EXPLANATOR: Could Ukrainian “neutrality” help end the war with Russia?

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An official in Zelenskyy’s office said the talks focused on whether Russian troops would stay in the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine after the war and where the borders would be. Ukraine also wants at least one Western nuclear power involved in the talks, and a legally binding document on security guarantees.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s chief negotiator, publicly mentioned for the first time on Wednesday that the issue of a “neutral” status for Ukraine was on the table, triggering a guessing game about what that might mean.

But even if a deal were struck, there is no guarantee it would hold: Russia, many critics say, seriously violated international law and its own commitments by invading Ukraine in the first place. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the West violated what he saw as his obligation not to expand NATO to Eastern Europe.

WHAT IS NEUTRALITY TODAY?

It’s about not choosing sides, staying away from binding alliances, and trying to stay away from conflict – but even supposedly ‘neutral’ nations have their limits. The European countries often mentioned when the concept of neutrality is mentioned are Switzerland – which, like Austria, has codified neutrality in its constitution – as well as Sweden, Finland, Ireland and, once upon a time, the Belgium, which is today the headquarters of NATO.

Switzerland has generally resonated as the main symbol of neutrality. The Swiss shunned alliances, refused to join the European Union, mediated between opposing countries and only joined the UN 20 years ago – even though it hosted the European headquarters of the United Nations for decades.

But the Swiss aligned themselves with European Union sanctions against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Other countries have also deviated from neutrality in the strictest sense: Swedish forces are taking part in NATO winter exercises in neighboring Norway; Finland has long resisted joining NATO, but Moscow’s actions in Ukraine have changed the dynamic.

Some countries – especially those close to Russia in Central and Eastern Europe – have moved closer to NATO and become members, and have avoided neutrality for fear that it would reflect weakness and vulnerability, and that Moscow could take advantage of it. .

WHAT ALTERNATIVES ARE ON THE TABLE FOR UKRAINE AND RUSSIA?

Historian Leos Muller presented Austria – which kept its distance from NATO – as a possible model for Ukraine.

After World War II, Austria – which before the war had been united with Nazi Germany – was occupied by the forces of four Allied powers: Britain, France, the United States and the Union Soviet. In 1955, these four powers decided to withdraw their occupying forces and leave Austria independent, but only after Moscow insisted that the Austrian parliament first enshrine in its constitution a guarantee of neutrality.

“I think that’s the solution they’re thinking about right now, because it worked for Austria,” said Muller, a history professor at Stockholm University and author of the book “Neutrality in World History “.

Still, Muller doubted that a diplomatic exit ramp could be found just yet, after so much bloodshed on both sides of the conflict.

DOES “NEUTRALITY” OFFER A WAY OUT OF THE CRISIS?

Inscribing Ukraine’s “neutrality” in any agreement could help reduce Russia’s perceived military threat, particularly as a potential NATO member. Ukraine insists that it has no hostile intentions towards Russia, but has moved closer to the alliance to ensure its security.

For years, Russian authorities since Putin have bristled at NATO’s gradual eastward slide after the Cold War, when the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact alliance collapsed. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are the former Soviet republics now members of NATO.

A brief war in 2008 between Russia and Georgia, which led to the de facto excision of two Georgian territories from its national map, froze Georgia’s own ambitions to join NATO.

As Ukraine moved closer to the West, in 2014 Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and pro-Russian separatists took control of parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014 , bolstering kyiv’s desire to join NATO, though admittedly it was far from it. . After a continuous rapprochement between NATO and Ukraine, including with arms and advisers, Russia reached a boiling point last year.

HOW DID OTHER COUNTRIES COME TO ACCEPT NEUTRALITY?

The European countries most associated with neutrality have achieved this in different ways. Sometimes this was facilitated by geography – as in the case of Sweden and other Nordic states that were above the fray of wars south of the Baltic Sea. Sometimes it was imposed.

Muller noted Finland. During the Cold War, Finland – which sided with Nazi Germany in World War II and has a 1,340 kilometer (830 mile) border with Russia – was heavily armed by the Soviet Union so as not to oppose its rules of foreign policy.

“They always had to take Soviet reactions into consideration,” Muller said.

Switzerland, at the end of the wars of conquest by the French Emperor Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century, saw its neutrality guaranteed by the great European powers of the time at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 – who recalled that many armies “crossed” Swiss territory during these wars that followed the French Revolution, Muller said.

Over subsequent generations, Swiss neutrality took root and has now become “part of the national identity”, he added. How far back does the idea of ​​neutrality go?

While the concept dates back millennia, such as when some Greek city-states sought to avoid becoming entangled in the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BC, neutrality in the modern sense in Europe dates back to the 18th century, after the Treaty of Westphalia. — which ended the Thirty Years’ War and exemplified the emergence of international law, Muller said.

Some countries have started to choose neutrality out of self-interest, but also out of moral choice, he said.

When it’s unclear how to choose “who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy,” Muller said, “then it’s morally acceptable to be in between.”

Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine contributed to this report.

___ Follow AP war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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