August 18, 2022

Understanding Ukrainian peace talks and neutrality

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine drags on, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky has continued to engage in peace talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even as mass civilian casualties have emerged in Bucha, talks continue though further tension has developed as Russia has claimed the attacks to be staged by Ukraine. 

Zelensky emphasized Ukrainian neutrality in a recent interview with independent Russian journalists, citing security concerns should Ukraine become part of any military alliance. 

“Security guarantees and neutrality, [the] non-nuclear status of our state. We are ready to go for it. This is the most important point,” he said. 

President Zelensky maintains that he will not agree to neutrality unless it prevents further invasion or military action that can be guaranteed by Putin. 

But, this raises the question: what does neutrality mean in this context? 

Most importantly, Ukraine will not join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Russian worries over NATO have been a longtime concern of Putin’s. Originally, Putin had wanted to join NATO seeing such an effort as unifying European cultures. 

This attitude of unity soon faded as NATO membership continued expanding, which Putin sees as a violation of an agreement that NATO would not expand eastward past Germany during the process of German reunification in 1990. 

The “agreement” was a question posed to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union by then Secretary of State James Baker, who proposed that reunified Germany could either be independent of NATO and have no western military presence, or it could be a NATO member and NATO would “not shift one inch eastward.”

As governments changed in the former Eastern Bloc, these countries applied to join NATO and were allowed in. Baker notes that the topic of NATO expansion was not on the table as the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union still existed and a hypothetical situation wherein its members abandoned the Pact was not seen as relevant or important enough to bring up in the talks. 

It is noteworthy that following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was neutral initially, only abandoning this status in 2014 after the Russian invasion of Crimea.  

In addition to abstaining from NATO membership, Russia also requested recognition of Crimea as Russian territory and independence for Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as protection of the Russian language in Ukraine and “denazification” and “demilitarization” of the country, echoing Putin’s earlier claims that part of the motivation for the war was the defeat of fascists in Ukraine which critics have described as dishonest.  

There is, of course, a presence of neo-nazi millitias, some of which have been integrated into Ukraine’s national guard. However, what denazification actually means in practice is unclear since Putin’s efforts have primarily been dedicated to gaining control in Ukraine. 
While it is still somewhat unclear whether or not neutrality and peace will be entirely feasible, especially since Putin has previously claimed Ukraine has no right to exist. But there may yet be hope that talks of neutrality will provide enough incentive and satisfaction for Putin’s long-term security interests that the invasion might end.

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