mitigate and to some extent circumvent Russia’s conception of Ukraine’s neutralization and demilitarization by searching, instead, for international guarantees of Ukraine‘s security in the post-war period.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy initiated this effort from the first day of Russia’s re-invasion. In his address to the country that day, he said, in part, “Our people are dying for the freedom of Ukraine and Europe. We have waited a long time in front of ‘open doors.’ We applied for NATO membership but heard no answer. Now we need international, legally binding guarantees for our security” (President.gov.ua, February 24).
On the invasion’s second day, under the shock of Russia’s initial advances, Zelenskyy turned the question of international guarantees into a matter of bilateral discussion with Russia: “The Alliance is not prepared to take us. I have asked 27 European leaders: Will Ukraine be in NATO? I asked them directly. They are afraid… We have heard from Moscow today that they want to talk about [Ukraine’s] neutrality. We are ready to discuss with Russia the status of neutrality for Ukraine with international guarantees” (President.gov.ua, February 25).
Ukrainian-Russian negotiations began with a preliminary round on February 28. At that point already, the Ukrainian side agreed to commit to neutrality, conditional however on a system of international guarantees that would have to include Russia (TASS, February 28, March 1; see EDM, March 17, 22).
Kyiv’s own blueprint of its internationally guaranteed neutrality has been developed rapidly and unreflectively, mainly by the president’s domestic political advisors, who lack expertise in international affairs. Presidential Office Chief Andriy Yermak, two of his own advisors, and most recently the head of the ruling Servant of the People Party in the parliament, Davyd Arakhamiya (majority leader), have publicized elements of the blueprint, with President Zelenskyy’s firm support in the background. Some of the blueprint’s elements look downright naïve.
Kyiv’s own, subjective wish list of countries that would presumably guarantee Ukraine’s post-war neutrality has grown rapidly, to include by now: the five nuclear powers and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, as well as Canada, Germany, all of Ukraine’s neighboring countries, Turkey as a Black Sea neighbor, Israel and Italy; with Japan and India occasionally added to the mix (President.gov.ua, March 24, 25; Atlanticcouncil.org, March 25; Ukrinform, March 27, 29). Whether the presidential administration or other Kyiv officials have received (or asked for) those countries’ consent to serve as guarantors seems far from certain, as long as those guarantees and the commitments they imply are far from defined at this stage.
Any guarantees must, in Kyiv’s view, be ratified by the guarantor countries’ parliaments and be legally binding on those countries. According to President Zelenskyy’s March 27 interview to several Russian media outlets (Kommersant, March 27), the multilateral guarantees would in one way or another be connected with a Ukrainian-Russian bilateral peace treaty that Zelenskyy hopes to sign with his Kremlin counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, as an end to the war.