Finding a solution for Ukraine: Who’d want to be a buffer state?

To propose such an idea would require significant meddling in the country’s domestic politics, argues Peter Harris.
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October 8, 2014
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The fragile ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine is showing signs of collapse. Rebels, government soldiers and foreign aid workers have all been killed in recent days and weeks. It is thus natural—and right and proper—that the region and the world continue to look for long-term solutions to the conflict. A stable political settlement is the only way to rid the country of violence.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, U.S.-based political scientist John Mearsheimer has proposed one such political settlement. Mearsheimer argues that the recent crisis in Ukraine is the result of a broken balance of power. According to his view, Russia has legitimate security concerns regarding the eastward expansion of NATO and the EU. The current crisis is the result of Russia moving to protect its vital interests in Ukraine, actions taken out of sheer insecurity. Understood in such terms, Putin’s actions are wholly comprehensible—indeed, predictable.

In order to alleviate Russia’s fears—and reduce the overall level of geopolitical tension between Russia and the West—Mearsheimer argues that Ukraine ought to become a permanently neutral state, one that does not belong under Russian control or western influence. With the international status of Ukraine defined in such terms, the balance of power in Eastern Europe would more closely resemble a stable equilibrium. Neither Russia nor its NATO adversaries would have cause to feel threatened. With Ukraine as a buffer state, Europe’s security architecture would be back on steady foundations.

Mearsheimer’s argument is appealing because it purports to eliminate the proximate cause of disagreement between Russia and the West in one fell swoop. Its simplicity, however, is also its biggest weakness. For converting Ukraine into a buffer state would be almost impossible to implement in practice. Reordering international-level alignments is never a straightforward business. The main obstacle, of course, is that Ukraine—its leaders and its people—likely will not want to be consigned to life as a buffer state.

Indeed, who would? By definition, a buffer state is a political entity that exists to physically divide adversaries who do not trust themselves to live side by side with one another. Buffer states are attractive from the perspective of rival camps—in this case, Russia and NATO—because they offer strategic depth, allowing two competitors keep each other’s forces at arm’s length. Being surrounded by neutral buffer states is a good thing in a dangerous world. It would surely be welcomed by Russia and possibly even the European members of NATO.

Yet life inside a buffer state is far less rosy than life adjacent to one. Insecurity is endemic to buffer states. In the past, great powers have militarily violated the neutrality and territorial integrity of supposed buffer states when it has suited them—consider the fate of Belgium in World War I, Poland in the interwar period or Afghanistan in the nineteenth century, for example—and intrigues into the domestic politics of buffer states has been a common occurrence.

The reason for this is simple. To be useful, buffer states must be kept unthreatening to their more powerful neighbours, something that can only be ensured through constant monitoring and the threat of interference. Buffer states must agree to certain levels of (de)militarization; they must refrain from entering into collective security agreements; and their overall room to maneuver on the world stage must be severely curtailed. The ability to safeguard one’s own territory and population is effectively terminated: the buffer state becomes dependent upon the great powers that are served by its existence.

It is at least possible that the people of Ukraine might take one look at the job description for buffer states and decide that life as a demilitarized zone is not for them. Much better, Ukrainians might reasonably conclude, to join a powerful alliance or acquire the means of national defense that will allow their country to defend itself against a potential aggressor. Even more likely, Ukrainians of different stripes might continue to see their country’s future in different ways—some preferring union with the West, others clamoring for alignment with Moscow, but all refusing to accept the promise that neutralism is a pathway to peace and security. A popular demand to become a buffer state is unlikely to emerge. What then?

The unavoidable implication of Mearsheimer’s argument is that Ukraine will have to have neutrality foisted upon it by external actors. That, in turn, will require some serious intervention into the domestic politics of Ukraine—meddling that is unlikely to be well received by those being interfered with. Moreover, even if Russia and NATO do have the clout to force a settlement upon the leaders of Ukraine’s various groups, ensuring the stability of such a settlement will require constant—likely very costly—maintenance.

The stable foreign policy of any state, buffer states included, always depends upon the presence of concomitantly firm domestic-political foundations. If NATO and Russia desire that Ukraine forge a path of strict neutrality, they will be forced to ensure that Ukraine’s domestic politics is ordered towards that end: they will have to handpick their preferred leaders, ensure that these leaders have sufficient political power to remain in office, and maintain a constant guard against challengers to the status quo.

Fidelity to balance of power logic may well mean that Ukraine should accept its fate as a neutral buffer between east and west as a noble sacrifice in the name of European security. Yet in a world in which the principle of self-determination still matters, and given the intense distrust and insecurity felt by people in Ukraine of all backgrounds, creating the conditions for a stable balance of power between Russia and NATO will not be easy. In the end, local actors in Ukraine will have to agree to whatever solution is to be implemented; a settlement that does not address local security concerns cannot possibly stand to serve the interests of external powers. For these reasons, the chances are slim of turning Ukraine into a permanently neutral buffer state. A solution to the country’s present instability must be found elsewhere.

An early version of this piece ran in The National Interest.