Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, scholars who associate with the realist school of international relations have suggested turning the country into a neutral buffer state between East and West. It’s probably too late for that.
John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, most recently made the case in The New York Times, arguing that Russia can never accept a Ukraine that is aligned to the West. Rather, “It should look like Austria during the Cold War” — culturally and economically Western but unaligned to either bloc.
Toward that end, the West should explicitly take European Union and NATO expansion off the table and emphasize that its goal is a nonaligned Ukraine that does not threaten Russia.
Former American national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski first suggested in the Financial Times last year that Ukraine should imitate Finland’s Cold War experience, meaning “mutually respectful neighbors with wide-ranging economic relations with Russia and the EU; no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself but expanding its European connectivity.”
One of Brzezinski’s predecessors, Henry Kissinger, agreed, writing in The Washington Post that Ukraine “should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland.”
Kissinger recognized that Ukraine was a divided country: a largely Catholic and Ukrainian-speaking west favored integration with the rest of Europe while the largely Orthodox and Russian-speaking east preferred closer relations with Russia. Efforts by either side to impose their will on the other part of the country marked Ukraine’s post-independence politics. The West, he argued, should “seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction.”
But Russia’s meddling in Ukraine’s affairs has changed the situation profoundly. Since the majority of the Crimea’s residents voted in a referendum to join the Russian Federation last year, public opinion in the remainder of the country has turned decidedly against Russia. Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for parties that advocated European Union and even NATO membership in an election in October. The Ukrainians made clear they don’t want to be “Finlandized.”
If Kissinger still believes that “Ukraine should have the right to choose freely its economic and political associations, including with Europe,” he cannot hold at the same time that “Ukraine should not join NATO.”
Of course, it’s up to existing NATO member states to decide if they want to let Ukraine into their alliance and doing so now would be problematic. What matters in this context is that by far most Ukrainians want to become part of the West in a broader sense, having witnessed, once again, that the alternative is subjugation to Russia.
Russia cannot allow a neutral Ukraine slowly tilting toward the West, like Austria and Finland did, for the very reasons Mearsheimer, Brzezinski and Kissinger pointed out: It regards Ukraine as vital to its national security. Russia must dominate Ukraine to defend its heartland against an imagined Western threat and in order to project power into the Black Sea and beyond. Having a nation of forty million on its frontier nominally neutral but clearly more interested in joining the West than serving its interest — which is the result of its own actions — won’t do.