A Simple and Proven Recipe for European Conflicts: Permanent Neutrality

By Pascal Lottaz

December 20, 2021
Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

On December 17 the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs presented proposals to the United States and NATO for the demilitarization of Eastern Europe, proposing security guarantees, and a halt to NATO expansion. It is high time to address the resolution of conflicts in Ukraine and Georgia, as well as the underlying hostilities at the Belarusian border and in the Caucasus. They can all be solved in a traditional European manner—by re-embracing the instrument known as permanent neutrality. 

For weeks, Russia has emphasized that it has no plans to invade Ukraine or escalate the conflict. Now that Moscow has publicly unveiled its proposals for treaties between the United States, NATO, and Russia, English-language publications have referred to the Russian proposal as “establishing spheres of interest,” deeming it highly unrealistic (see Radio Free EuropeABC NewsBloomberg). The British newspaper “The Guardian” even characterized it as “aggressive.” The tones from Germany are somewhat more moderate, as the Tagesschau, for example, reports on Russia’s interest in negotiations in Geneva and mentions Moscow’s security concerns.

RT Deutsch mainly reports on the content of the eight points contained in the proposal. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that Russia’s intentions, expressed in admittedly strong language, do not revolve around offensive capabilities but rather center on security guarantees for its own territory. Moscow demands no expansion of NATO to the borders of Russia (except for the existing Baltic members), guarantees that no offensive weapons or nuclear weapons will be sent to or stationed in non-NATO countries, and no use of the territory or airspace of non-members to threaten Russia.

Summing up the points, a relatively simple picture emerges: what Russia is proposing is simply a neutral zone between itself and NATO—a geostrategic buffer, not associated with either NATO or Russia. Transatlanticists may vehemently oppose this idea, but it is neither new nor radical, and it certainly has nothing to do with establishing “spheres of interest.” 

In Austria, Professor Heinz Gärtner was one of the first to propose permanent neutrality for Ukraine and Georgia. In the United States, policy heavyweights like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski have made similar proposals since 2014, and Michael O’Hanlon from the conservative Brookings Institution has written an entire book on the subject. Recently, lively debates have also taken place in U.S. think tanks. Former high-ranking U.S. diplomats like Ambassador Jack Matlock and academics such as Anatol Lieven and Nicolai Petrotake the option of a neutral Ukraine for de-escalating the confrontation with Russia very seriously.

A neutral belt between Russia and NATO is a realistic proposal for managing the various security needs on the continent. Similar proposals were accepted for Switzerland in 1815, ensuring peace for 200 years (as a buffer between Austria and France) or Belgium in 1839, ensuring peace for 75 years until the agreement was violated by Germany. Such a solution was again created in 1955 for Austria, when Moscow and Vienna agreed the Alpine nation would remain permanently neutral. That deal held until today.

Unfortunately, the term “permanent neutrality” suffers undeservedly of an undertone of passivity and immorality. Modern neutral states reject both accusations as incorrect. Let us not forget that Austria, Ireland, and Malta are neutral and members of the EU. Similarly, Sweden and Finland are EU members, but both countries prefer the slightly weaker label of “nonalignment.”

Moscow is not proposing anything unthinkable in its treaties; it is seeking a European solution to a European problem. No matter how much Russia is demonized, the fact remains that the country has been invaded three times in the last 220 years and, like any nation, has a need for security. If this can be regulated through contractual security guarantees, all the better.

This acknowledgment should not shield Russia from criticism for its own contribution to the current escalation, especially in 2014 with its invasion of Crimea and its interference in the Donbas, which violated not only international law but also the Budapest Memorandum. Both are now key arguments against a contractual solution with Russia because, from an Eastern European perspective, Moscow simply cannot be trusted to keep its word.

However, there is much that could be regulated through a proper treaty. “Neutralizing” former Soviet states the way Switzerland, Belgium, or Austria were neutralized does not mean foregoing security guarantees. On the contrary, the Russian proposals could be used to negotiate security agreements with the states in question from both sides. One could agree with Moscow’s points and additionally guarantee that in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO would come to its aid, while at the same time, an agreement is made on the Russian side that Moscow would intervene if NATO or another Western country were to enter Ukraine. That would be a double security guarantee, similar to those signed by Britain with France and Germany in 1870 to keep Belgium intact during the Franco-Prussian War. As long as Ukraine is not forced into an obligation of assistance, these are not military alliances and are in complete accordance with the idea and spirit of permanent neutrality. Therefore, Ukraine does not need to be left to itself; Moscow only needs verifiable guarantees that no offensive alliance against it will be forged, as was done against Iraq in 2003.

It is also worth mentioning that some of the former Soviet states already have neutrality clauses in their constitutions or laws. Even Belarus calls itself “neutral” in its constitution, despite its military alliance with Russia. The current proposal from the Russian side would be a brilliant opportunity to negotiate Belarus’ permanent neutrality and detach it from its security connection with Moscow, thereby providing Poland with further guarantees against future Russian interventions. NATO recognizes a neutral Ukraine, and Russia recognizes a neutral Belarus on the same terms. Quid pro quo. Moldova is already neutral today (for internal reasons), as are Turkmenistan, and at the other end of the continent, Mongolia, a former satellite of Moscow, is working on a permanent neutrality that is recognized by Russia and China.

Finally, it is necessary to evaluate whether Moscow’s proposals are indeed serious or, as some media report, only a “smokescreen.” In their current form, the Russian proposals are indeed unacceptable to NATO. For example, Article 5 demands a renunciation of the deployment of forces and armaments outside the contracting parties that the other partner might perceive as a threat. Such a clause would undoubtedly call into question the entire NATO structure and cannot lead to a real agreement. Moscow must be aware of this. Therefore, the proposal should not be seen as a “take it or leave it” offer, but as a maximalist demand for what Moscow would like to have. It is a best-case scenario for Moscow, which stands in contrast to the US’s maximal demand for an expansion of NATO into virtually all areas of the former USSR (except Russia).

Both positions are not acceptable and need to be negotiated. Somewhere in the middle lies the realm of what’s possible; a compromise that should be sought within the framework of legally guaranteed neutralities of the states in question.