Here's How Ukraine Can Take Charge of its Fate: By Declaring Neutrality

After a March 3 conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously described him as "having lost touch with reality." But looking at the Ukrainian crisis from Moscow's perspective sheds a different light on Putin's behavior in the crisis. Moscow watched as NATO expanded up to Russia's borders following the breakup of the USSR, and now, Putin justifiably fears that Western-oriented Ukraine would ultimately join NATO. That's a "red line" for the Kremlin. As Putin noted in his speech announcing the annexation of Crimea, "Russia found itself at a line from which it could no longer retreat. If you press a spring to the maximum, it will someday uncoil forcefully."

If the West hopes to stop the drift towards a new Cold War while simultaneously ensuring a long-term solution for Ukraine, it must acknowledge Russia's legitimate security interests regarding its Western neighbor. Luckily, Cold War history offers a solution that protects both Russia's security interests and Ukraine's sovereignty: military neutrality.

Consider Finland. After World War II, Finland faced a Soviet superpower determined to ensure a buffer zone along its western border. Joining NATO was not an option. The Soviets also maintained the Porkkala military base on Finnish territory. To protect its sovereignty, in 1948, Finland signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance (FCMA) with the USSR. The FCMA forbid both the Soviets and the Finns from joining a military alliance directed against the other, and Finland also agreed to prevent foreign powers from using its territory in an attack on the Soviet Union. 

While Finland never legally defined its neutrality, over the years, Finland took several steps to reassure the Soviet leadership that it posed no threat. The Finns did not join NATO; did not participate in the Marshall Plan; proposed the creation of a Nordic nuclear free zone; and took an active role in various arms control initiatives, including hosting Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) on a number of occasions.

Over the years, Finnish neutrality became accepted by both the East and the West. In 1956, Finland regained its full geographic sovereignty when the Soviets evacuated  Porkkala a full 40 years before its lease actually expired. Finland also developed a close economic relationship with its giant neighbor, while simultaneously joining various international organizations such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Bank and the United Nations. Finland's post-war foreign policy even spawned a new term -- "Finlandization" -- which was roughly defined as a decision by one country to maintain its sovereignty by not challenging a more powerful neighbor in foreign affairs. Although criticized by many as appeasement, from a Finnish perspective, "Finlandization" was the ultimate expression of realpolitik, and provided an ideal solution for maintaining its sovereignty while still playing an active role in non-defense related international affairs.

A second Cold War precedent to consider is Austria. At the conclusion of World War II, Soviet and American troops each occupied a substantial part of Austrian territory. After the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, the United States was loath to leave Austria to the Soviets. Likewise, the USSR did want to see an independent Austria join NATO and the Western bloc. To solve this dilemma, Austria also proposed official neutrality, and on April 15, 1955, during a visit of the Austrian Chancellor to Moscow, the Soviets signed the Moscow Memorandum, undertaking to withdraw all troops from Austria by the end of the year in exchange for an Austrian neutrality modeled on Switzerland's. The Austrian Parliament passed a Declaration of Neutrality that was incorporated into Austria's constitution, which likewise prohibited Austria from entering into any military alliances or allowing any foreign military bases on its soil. Accordingly, the four occupying allied powers -- the USSR, the United States, Britain, and France -- signed the Austrian State Treaty and all foreign troops withdrew from Austria.

Could military neutrality based on Cold War precedents -- legally codified as in Austria or publicly committed to in Finland -- work for Ukraine? Interestingly enough, after his election in 2010, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych -- yes, that Yanukovych -- proposed just this idea. Unfortunately, in a visit to Kiev shortly thereafter, the European Union's then Foreign Minister Javier Solana publicly rejected neutrality as a solution for Ukraine and noted that NATO would "continue to evolve."

Critics were quick to take down Henry Kissinger's recent suggestion that Ukraine embrace neutrality. But they shouldn't reject it out of hand. The United States, European Union, Russia, and Ukraine should jointly explore the possibility of establishing a neutral Ukraine. To be clear, reaching agreement would not be easy, and both Russia and Ukraine will need to make compromises. (In the photo above, the Ukrainian interim force's new recruits undergo combat training.) As Ukraine has already signed an Association Agreement with the European Union, Russia will have to accept that Ukrainian neutrality is limited to military neutrality only, and that Ukraine remains free to develop any economic or trading relationship with Europe it wishes. Likewise, the new government in Kiev will need to accept that Crimea is lost, and cannot make the return of Crimea a condition of Ukraine's neutrality. Kiev's priority at this point should be to ensure that Ukraine's east-west divide does not cause the country to split apart. Kiev should jump at the chance to unite the country, even if it means losing Crimea.

