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It’s Too Late to Turn Ukraine Into a Buffer State

The “Finland option” is no longer a viable one for Ukraine because of Russia’s own actions.

Share of Ukraine's ethnic Russian population per region, according to 2001 census.

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 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 with 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 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.”

Divided country

Kissinger recognized that Ukraine is a divided country. The Catholic and Ukrainian-speaking west favors integration with the rest of Europe. The Orthodox and Russian-speaking east prefers closer relations with Russia. Efforts by either side to impose their will on the whole country have marked Ukraine’s post-independence politics.

The West, argued Kissinger, should “seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction.”


Russia’s meddling in Ukraine has changed the situation. Since the majority of the Crimea’s residents voted in a referendum last year to join the Russian Federation, public opinion in the remainder of Ukraine has turned decidedly against Russia. Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for parties that advocated EU and even NATO membership in an election in October. Ukrainians 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 at the same time maintain that “Ukraine should not join NATO.”

Russian subjugation

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.

But what matters here is that by far most Ukrainians want to be Western, having experienced — again — that the alternative is Russian subjugation.

Russia cannot allow a neutral Ukraine slowly tilting toward the West, like Austria and Finland did, for the 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 interests (even if that is the result of its own actions), won’t do.


  1. Russia has invaded Ukraine because Putin wants to look like a hero in Russia, so he can stay in power. Russia’s relations with the west were quite friendly after Gorbachev. It was Putin who brought back the cold war. If there is paranoia, it’s only because Putin created it, to convince Russians that they needed him for their protection.

  2. “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.”

    This is precisely why economic sanctions alone will not deter Putin. Putin and his coterie of thugs don’t even regard Ukraine as a real country. They regard it as part of Russia.

    This latest “ceasefire” is nothing more than a ruse to mollify western public opinion. It won’t last past the end of the month, and the reason it won’t last is that Putin doesn’t want peace in Ukraine. In fact, that’s the last thing that he wants, no matter how much western policy-makers might want to believe otherwise.

    The west is going to have to confront Putin militarily sooner or later. The longer we wait, the more expensive it will become. As soon as this latest ceasefire falls apart, we should arm the Ukrainians with every weapons system that we have … preferably in concert with our European allies but by ourselves if necessary … and we should also provide them with clandestine air support using US B-2 bombers and AH-64 attack helicopters.

  3. Rather than escalating the situation by supplying arms to Ukraine, it would be much better to sew dissident in the Caucassian regions of Russia.

    We can start by provoking and inciting unrest and revolt in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingesta. These restive parts of Russia are itching for freedom and are ripe for action.

    We can excaberate troubles for Putin by courting Kazekhstan and Belarus. These smaller neighbors of Ruussia can see the handwringing on the wall and know that they are the next targets of Putin’s land grab.

    Putin needs to be agitated, distracted and disorientated from his March to Ukraine and the best way to do that is to force him to fight on many different fronts.

    Putin has been playing dirty all along. It is past time that he is given a dose of his own medicine.

  4. As hard as it might be for some western “experts” to believe, the people of Ukraine have much higher aspirations for their country than to be merely a permanent “buffer state” between NATO and Russia.

    I have been to Ukraine three times in the last 12 months, and I can assure everyone that it is only a matter of time before Ukraine is a full member of both the EU and NATO. Had not Vladimir Putin chosen to play the role of the traditional Soviet hardass, Ukraine might have been content to stay largely neutral. But by his actions, he has pushed Ukraine into the arms of the west.

    Mohammed, I am sorry but I simply can’t understand how providing the Ukrainian military with the means to defend their homeland is “escalating” the situation. That’s like saying that letting the entire neighborhood know that I keep guns in my house makes it more likely, not less likely, that someone will try to burglarize me.

    Thugs like Putin only understand and respect one thing, and that’s strength. He will continue to cause trouble in Ukraine until the cost to Russia … both in terms of dead Russian soldiers as well as increased western sanctions … becomes too great.

    The west should arm Ukraine. Now.

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