Even without downplaying the shock and disappointment most felt when Russia invaded Ukraine, it is perhaps more disheartening how many astute and highly-respected analysts/academics around the world deftly argued for a strategy that should have worked but was roundly shoved aside by Western powers: pushing for and explicitly formalizing Ukrainian neutrality might have entirely avoided this 8-year morass that has engulfed Ukraine since the Crimean conflict.
- Stephen Walt, even before the current incursion, lamented what he saw as Western hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism as powering an arrogance that dismissed Russian security concerns even when they were fairly conservative and rational.
- Anatol Lieven talked of a “golden bridge” left by Russia for the West to positively capitalize on…if only it would.
- Hall Gardner pulled no punches in going all the way back to strategic mistakes made with the initial dissolution of the Soviet Union, but also emphasized how NATO’s strategy of “double enlargement” was basically a diplomatic thumb to the nose of Russia that should have been seen as causing inevitable blowback.
- Pascal Lottaz, while still calling Russia a “rational crook,” astutely pointed out how it was impossible for Russia to not recognize NATO membership offerings to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008 as a direct provocation (or worse, confirmation of Western indifference to Russia), but also highlighted something many in the West have ignored: that failing to get Ukraine to implement the Minsk II agreement was tantamount to the West telling Russia that its strategic needs and opinions just didn’t matter.
Perhaps more importantly, Lottaz also highlighted something I have argued for more than 15 years: that Russia has always studied American international behavior carefully and will follow the realism-power principles it displays (note, this is different from the international governance normative principles America often publicly espouses). Consequently, for the current crisis in Ukraine, it matters to Russia that it can highlight an American display of invasive power backed by dubious provocation claims (Iraq), an American acknowledgement of territorial status change without larger international consent (Kosovo), or unilateral American recognition of border changes that resulted only through a non-internationally approved war (Golan Heights). While Lottaz went on, as the list can truly be made expansively if not exhaustively, the strategic relevance is unquestionable: as America behaves, so Russia feels justified in pursuing like-minded behavior aligned to its own security interests. That the West has routinely rejected this fact or simply ignored it seems based on the dubious idea that no one should have a problem with American actions because America deems itself the “good guy.”
Which is why the concept of pushing for a formally recognized neutral Ukraine is so important. In the most basic of terms, it means Ukraine is off-limits to everyone. Russia would have no authority to forcefully assert its interest over Ukraine just because it is more powerful and the bigger regional player. The West would also be obligated to end all the flirtation (real and imagined) when it comes to Ukraine being part of NATO. Thus, just as Switzerland has been with so many major powers surrounding it historically in Europe and Mongolia in greater Asia, Ukraine would be an effective buffer state that is able to openly and prosperously engage both sides to its own advantage, but never for the purpose of setting both sides on edge and against each other. While the above-mentioned fine scholars have argued for quite some time as to the mutually beneficial nature of such a strategy, a nod of acknowledgment again has to go to Lottaz, who graciously recognized that in many ways, before the incursion, Russian policy on Ukraine pushed the basic structure of neutrality for years, but to no avail.
This fact leads to an uncomfortable diplomatic elephant in the room: if so many astute Western scholars can agree on a policy direction and some even explain how it likely aligns with professed Russian security perspectives, then why did the idea go ignored until after Russia actually felt compelled to invade? The answer to that awkward question is what needs greater examination and far greater airplay across international mainstream media. Arguably, this idea of Ukrainian neutrality went ignored because the West was simply unwilling to admit that it needed to let Ukraine be neutral. In other words, why let Ukraine go neutral (which would be to most a semi-acceptance of Russian priorities) when it could be brought at least symbolically into the Western fold (which delivers a much more satisfying slap to the Russian security/diplomatic face)? So, when one accepts that Russian policy on Ukraine since the 2014 Minsk II agreement has pushed for de facto neutrality and the precedent for accepting neutrality exists (Russia basically gives the same consideration for Moldova, Turkmenistan, and Mongolia within what it considers its natural sphere of influence), but that neutrality has never been seriously acknowledged by either Ukraine or the West, then it suddenly starts to be a little less murky as to why Russia might feel a more radical (and unfortunately more violent) maneuver was needed to get their attention.
The fact that the neutrality argument is finally being spoken by Ukraine and Russia to each other (even if it is still just the very beginning of bargaining at a formally-recognized negotiating table) and the West seems diplomatically amenable means three things for the global community: first, whatever the overall loss of life in Ukraine because of the incursion, it could have been easily avoided; second, this new status for Ukraine is likely the superior option not because it is the best for any one side but exactly because it leaves all sides a little dissatisfied but able to claim political contentment; third, it is finally time that all sides abandon their Cold War instincts when it comes to dealing with each other and start recognizing the need to establish a new 21st century relationship that isn’t stubbornly frozen onto the logic and suspicions of the 20th. That stubbornness sacrifices innocent lives and prevents innovative peace in favor of familiar discontent and mistrust. It is time the world became disenchanted with this familiarity.