Ukraine is a classic example of Robert Kaplan's notion of the "revenge of geography," forever destined to be caught between the tug of East and West. Such states inevitably must take into account their neighbors' security concerns. Not only would Ukrainian neutrality take Russia's historical fear of encirclement into account, but it would also be a nod to many in eastern Ukraine who maintain close economic and cultural ties to Russia. Indeed, the new Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk seems to understand this, and has already publicly ruled out joining NATO, which indicates Kiev may be amenable to negotiations on this issue. Russia or Ukraine might ultimately balk at the compromises necessary to make a deal, but to paraphrase Churchill, to jaw-jaw surely beats the alternative of a new Cold War.

Josh Cohen is a former U.S. State Department Project Officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union.



Can Venezuela's Protesters Stay the Course?

"Whoever gets tired loses!" The slogan has been the mantra of Venezuela's protest movement, which has rocked the South American nation for more than a month now. As the protests begin to lose energy, the slogan is also one that rings true, reflecting the real fear that if the opposition protests die down, President Nicolás Maduro will consolidate his power, perhaps irreversibly.

After more than a month of intense protests, Venezuela's opposition continues to hit the streets. The barricades are now less common than they used to be, and the opposition is girding for the long haul by changing their tactics, protesting in a more peaceful, less violent manner. This means fewer barricades and more massive marches that are less likely to be attacked by government forces. (The photo above shows medical students protesting in Caracas.)

The last few weeks have seen the protests decrease in intensity in Caracas and in other cities. But while the barricades and the tear-gas battles that raged in eastern sections of the capital have ebbed somewhat, they are still happening in other cities. This Monday, for example, a TV personality was shot dead when descending from a bus in the city of Los Teques, 23 kilometers south of the capital.

The violence in the western states continues to rage. Also on Monday, a National Guardsmen was shot in the neck while fighting protesters in Mérida, the capital of Mérida state and an epicenter of the protest movement. The death toll now stands at 36, but reporters say that inhabitants of San Cristóbal continue to hunker down.

In Caracas, however, the protests have taken a turn away from barricades and back to large, peaceful marches. One such march was held last Saturday, when hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched in support of the students. These marches were matched in other cities around the country.

One of the main reasons why the protests seem to have lost their zeal is the uptick in government repression. Hundreds of student leaders, including many of the organizers of the barricades, have been detained amid allegations of abuse. While the government continues to use both police and paramilitary gangs known as colectivos,  it is now also infiltrating college campuses and even apartment buildings where suspected protesters are believed to be hiding out.

More importantly, the government is also going after local leaders who have not fought the protest movement. Last week, the government arrested the mayor of San Cristóbal (who belongs to the same political party as the imprisoned Leopoldo López) for failing to clamp down on the protests. It did the same with the mayor of a Valencia suburb; in a fast-track trial, he received a 10-month jail sentence, and the Electoral Council has already announced an election will take place to replace him. The government is also threatening the mayors of some of the Caracas boroughs where the protests have been particularly intense.

President Nicolás Maduro himself has said several times that the mayor of Chacao municipality, which is the epicenter of the protests in Caracas, will end up in prison if he does not act against protesters. The pressure shows on the mayor, who seems ambivalent about the protest movement, defending their rights while at the same time clearly wishing they would move somewhere else. As a result of the pressure, the mayor has shown a renewed willingness to do what he can to stop them. The government has instilled a feeling of doubt and fear among local leaders and protesters, and it seems to be working.

In spite of the crackdown, opposition politicians vow to continue pressing the government. For example, opposition legislator Maria Corina Machado travelled to the Organization of American States last week to make the case for Venezuela's dissidents, only to have her efforts quashed by the Venezuelan government and its hemispheric allies. Machado was promptly punished by being stripped of her seat in parliament on questionable grounds. She will likely face jail time, which could inflame the protests anew.

The opposition's case is made easier by the ongoing economic crisis. This Monday, the government began selling currency under a new market-based scheme. The exchange rate under the new system was eight times the official rate applied to imports, which will likely cause a significant spike in inflation.

The combination of repression, deepening economic crisis, and an unabated political conflict spells turmoil for Venezuela in the next few months. Venezuela's protests may have dimmed, but their underlying caue burns brightly still.