Ukraine neutrality – a guarantee of security?

Russia and Ukraine held a second round of talks on Thursday aimed at stopping the escalating war. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned Ukraine that it must quickly accept the Kremlin’s demand for its “demilitarisation” and declare itself neutral – but will a neutral status of Ukraine help to stop the war?, asks political journalist Dmitry Skorobutov.

Where else if not in Geneva to discuss the most important global questions such as peace and war? Fortunately, this place exists to foster dialogue and, unfortunately, this dialogue is more and more often between enemies in war and not between friends in peace.

I’m talking now about Russia and Ukraine – close and long-lasting neighbours, kindred peoples that share historic and cultural ties,  a similar language, mentality, traditions, joys and sorrows, victories and defeats; tied by family relations during centuries, and now divided by blood.

Russia attacked Ukraine after eight years since the last military conflict in 2014 when Ukraine lost its territories: the Crimea and the Donbass, which Moscow argues are both historically Russian. The Crimea was annexed (a move denounced as illegal by a Ukrainian court of law and other world countries) or brought back home (according to the Kremlin’s official narrative); the Donbass proclaimed independence and the Crimea became an autonomous republic as it had once been during many years in the times of Soviet Union.

As a losing side Ukraine was obliged to sign the so-called Minsk Agreements, aimed at halting the conflict in eastern Ukraine. But the accords were never fully implemented, with both sides accusing the other of failing to fulfil their side of the agreement. One of the points of that document obliges Ukraine to initiate a direct dialogue with the authorities of the Donbass – the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics. But almost nothing has been done during the eight years since the first assignment of these agreements in 2014, with Russia pointing to Kyiv’s refusal to enter discussions with separatists.

All minor achievements from both Ukrainian and rebelling regions – temporary ceasefire or withdrawal of heavy weapons towards inner territories of both participants of the conflict – are considered almost insignificant, at least by the Kremlin.

One of the formal pretexts used by Putin to launch the war is the lack of  progress in the stabilisation of the situation in the Donbass. Another one, which I consider the most important and the most provocative, was the declaration made by the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy on 12 February 2022 at Munich Security Conference. He said that Ukraine will abandon the Budapest Memorandum (signed in 1994 by Ukraine, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), to help Ukraine get back, first of all, its status as a nuclear power and, secondly, the nuclear weapon itself. Once Ukraine is out of that memorandum, it could produce its own nuclear weapon using ancient soviet technologies or buy any components of such a weapon including uranium.

It seems that this was the crucial point for Vladimir Putin – the so-called red line constantly referred to by the Russian leader: to have a nuclear bomb in the hands of a neighbour which is not your friend – it’s too much. A decision was taken almost immediately by the Kremlin – the war we face today or, as it was also called by Russia, the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine.

The war has now entered into its second week, and where talks have failed, shelling and violence continues.  The first round of Ukraine-Russia talks ended without an agreement on Monday, and a second round was underway on Thursday.  The principal demand of Putin – a total neutrality of Ukraine: no membership in NATO, no weapon, foreign military bases – nothing which could threaten directly or indirectly Russian security, stability, and sovereignty.

Putin is sure that this neutrality of Ukraine is only reachable via a conventional war, which is now taking place. He enforces his argumentation with its own nuclear weapon which he ordered 72 hours ago to be in a standby battle mode – it seems for the first time since that famous Caribbean Crisis which took the world to the limit of a nuclear war. Now we are two steps from that war again.

One choice Ukraine faces is to be neutral and thus to have a chance to keep its territorial integrity and sovereignty, security, and stability, to maintain its statehood. The best example for Ukraine is Finland: a former part of the Russian Empire, which neutrality lasting for more than 75 years helped it become not only secure and protected from any Russian aggression, but also one of the richest European countries; another option for Ukraine – to struggle with Russia till the end but nobody can predict now a final result of this war…

Dmitry Skorobutov is a political journalist specialised in international relations and Russia-related affairs. He was chief-editor of news for Channel Russia One, the biggest Russian state media for 16 years, and was also chief-producer of international projects. He now lives in Switzerland where he was granted political asylum.