Minsk Summit on Ukraine: Great Power Politics, Local Realities

The proposal to turn Ukraine into a neutral buffer state ignores one key player: the people of Ukraine.
By: /
February 11, 2015

As leaders from Berlin, Paris, Moscow and Kiev gather in Minsk on Wednesday, viable proposals to end the war in Eastern Ukraine appear thin on the ground. Western governments in particular seem to be plagued by indecision. Should the focus be on providing Kiev with more and better arms in the hope that Russian-backed rebels can be bludgeoned into accepting a permanent peace? Or is a purely diplomatic solution still possible? At a more fundamental level: what is the endgame of Western policy towards Ukraine, and how should the West’s relationship with Kiev be calibrated to fit within the broader architecture of East-West relations?

One proposal that refuses to go away is that of turning Ukraine into a permanently neutral buffer state—that is, a unified and sovereign country that would not belong under Russian control or Western influence, but rather would cut an independent (if modest) figure on the world stage. The rationale for such a plan derives from the belief that the current crisis in Ukraine has been caused by poor statesmanship—namely, a failure to maintain a balance of power in Eastern Europe between NATO and the European Union in the West and Russia in the East. Adherents to this narrative argue that, instead of being sensitive to Russia’s legitimate interests along its periphery, Western leaders have been reckless in their desire to place proverbial tanks on Russia’s front lawn. The West’s support for Victor Yanukovych’s ouster in February 2014 was the last straw: a clear affront to Russian interests in a region of obvious strategic importance to Moscow.

According to this view, arming Ukraine is a dead-end. Moscow has an unbreakable—and perfectly reasonable—interest in keeping the West out of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin will pay any price and bear any burden to prevent the Western-backed government in Kiev from overpowering his proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk. Unless it is willing to risk total war over Ukraine, then, the West should relinquish any wrongheaded desire to fold the country into its institutions like NATO and the EU. Only bloodshed can come from refusing to accept some sort of accommodation with Russia.

This is not to say that the West must forsake Ukraine altogether, however. Critics of sending arms to Ukraine do not argue that the country must be condemned to absorption into a Russian sphere of influence. Instead, they present the proposal to create a buffer state as a middle option; a compromise whereby both NATO and Russia agree to disengage from Ukraine and convert the vast expanse of territory from Lviv to Luhansk into a sort of no man’s land. Under such a plan, Kiev would refrain from fostering close ties with the West but it would also be left secure from Russian encroachment. Cast in this light, neutrality and non-alignment for Ukraine are argued to represent the most effective pathways out of the current quagmire—a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine that will engender the long-term satisfaction of all parties, including—lest they be forgotten in all of this—the Ukraine people themselves.

The problem is the often overlooked people of Ukraine—both the government and the citizenry—have shown little enthusiasm for such a design. In December, Ukraine’s parliament went so far as to rescind the country’s decades’ old policy of non-alignment in international affairs. The move was a snub to Moscow and a sign that Ukraine’s leadership is determined to escape the fate of being turned into a permanently neutral buffer state between East and West. On its face, the timing of the resolution made little sense. The symbolic abandonment of Ukraine’s non-aligned status was an incendiary move, a provocation that served to inflame domestic passions and deepen the rift between Kiev and the separatist groups fighting in the East. The vote exacerbated Ukraine’s bitter divisions instead of edging the country towards the conciliatory process that politicians in Kiev claim to desire.

Yet the rejection of non-alignment is not hard to comprehend when it is understood that politicians in Kiev are not only concerned with taming the rebels within their own borders but must also take care to defend their country against external predation. At the most basic level, all national leaders are entrusted with the task of ensuring the security and survival of the country that they head. How to discharge this role is not always clear-cut, of course. Instead, leaders must operate under conditions of incomplete information, selecting from a menu of inherently chancy foreign policy alternatives, each comprising a unique mix of potential risks and benefits. Non-alignment and neutrality rank among this menu of options, and are policies that Ukraine’s current government surely has considered at length.

For some states, a policy of permanent neutrality has worked well at providing national security. Switzerland, for example, has stuck to more-or-less strict neutrality since 1815, a policy of opting out of Europe’s great wars that has mostly paid off for the Swiss. During the Cold War, European states like Austria and Finland similarly believed that neutral status would insulate them from the worst effects of superpower rivalry. Other examples abound: Ireland has eschewed entanglement in matters of great power politics since its independence from Britain, while Turkmenistan announced its policy of “positive neutrality” as a way to safeguard national autonomy (and regime survival) in an uncertain post-Soviet era.

Even so, the prospect of permanent neutrality is not appealing to all states. For one thing, location matters—a lot. It is easy for Switzerland today to remain neutral when it is bordered by friendly nations; neutral San Marino and the Vatican City need not fear invasion by Italy; and Costa Rica’s demilitarized status is only possible because it takes place in the shadow of U.S. hegemony. In contrast to these contemporary cases, permanent neutrality for Ukraine means becoming a buffer state between two well-armed adversaries. Will keeping a low profile be enough to shield Ukraine during future periods of intense contestation between Russia and the West?

Previous multilateral agreements concerning Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity put in place during the 1990s have amounted to little over the past year, conspicuously failing to prevent Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Why, then, should Ukraine’s leadership—still less its vulnerable civilian population—believe that a unilateral undertaking such as a declaration of neutrality will be enough to persuade outside powers to refrain from meddling in the country’s affairs? Policies of neutrality and of relying upon international agreements have been discredited as mechanisms of sourcing national security for Ukraine, and so it is understandable that the country should look elsewhere for succor. A close relationship with the West is likely to rank high on the wish list.

It is worth pointing out that Ukraine’s politicians will look to the West for protection from Russia even though doing so will deepen the country’s domestic divisions. The uncomfortable truth is that plotting a Western trajectory for Ukraine is tantamount to defining the country in a way unacceptable to many Ukrainian citizens; communities in the East can be expected to double down on their ambition to exit Ukraine and seek a future as part of Russia, all but ensuring the perpetuation of a “frozen conflict” if not the sort of smoldering civil war that already has claimed around 5,000 lives. But faced with the challenge of defending the country against the might of Russia, leaders in Kiev likely feel that they have little choice but to throw their lot in with the West as far as they are able to.

In the final analysis, then, leaders in Kiev seem to be betting that alignment with the West—whether formalized or done on a more tacit, ad hoc basis—is worth the cost of worsening and prolonging the domestic strife afflicting the country. Bowing to Russia or becoming a neutralized buffer state are options that portend too many risks for too few benefits. After all, who can say that Eastern Ukraine would be at peace if Ukraine’s leaders were to relinquish control there or accept the mantle of permanently neutral buffer state? Would not such a solution also risk widening and deepening Ukraine’s internal divisions as the country’s constituent parts gravitated ever more closely towards their respective outside patrons? Indeed, life as a buffer state might actually require as the price of its maintenance constant interference in Ukrainian affairs—hardly a promising settlement from the perspective of those whose job it is to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of the Ukrainian people.

Whatever is decided in Minsk, the proposal that Ukraine accept its fate as a permanently neutral buffer state in order to “buy off” Russian aggression looks like it will continue to be too much for politicians in Kiev to swallow. Those in power in Kiev will not forgo their sovereign right to seek collective security at a time when the nation is feeling such acute vulnerability. This does not mean that NATO should welcome Ukraine into its ranks with open arms or that the U.S. and others should pour weapons into the country, but it does suggest that efforts to cajole Ukraine into accepting a neutralist destiny are unlikely to succeed for the foreseeable future. What makes sense for Great Powers in international politics does not always seem attractive to people on the ground. And in the end, global security rests upon the quiescence of local actors.