Keeping Ukraine Neutral and out of NATO Would Benefit All Sides

The Ukrainian crisis continues to switch from cold to hot. On Feb. 07, Russia and Western countries indicated that diplomacy is the only solution to the enduring crisis. Yet just a few days later, the United States and its allies warned that Russia could invade Ukraine imminently, though has Russia denied this and has pulled back some of its troops from the Ukrainian border. After months of negotiations between Moscow and Western countries, a resolution to the crisis is still beyond reach. The two sides continue to talk past each other. The West claims that Russia is the aggressor, not least due to thousands of troops stationed near the Ukrainian border. The Kremlin argues that the West is failing to take Russia’s legitimate security interests into account, particularly concerns about Ukraine joining NATO.

Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to suffer. The ongoing dispute in eastern Ukraine and the recent panic around the build-up of Russian troops near its border have dealt a heavy blow to Ukraine’s economy. It is currently the poorest country in Europe with GDP per capita in 2020 of just over $3,700. The value of the Ukrainian currency, hryvnia, declined around 5% against the dollar since the year began, making it one of the world’s worst-performing currencies. Kiev will have to spend between $4 and $5 billion from the national reserve to stabilise the national currency. Inflation is high at almost 10%, food prices have increased by 11.3%, while foreign investors have been wary of doing business in a country which could be at war at any moment.

Even if the current standoff with Russia is resolved diplomatically, another crisis will be just around the corner if the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO remains on the table.

If Ukraine wants to end the crisis and give its economy a chance of recovery, the leadership in Kiev should seriously consider declaring state neutrality, which means it will not enter into military alliances such as the West’s NATO or Russia’s CSTO. This would be a drastic step in the short term, but one that is in the interest of Ukraine and of Western countries in the long term. Should Ukraine become a neutral country, it is likely that Russia would back off and the bubbling conflict in the pro-Russian Donbas region in eastern Ukraine would end. Ukraine would be able to welcome foreign investors and concentrate on developing its economy.

There are, of course, several potential drawbacks to consider. Firstly, there is no guarantee that Russia would stop destabilising Ukraine directly or through its Donbas proxy even if the latter became a neutral country. To counter this, the European Union must make it clear to Russia that any further destabilisation attempts once Ukraine becomes neutral would result in severe sanctions and further isolation from the Western community. If Russia were to continue to undermine and threaten Ukraine even after there is no chance of it joining NATO, it would become clear that Russia’s security concerns were just a smokescreen for the Kremlin to weaken Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity. The Russian president would lose credibility, potentially even among his allies, including China. This would be highly detrimental to Russia’s interests. It is therefore unlikely that Russian president Vladimir Putin would take this approach.

Secondly, Ukrainians may feel that they would be giving in to the Kremlin’s demands, which would be a hard pill to swallow after many years of confrontation with Russia. Yet it’s important to see the bigger picture – the priority for Ukraine is to get its economy functioning, and improve living standards of its citizens. Pride should be of secondary concern. Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, has little to lose. A poll published in October 2021 showed that only 28 percent of the Ukrainian population approve of his leadership. His approval ratings would likely fall further if he were to announce Ukraine’s neutrality. But his popularity would reverse course once Ukraine’s economy recovers, jobs are created, and wages increase.

Ukraine’s neutrality would also be beneficial to Europe, as it would end a long running diplomatic standoff with Moscow. If the Kremlin were to abide by international rules going forward, the EU would be able to consider lifting sanctions, which would benefit both Russia and Europe. The EU counts on Russia as its largest energy supplier, with around 35% of its natural gas imports and more than 33% of its crude oil imports coming from the bloc’s eastern neighbour. Normalising relations with Russia would prevent further volatility in gas prices in Europe, which is hurting businesses and ordinary people.

The Kremlin has been adamant that NATO’s presence in Ukraine would pose a direct threat to Russia’s security. Making Ukraine a neutral country would end this threat, which in turn could lead to the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis. Rather than seeing this as appeasement to Putin, Ukraine and the West should view it as a way to ensure peace and security in the European continent and enable Ukraine to get on with building a prosperous state.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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