Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has just expanded on his proposal to halt Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine by offering to seek his country’s long-term security through a neutral status guaranteed by Russia, the United States and European nations. Zelenskyy's choice undercuts Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declared reason for war—to deny Ukraine its right to someday join the NATO alliance. The question now confronts Putin: Will he thus end his bloodshed? Or will he continue a war more truly based on his fear of allowing Russians to witness a free democracy of their fellow ethnic Slavs on Russia’s border?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to Ukrainians, March 22. He has floated a compromise with Russia on Ukraine’s plan to join NATO—the idea of Ukrainian neutrality to be guaranteed by the United States, Russia and European states. (Ukraine presidential office)
Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to Ukrainians, March 22. He has floated a compromise with Russia on Ukraine’s plan to join NATO—the idea of Ukrainian neutrality to be guaranteed by the United States, Russia and European states. (Ukraine presidential office)

In this week’s talks in Istanbul, Ukrainian officials signaled readiness to discuss neutrality for Ukraine similar to that established by Austria during the Cold War. Austria declared it would avoid any military alliance or the hosting of foreign military bases as the way to win Moscow’s agreement in 1955 for an end of the country’s occupation by Soviet, U.S., British and French forces after World War II. Ukraine’s proposal includes having the country maintain strong self-defense forces.

Bolstering Ukraine—and Peace for Europe

Ukraine would anchor this neutrality in treaty agreements under which a broad array of states would guarantee its security with a pledge to help in Ukraine’s defense if it were attacked again. These guarantors would include the five permanent U.N. Security Council members — the United States, Russia, France, China and Britain — as well as Germany, Poland, Turkey and Israel. The guarantors would accept a legally binding duty to send their own forces to defend Ukraine in case of attack — a requirement parallel to the mutual defense commitment among members of NATO.

Ukraine’s approach is sure to spark discussion among policymakers in all of these countries, especially as treaty commitments would have to be ratified by their legislatures. The proposal aims to add a NATO-like buttress — a vital brick in the structures of peace and security — at what is one of weakest spots in the security architectures in and around Europe. If only for that reason, policymakers focused on strategic security should give the idea serious consideration.

For many, the idea of U.S. and European security guarantees for Ukraine may feel difficult — or at least surprising, given how remote the notion would have been only weeks ago. But Putin changed the world on February 24 by launching Europe’s first war of aggrandizement since the era of Hitler and Stalin. Nations have united in a historic act of resistance to an aggression that threatens to undermine the international rule of law and return humanity to rule by blunt force. Just as the moral clarity of this war has led governments, businesses and public opinion to impose unprecedented sanctions and isolation against Russia, we will need to consider longer-term steps to strengthen the global institutions for peace that we began building after World War II.

As citizens and policymakers consider the Ukrainians’ request for broad-based security guarantees, we should note the historical lens through which Ukrainians now see this question: Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1992, Ukraine held the world’s third-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. But it chose to secure its future by abjuring nuclear arms, allowing their removal to Russia and instead relying on security “assurances” provided by Russia, the United States and Britain in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Putin’s government invaded Ukraine less than 20 years later.

In offering his compromise, Zelenskyy is demanding a cease-fire by Russian forces and, he said in his March 27 interview with Russian journalists, the Russian troops’ return to the sections of Ukraine they occupied before February 24 — that is, Crimea and the southernmost part of the Donbas region. He also would submit this proposal, and any concession that required a change to Ukraine’s constitution, to a national referendum. To win an end to this war and a chance for Ukraine’s recovery without prejudicing Ukrainians’ insistence on the return of all Russian-seized territory, Zelenskyy’s team is proposing to separate and postpone for 15 years negotiations on what it calls “the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions and Crimea.”

The Risks of Putin Cornered

For at least three reasons, it remains unclear how serious is Putin’s current interest in real negotiations. First, his historical pattern is to seize all advantage he can by bluster, threat or assault against a weaker opponent — and only then to shift to talks in which he can hope to lock in those gains. So the seriousness of Russia’s negotiations will be set by the degree of Putin’s realization that he is losing, and cannot win, militarily. 

Secondly, Russia’s representatives in talks, headed by a former culture minister, Vadim Medinsky, are effectively not as authoritative as their Ukrainian counterparts because they are not close to Putin as the Ukrainian team is to Zelenskyy. The Russian side in the talks so far has been less able to offer substantive positions.

Third, with Putin’s real impetus obscured beneath layers of propaganda and outright lies, it is unclear—perhaps even to him—just what mix of losses and deterrence may force his retreat to a real negotiation. Ukraine’s offer to build its future security outside of NATO responds to Putin’s loudest demand in his current assault. But Putin has made clear his determination to rule large swaths of Ukraine that he says “rightly” belong to Russia. And he has shown that he feels threatened by Ukraine’s decades-long evolution toward Europe and democracy, and away from Moscow-led authoritarianism.

Ukraine’s heroic defiance of Russia’s assault is gradually creating the military losses that are necessary for Putin to shift from warfare to negotiation. A lightning invasion that U.S. intelligence assessments say Putin expected to complete within 48 hours has now stalled for more than a month and killed thousands of Russian soldiers — about 10,000, by U.S. estimates. Military analysts who know Russia’s forces well note that Russia already has run out of sufficient contract soldiers, who are better trained, and is relying on conscripts who normally serve only for 12 months, who are more poorly trained — and who, by law, may not be sent to fight in wars abroad.

Still, U.S. officials’ warnings this week of tensions between the Russian president and his military and intelligence leaders underscore that Putin may still not grasp how badly his war is damaging Russia’s military and economy.

The assessment of when Putin is negotiating for real, and how far to trust him, will be up to Ukraine’s government. As Russian and Ukrainian negotiators met in Istanbul this week, Russian signals were inconclusive. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Ukraine’s proposals “significant progress,” and Russian military officials said they were reducing their attacks on Kyiv and northeastern Ukraine. But, said Zelenskyy, “These signals do not silence the explosion of Russian shells.” Ukrainian officials and journalists report Russian attacks continuing

To advance the hopes for truly substantive negotiations, democracies should sustain their financial support and defense supply lines for Ukraine’s self-protection, and their sanctions against Russia. Whenever Putin responds and full negotiations can begin, those supporting Ukraine’s fight on behalf of democracy and the rule of law will need to be ready to address Ukrainians’ longer-term needs for peacefully assuring their own security.

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