The Kremlin had justified the present war in part with reference to the supposed encirclement of Russia by Nato. In taking that issue out of the equation, Ukraine has also removed one of the purported grounds for the war, making it more difficult for the Kremlin to resist the calls for a ceasefire. And Zelensky’s first priority must be to end the violence, given the immense suffering of the population.
In fact, Russia promptly made at least a show of reciprocating Ukraine’s constructive move, claiming that it would reduce its military operations in the west of Ukraine in response.
In one sense, the offer of neutrality is not really a very substantive concession. At its Bucharest summit of 2008, Nato had promised eventual admission to Ukraine. But in truth, in more recent years membership was not actually on the cards.
Still, Zelensky’s offer represents an important symbolic concession. It deviates from the principle of sovereign equality of states, and from their freedom of choice in their foreign policy guaranteed by international law. This includes the choice of alliances.
Moreover, the offer is hedged. Instead of Nato membership, Ukraine is demanding more effective security guarantees than those provided in the ill-fated Budapest Memorandum of 1994.
In that document, Russia had pledged never to use force against Ukraine after Kyiv agreed to surrender the nuclear weapons inherited from the former Soviet Union. An infraction would be reported to the UN Security Council. But that body turned out to be impotent in view of Moscow’s veto when Russia took Crimea in 2014, and now, when Ukraine suffered a massive invasion.
Crafting more effective security guarantees will not be easy. Kyiv is hoping for a binding pledge of its defence by a set of guarantor states, which may include Poland, Israel, Canada, Turkey and perhaps the US and UK. This raises two questions.
First, would these states actually be willing to underwrite Ukraine’s territorial integrity in case of further Russian aggression? In other words, would these states be willing to go to war over Ukraine?
Most of the proposed guarantors (other than Israel) are in fact members of Nato. But the alliance’s members are at this very moment highly reluctant to risk a Third World War by coming to the aid of Ukraine. Would this change if they signed a security guarantee for Ukraine?
Given that the more serious contenders for the role of guarantor are Nato members, the second question is why this would be acceptable to Moscow. Ukraine wants an iron-clad guarantee of its defence as in Article 5 of the Nato treaty.
If this is granted, would the outcome be very different from Nato membership for Ukraine – the very thing Russia is willing to oppose to the point of going to war in the first place?
Another question concerns the permanence of the neutrality pledge. Ukraine was already a neutral state until 2014, when it changed its status in the wake of Russia’s operation in Crimea and Donbas. All that was needed to change that status was an amendment of Ukraine’s law on foreign relations.
This time, the Kremlin may demand the anchoring of neutrality in the constitution of Ukraine. This could only be achieved with the support of a two-thirds majority of members of the parliament in Kyiv. Zelensky has also proposed a referendum on taking such a step.
Accepting neutrality shifts the discussions onto the other issues that remain for Russia. ‘De-nazification’ of Ukraine is not a real issue. Additional language rights for Russian speakers in Ukraine, as demanded by Putin, are no major obstacle either.
The requirement of disarmament could be more tricky. Ukraine can easily promise once more that it will never acquire nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. It has none and does not plan to have any. It can also accept intrusive verification by an objective, independent international agency. The Kremlin might also demand a limitation on longer-range missiles that could reach deep into Russian territory.
Additional limitations on the conventional Ukrainian forces on land, air and sea will be more difficult. It is part of the requirement of neutrality that a neutral state must be able to defend its own territory from external attack, and deny its use to any potential aggressor. Hence, a credible capacity for self-defence is in fact part of neutrality.
While neutrality excludes membership in any alliance, it does not exclude external support in re-building the armed forces of Ukraine after the present onslaught.
On the other hand, Ukraine is offering to prohibit the permanent stationing of foreign forces on its territory, and to permit joint training exercises on its territory with others only if Moscow agrees in individual instances.
What is left is the demand to recognise Crimea as part of Russia, and to give in to the supposed independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, with the prospect of subsequent annexation by Moscow looming.
Insistence on these points unmasks Moscow’s true aim – to achieve the ratification by Ukraine of its acquisition of Ukrainian territory by force.
Marc Weller is professor of international law and international constitutional studies in the University of Cambridge. He is a former United Nations senior mediation expert and served as advisor in a large number of international peace negotiations. He is the co-editor of International Law and Peace Settlements and a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers.