A neutral Ukraine could shatter Putin’s claims on the former Soviet republic | Opinion
AJ Morris – February 22, 2022
In the early years of his ongoing 24-year run as the leader of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin once mused that, “Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever does has no head.”
Whether this quip is an intentional play on a similar line by French statesman Francois Guizot in 1830 is unclear, but it serves to provide us with an irony-soaked window into Putin’s geopolitical worldview.
As Putin places his armed forces yet again on the borders of Ukraine and into the middle of the first crisis of 2022, things certainly feel like Cold War 2.0. One wonders, “Where is Putin’s head?”
Why Putin wants Ukraine in his fold
A glance around Russia’s periphery might help us understand.
The Eurasian Economic Union is not exactly a nightly topic on Western cable news. But since its formation in 2015, it has grown into the 10th largest economy in the world. The member states are all former members of the Soviet Union, anchored by three key players: Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
It may not have the heart of the Soviet Union, but Putin’s new bloc has all the same resources. What’s missing in this “RUBK” cube, as author Austin Bay calls it, is the “U.” Ukraine’s addition to the EEU would transform the EEU into a major world economic power. Ukraine has industry and agriculture the other pieces of the cube lack.
Unfortunately for Putin, the Ukrainian people remember the days of the Soviet Union very well. They remember the famine of 1932 and the millions of deaths that followed. They have made it clear since 2014 that they prefer not to invite the spiritual successor of the hammer and sickle back.
Putin needs Ukraine to complete his economic powerhouse. He seems prepared to take it by force and, as his predecessor Boris Yeltsin once put it, “sit on a throne of bayonets.” Ukraine seems to have few options.
Here’s what Ukraine can do
A NATO membership is one option. Joining the alliance comes with serious commitments for Ukraine, however, and would create a major point of direct geostrategic friction between Russia and the alliance.
Diplomacy is an art of give and take, of being heard but also hearing. Russia claims its military buildup is over concerns about Ukraine being included in NATO and about NATO aggression. Ukraine says it is concerned about (further) Russian invasion and violation of its sovereignty. Perhaps a neutral Ukraine is the answer.
Ukraine has traditionally been a bridge between East and West. Let it continue to be. If Switzerland and Austria can be neutral countries on the European stage, why not Ukraine?
A treaty that establishes a neutral Ukraine takes it out of contention for all parties and allows Ukraine to remain sovereign. It would also allow Putin to save face for his troop buildup while simultaneously removing the pretext he needs for military action. A neutral Ukraine doesn’t fit into Putin’s “RUBK” cube.
If Putin will not accept a treaty of neutrality and decides to take Ukraine or a part of it by force, make it abundantly clear that this means the absolute end of Russian economic ties to the continent. In addition to sanctions, perhaps full-on embargoes of Russian gas and oil should be considered as a deterrence measure. Give soft power the teeth it needs to work so that kinetic power doesn’t have to.
The punchline of Yeltsin’s quote about a throne of bayonets is that “you can’t sit on it for long.” There is still time to keep from finding out.
AJ Morris, a Jackson, Tennessee native. is a captain in the United States Army. His opinions are strictly his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Department of Defense.