The best solution to the current Ukraine crisis is for all parties to agree to Ukrainian neutrality, but this is exactly what Western governments and the Ukrainian government refuse to consider. US and NATO officials have said that Russian demands to rule out further NATO expansion to the east is a non-starter. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba explicitly rejected Ukrainian neutrality in his latest article for Foreign Affairs, and he repeated his demand that Ukraine’s future membership in the NATO and the EU essentially be guaranteed: "That means making it plain that Ukraine is part of the West and a future member of the EU and NATO and that Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are non-negotiable." Kuleba presents this position as part of an effort to deter Russia, but it risks goading Russia to take military action. Intensified Western support for Ukraine is far more likely to provoke Russia than it is to deter them, and ordinary Ukrainians could end up paying the price for the policymakers’ hubris.
A neutral Ukraine would reassure Russia, and it would remove a flashpoint in relations between Russia and NATO. It would also acknowledge the reality that the US and NATO are not in a position to defend Ukraine and have no compelling reason to make that kind of commitment. Ukraine has never mattered to the US and its European allies as much as it matters to Russia and accepting Ukrainian neutrality would mean finally accepting that reality. Agreeing to neutrality would also allow for the settlement of the current conflict in eastern Ukraine and the resumption of normal relations with Russia. It would represent a compromise with Russia, but necessary compromise is at the heart of all successful diplomacy.
Western policymakers have ignored Russian complaints about NATO expansion and NATO involvement in neighboring countries for decades, and that has helped to create the conditions for the crisis we are seeing today. The Western refusal to take Russian security concerns seriously has been a dangerous mistake. NATO is obviously an anti-Russian alliance, and it has arguably become more anti-Russian in the last 15 years, so it is reasonable that Russia views its continued expansion towards them as a security threat. Putting a stop to talk of further expansion is a cost-free way to reduce tensions and avert possible conflict.
Western governments could still defuse the crisis and de-escalate the situation if they were willing to start paying serious attention to what Russia has been saying. The fact is that Russia is not asking for anything that our government wouldn’t ask for under similar conditions. If a hostile major power had been arming and training the military in a neighboring country with a promise to bring that country into their military bloc, we know that our government would view that as a serious threat. The very least that our government would expect in that scenario is for the promise of membership in a hostile alliance to be withdrawn.
Ukraine is not going to be a member of NATO in the future, but the US and NATO keep pretending as if it could be. Russia is reacting to that irresponsible pretense. Admitting the truth now could make Ukraine more secure than the empty promise of future membership ever could. It would have been wiser to rescind the promise of future membership years ago before there was a crisis, but it costs the alliance nothing to correct an error that should never have been made. Instead, the US and NATO are exposing Ukraine to greater risk to avoid climbing down from a reckless Bush-era pledge.
It is not surprising that the Ukrainian government takes such an uncompromising position when major Western governments, including the U.S., continue to express their support in the strongest terms. Those expressions of support mask the reality that Western governments are really setting Ukraine up for a fall. The US and its European allies may very well impose more sanctions in the event of Russian military action, but Ukraine cannot expect much more support than that. Western unwillingness and inability to defend Ukraine highlight how foolish it has been to suggest that Ukraine might one day be made an alliance member. The US and its allies have proven by their actions that they do not believe Ukraine is worth fighting for, so it makes no sense to keep the alliance’s doors open to new members that we know they will never let in.
The latest crisis over Ukraine reminds us that we are still dealing with the aftershocks of Bush’s arrogant "freedom agenda" almost twenty years later. Trying to drag Ukraine into a Western orbit has contributed greatly to instability in Europe. It has been entirely unnecessary for US and allied security, and it has been a disaster for Ukraine. Continuing on the same dangerous path that has led to the current crisis would be ruinous for all concerned. There is an off-ramp available: an end to further eastward NATO expansion and neutrality for Ukraine. The US, its allies, and Ukraine only have to take it.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.