The Game of Neutrality

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As his soldiers fight Russian forces, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently pledged that his country would become permanently neutral – that is, aligned neither with NATO nor Russia – in exchange for security guarantees designed to prevent more fighting in the future.

What does that mean exactly?

On one level, neutrality isn’t complicated. “We will not host foreign military bases on our territory, as well as deploy military contingents on our territory, and we will not enter into military-political alliances,” said Oleksander Chaly, a Ukrainian diplomat, on Ukrainian national television, according to Reuters.

The vast majority of countries in Europe belong either to NATO or the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led alliance that also includes Belarus and other former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia, noted NBC News. But six European Union members – Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, Finland, Malta and Sweden – are now neutral, showing that Ukraine would potentially be in good company.

There are many other levels, however.

Firstly, Zelenskyy appeared to offer neutrality in order to head off a possible Russian plan to carve up Ukraine, the Associated Press reported. A partition of Ukraine’s eastern regions, where Russia-backed separatists rule, from the Western regions would be a disaster for Zelenskyy politically but, more importantly, potentially hobble Ukraine economically for years to come.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is also likely suspicious about whether Zelenskyy really wants Ukraine to foreclose any hopes of joining NATO. Ukraine technically abandoned its neutral state in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, incidentally. Today, Ukraine’s constitution cites NATO membership as an aspiration, added the Guardian. The constitution can’t be changed while martial law is in effect, either, as it is now. That said, Zelenskyy has said that Ukraine has no chance of joining NATO anytime soon.

Furthermore, what Zelenskyy means by neutrality is probably not the same as what Putin means, Vox wrote. To Zelenskyy, neutrality means Ukraine can become like Austria or Ireland – not a NATO member but Western-looking, perhaps even a member of the European Union. To Putin, neutrality likely means Ukraine’s complete subservience to Russian domination.

Neutrality is not a cure-all, either. As the British newspaper iNews argued, neutral Switzerland has enjoyed peace and prosperity not because of its lack of military entanglements but because the mountainous country has built near-impenetrable defenses and keeps a well-trained army on call to repel aggressors.

And Switzerland’s neutrality is more flexible than one might think. Breaking with two centuries of history after coming under Western and domestic pressure, the country has joined the US and EU in slapping sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine, reported the Washington Post.

“We are in an extraordinary situation…,” President Ignazio Cassis told reporters in late February.

Neutrality sounds like a good idea but it’s complicated: Case in point: Swiss President Cassis insists that Swiss neutrality is intact.

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