A Neutral Ukraine Is a Dangerous Idea

Even if Kyiv agrees not to align with the West, Putin will have other demands.

A woman walks in Odesa, Ukraine, as three large columns of smoke billow in the distance.
Petros Giannakouris / AP

About the author: Leon Aron is the author of Roads to the Temple, Yeltsin, and many other books and essays. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

As secret and not-so-secret peace negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv proceed amid fierce fighting, Ukraine’s “neutrality” has reemerged as Vladimir Putin’s key condition for ending the war that he started. The Ukrainians’ supposed lack of neutrality—that is, their repudiation of pro-Moscow rulers and their tilt toward the West—was the Russian president’s excuse for invading. Because Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has conditionally agreed to the Kremlin’s demand, the “Finlandization” of Ukraine will, in short order, once again be bruited about as a possible solution—one that the West could accept as a satisfactory resolution to the current crisis and as reason enough to eventually remove sanctions on Russia.

But dropping sanctions under that circumstance would be a costly mistake. Unlike the Soviet Union’s rules for Finland during the Cold War, Putin’s conditions for the cessation of hostilities will not end with Ukraine’s neutrality.

After World War II, Moscow allowed Finland to keep its Western-style democracy and market economy in exchange for an implicit but inviolable pledge not to join NATO or Western economic and political bodies. Not coincidentally, Finland entered the European Union only after the fall of the Soviet Union. But relations between Finland and the Soviet Union during the Cold War differed enormously from those between Ukraine and Putin’s Russia today.

Ukraine is immeasurably more important to Russia than Finland was to the Soviet Union. It is central to both Russia’s national identity and the political imperatives of the Putin regime’s survival. Helsinki is not Kyiv, which Putin has extolled as the birthplace of Russian Christianity and the mother of Russian cities. The Ukrainians are the “same people” as the Russians, Putin claims. They are united, he declared in a long essay published last summer, by the same language and economic ties, and, most important, by the Orthodox faith. The Soviet Union did not view its Finnish neighbors the same way.

Most critically, a democratic, politically stable, economically vibrant, and Western-oriented Ukraine is an existential threat to Putin’s stagnant militarized dictatorship. Why, the Russians will inevitably begin asking sooner or later, are our brethren to the southwest free and growing richer, while we are daily insulted by a repressive government and our incomes continue to decline?

Putin does not need a “neutral” Ukraine; he needs a failed Ukraine. His desire to create one—not to fend off a mythical NATO menace—is what this invasion is all about.

Beyond a promise that Ukraine not ally militarily with the West, Russia will demand its neighbor’s “demilitarization”—that is, disarmament, which will leave Ukraine with a rump armed forces, shorn of modern weapons. Putin will also require the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia and of Donetsk and Luhansk as “independent” states—in reality, Russian protectorates inside Ukraine.

Thus far, Zelensky has held out against these assaults on his country’s sovereignty by proposing a 15-year period of negotiations over Crimea and by insisting on discussing the status of Donetsk and Luhansk directly with Putin. But how long can the Ukrainian president persevere as Russian invaders keep killing Ukrainian civilians and destroying his country’s towns and cities? And how long before the West begins to push the Ukrainian president, gently or otherwise, toward a “settlement”?

Above all, the democratic West wants peace, while Putin needs victory. He is well aware of this fundamental disconnect between Moscow’s aims and those of Ukraine’s Western supporters. This is to his enormous advantage. He knows that time is on his side.

Furthermore, as it did in the negotiations over the Minsk II agreement, forced on Ukraine after the Russian military and its Donbas proxies defeated Ukrainian forces in 2015, Moscow will insist that Ukraine fulfill the obligations under peace accords before Russia implements its part of the bargain. But with Moscow having so far rejected any international mediation, who will certify, for instance, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine?  If Moscow’s past conduct is an indication, Putin will almost certainly insist on keeping an undefined number of troops as “peacekeepers” and “defenders” of its Donetsk and Luhansk enclaves, just as its “peacekeeping” contingents continue to guard the de facto protectorates that Russia has established in other former Soviet republics: Transnistria, in Moldova; South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in Georgia.

Most important, who will guarantee Russia’s compliance—or compel it if need be? Zelensky’s wish list of potential enforcers has variously included Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Poland, and Turkey. Yet given the ferocity and abandon that Russia has demonstrated, along with Putin’s threat to meet any intervention with a reaction the “likes of which you have never seen in history”—a transparent hint at using nuclear weapons—these countries have responded tepidly at best to Zelensky’s invitation to go to war with Russia if it violates a peace deal with Ukraine.

Without an international security guarantee for Ukraine, is there any doubt that Russia will interpret a peace agreement as the right to meddle aggressively in Ukraine’s politics and seek to reorient the Ukrainian economy toward Russia?

The invasion, with its wanton assault on Ukrainian cities and industrial base and massacre of Ukrainians, is likely just the first step in Putin’s long-term systematic demoralization and depredation of its neighbor. The ultimate aim is submitting the country to Russian control.

Of course, a truce stopping Russia’s barbaric onslaught might seem worth almost any concessions forced on Kyiv by Moscow. But the West should stop indulging the false hope of “Finlandization” and see the potential armistice for what it is: not a lasting peace that would preserve much of Ukraine’s independence, but rather only a temporary cease-fire in Putin’s long war to end a sovereign Ukraine. Acknowledging this reality is essential to thwarting this plan.