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Neutrality should be avoided at all costs for Ukraine

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

Dr Deborah Sanders is a Reader in Defence and Security Studies at the Defence Studies Department, where she specialises in security issues in the Black Sea. She is currently working on Ukraine's military transformation after the crisis, and maritime security in the Black Sea.

1. What is your opinion as to the recent developments regarding the Donbas region?

With the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine’s borders, the threat of war between Russia and Ukraine has thankfully receded, for now. This terrifying episode is however a salutary reminder of the power that Russia continues to wield both in the Donbas and over Ukraine’s future security. The emergence of this tense standoff illustrates just how difficult the conflict in the east is to resolve and how easily this conflict can be exploited by Moscow. Attempts by President Zelensky to put pressure on the Russian backed separatists by closing down their TV stations, as well as moving Ukrainian forces closer to the conflict zone, were seen by President Putin as an timely opportunity to remind Ukraine and the international community of Russian power. The very public massing of Russian troops along the entire Russian Ukrainian border was used as a strategy to send two very clear messages to Ukraine and the West. First and, perhaps most importantly, the aim was to deter the Ukrainian government from unilaterally attempting to ‘unfreeze’ this conflict by taking any bold decisions or initiatives that might rock the boat and challenge Moscow’s interests. Second, Russia has been keen to test the new US President’s resolve as well as send a very clear message that Washington needs to tighten its control over Kyiv and not risk another situation like in Georgia in 2008.

2. Do you think there is a possibility of a thaw in relations between Ukraine and Russia or there is a long way to go before a peace in Ukraine can be reached?

I think a thaw in relations between Ukraine and Russia is a long way off and is probably predicated on, at a minimum, regime change in Moscow. President Putin has built his presidency around reasserting Russia’s global influence and increasing control in the near abroad. A change in regime is therefore a pre-requisite in improving relations between Kyiv and Moscow. While this move would be necessary it is not sufficient, however.

While peace in Ukraine will be facilitated by regime change in Moscow the conflict will still be difficult to resolve. What we see in the Donbas is a common conflict termination problem: negative duration dependence. Essentially, the longer wars go on, often the more difficult they are to resolve because of obstacles that are reinforced by, or emerged during, the war. These include, for example, the polarising effect of the costs of war and the information operations conducted by both sides; and also issues of the credibility of both governments. There are also a range of other factors that make peace challenging. Notwithstanding the Minsk process, there is no political settlement that commands consensus. Indeed, given the increasing value-led aspects of the war and the lack of trust on both sides, there is currently little overlap in the range of acceptable political compromises. At the same time, political leaders in both Ukraine and Russia have been complicit in creating within key domestic constituencies expectations regarding what a legitimate peace should look like that are incompatible with those of their adversary.

2. Should Ukraine pursue neutrality status instead of the current state policy of pursuing NATO membership?

Ukraine has tried neutrality in the past and it did not work. Neutrality is only an effective option for strategically unimportant states such as Switzerland. Ukraine on the other hand is strategically important and such a policy would be a mistake. Given its location, Ukraine shares a long border with its larger and more powerful neighbour and is situated at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. Ukraine therefore is strategically significant: Russian activity in Ukraine is a barometer of Russia’s revisionist ambitions; and events in Ukraine directly affect both European and international security.

Ultimately, a policy of neutrality would mean that Ukraine would be isolated. Importantly even if it pursued a policy of neutrality, Kyiv would still be vulnerable to Russian hybrid activity - but without the collective support to address these challenges. Ireland is an interesting example of this problem. Dublin has faced an uptick in hybrid challenges both in the air and maritime domain from the Russian Federation despite their neutral status. Given Russia’s increasing naval activity in the North Atlantic, the challenges to Ireland are likely to increase and its ability to protect itself is compromised by its small and inadequate defence force and neutral status. Neutrality should therefore be avoided at all costs for Ukraine.

3. Have Ukraine's armed forces undergone positive transformation since 2014? What else should Ukraine do to strengthen them?

Ukraine’s armed forces have undergone a significant transformation since 2014, conceptually, physically and in the moral component, making them a much more effective fighting force for the twenty first century. There are still improvements that need to be made however, especially in the realms of such things as electronic warfare, cyber, and unmanned systems. Unfortunately, as military power is relative, and strategy is interactive, Russia, which poses the greatest threat to Ukraine, has also updated, upgraded and professionalised its armed forces and has overwhelming military superiority both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Ukraine needs to focus much more on developing its small navy. The focus on land power, perhaps understandable, given the conflict in the Donbas, has meant that the navy has not received the attention and funding that it deserves given the threats to Ukraine’s interests in the maritime domain. The Ukrainian Government has put in place all the necessary enablers to build an effective small navy – it has a maritime strategy and realistic and attainable plans to build a mosquito fleet. In order to realise these plans Kyiv will need to not only prioritise funding the navy but also look how to successfully integrate the donated, domestically produced and new off the shelf maritime platforms so that they constitute an effective fighting force. Like all states operating small navies, Ukraine will also have to look at how it recruits and retains quality naval personnel in a competitive employment market.

4. How do you see the situation developing in Ukraine in the near future?

Despite the pandemic and the recent scare with the massing of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border, I remain optimistic about Ukraine’s future development as a democratic European state. Ukraine has made huge strides forward in terms of developing good governance, reforming its economy, and building up the trappings of a modern European state. Real problems remain however and the sooner issues such as corruption and the dominance of the oligarchs are addressed, the better.

I think the major challenges for Ukraine are twofold. The first is the unresolved conflict in the east which continues to have a pernicious effect on all aspects of Ukrainian society and its ability to move forward. The second challenge is related to the first: that is the extent to which the Biden Administration will have Ukraine’s back. There is genuine concern about the effect of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ in the US on Ukraine’s development and the conflict in the Donbas and, perhaps more importantly, the extent to which President Biden will favour diplomacy when dealing with Russia. This would create real problems for Ukraine, as the only language President Putin understands is power.

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