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Could Ukraine become neutral, like Switzerland? Five things to know.

Neutral countries today are nonaligned — and well-armed

- March 9, 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has countless pathways for escalation. The humanitarian situation deteriorates hourly, and Russian military challenges, including low morale, are likely to make the conflict worse.

Are there any possible off-ramps?

One option that might allow Ukraine to survive and Europe to remain stable is armed neutrality. That might sound like a contradiction in terms — people often associate neutrality with military weakness. And Russian President Vladimir Putin talks of “neutralization” to mean creating a helpless Russian puppet or satellite government in Ukraine.

But as Austria, Sweden, Finland, Ireland and Switzerland know, armed neutrality can serve a country’s interests. Countries have used carefully negotiated neutrality accords to maintain territorial integrity, ensure sovereignty and preserve peace.

There’s no single theory of “neutrality” — it’s a malleable concept tailored to the interests and circumstances of the specific country, especially after the Cold War. Here are five things to know about neutrality.

1. Neutrality does not mean the country disarms.

Switzerland, Sweden and Finland are non-NATO members with strong militaries, including robust air defense systems. They purchase arms from whomever they wish.

The neutral Swiss are well known for their tough territorial army. Men ages 18 to 34 do compulsory service and keep a weapon either at home or in an armory. Switzerland has 45.7 guns per 100 people — the world’s third-highest gun ownership rate after the United States and Yemen.

After Russia seized Crimea in 2014, Sweden and Finland boosted their defense spending. Swedish spending will jump 40 percent between 2021 and 2025, to 1.5 percent of GDP. Finland is spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, after a 54 percent increase between 2020 and 2021 — and just signed a deal for 64 U.S. F-35 jets.

Germany didn’t used to spend much on its military. Putin changed that.

So why do we associate neutrality with helplessness? Blame World War I. European powers imposed neutralization agreements on Belgium (1831) and Luxembourg (1861) that left them woefully armed — with disastrous consequences when Germany invaded in 1914.

But the predominant form of neutrality today is well-armed nonalignment — and a defensive, armed neutrality would appear the feasible option for Ukraine.

2. Neutrality doesn’t undermine sovereignty.

Negotiators will argue over specifics, but neutrality need not restrict national sovereignty any more than arms control agreements do.

Neutral countries often gain greater independence and control over their territory. To understand why, consider Austria following World War II. As I write in my book, “Great Power Politics and the Struggle over Austria,” Austria was broken into British-, French-, U.S.- and Soviet-occupied zones, just like Germany. Negotiations made little progress until 1955, when Austrian Chancellor Julius Raab brought a neutrality proposal to Moscow, promising not to join any military alliance or permit military bases on Austrian soil.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanted to forestall German rearmament by building a neutral corridor through Europe, so he agreed. Soviet troops withdrew, and Western troops followed suit. Austria thus remained unified and neutral throughout the Cold War while neighboring Germany was split between East and West.

Of course, no such neutral corridor is possible today — although Russia does have a long-standing preference for buffer zones.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is remaking Europe

3. The key to neutrality is not joining military alliances.

Khrushchev had a good reason for supporting Austrian neutrality. Would Putin accept a neutral Ukraine? He might not — if Putin is fighting an irredentist war, seeking to reincorporate what he considers ethnic Russian kin, there is nothing to negotiate about. But he might consider fallback options if he sees no way to achieve those aims without provoking a broader European war.

These three things are at the heart of all forms of permanent neutrality: promising not to join military alliances, protecting a country’s territory and promising not to host foreign troops. Other terms are negotiable and vary from place to place.

Not having Ukraine join NATO seems essential to Russia. Last month, in a joint news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin stated that a NATO-Russia conflict could turn nuclear if Ukraine joins NATO.

None of the European neutrals has been a member of NATO, although nonaligned Sweden and Finland cooperate very closely with the alliance. And both Finland and Sweden have now sent arms to Ukraine and suggested they might join NATO. If that happened, it would be a momentous change in their traditionally nonaligned military policies.

It’s not clear if a no-NATO pledge would be enough for Putin, who has declared Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” But existing models show there are concrete terms that countries can negotiate over.

4. Neutral countries often join trade and economic organizations

Neutral or nonaligned members of the European Union include Ireland, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Cyprus and Malta. Ukraine has asked the E.U. to fast-track its membership application. E.U. accession wouldn’t necessarily put Ukraine at odds with being a European neutral. The question will be whether E.U. membership matters as much to Putin as membership in NATO clearly does.

Check out all TMC’s coverage of the Russia and Ukraine crisis in our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

Switzerland is neither a member of NATO nor the E.U. However, the sudden Swiss decision to support E.U. sanctions is a remarkable shift for a country that has assiduously maintained economic and military neutrality since European powers guaranteed its permanent neutrality at the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

On Feb. 28, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine an “attack on sovereignty, freedom, democracy, and the population and institutions of a free country,” adding, “Playing into the hands of an aggressor is not neutral.”

5. Would Ukraine have the neutrality option?

No neutrality agreement could happen without Ukrainians seeking and accepting it. Since World War II, externally imposed neutrality has invariably failed — as in the case of Laos in 1962, during the Vietnam War.

As part of a negotiated agreement, the major powers might guarantee the territorial integrity and neutrality of Ukraine. They would have to weigh the severe risks of being drawn into a future crisis. But making impartiality guarantees could give Ukraine security and independence vis-a-vis Russia.

For now, it’s unclear whether neutrality is an option — or when it might become one. It might take a protracted, bloody stalemate to convince Putin to revise his war aims. But history provides many examples of neutrality. Perhaps someday Ukraine will provide another.

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Audrey Kurth Cronin is distinguished professor of international security and the founding director of the Center for Security, Innovation, and New Technology at American University. She is the author of “Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists” (Oxford University Press, 2020).