A “neutral status” for Ukraine quickly imposed itself in the negotiations between kyiv and Moscow as a sine qua non requirement of Russia to put an end to the war. On Sunday March 27, the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, paved the way in this direction, affirming, in an interview with Russian media, that the question of the “neutrality” of his country was “studied in depth”.
On Tuesday, during the talks in Turkey between Russia and Ukraine, the Ukrainian negotiators, in turn, assured that the country was ready to accept a neutral status, provided that the latter is framed by a “international agreement”.
A concept largely inherited from the Cold War, which fell into disuse after the breakup of the USSR in 1991, then returned to the heart of international concerns, neutrality covers several models, with shifting and malleable outlines.
The principle of neutrality enshrined in international law
The status of neutrality of States is enshrined in international law by the Hague Conventions of 1907, which define the rights and obligations of a neutral State. This does not prevent Switzerland, in particular, from claiming its neutrality long before this date.
Neutrality taking its etymology from the Latin “neuter” which means “neither on one side nor on the other”, the neutral country undertakes on the one hand not to take sides “neither for one nor for the other of the belligerents”explains Laure Gallouët, lecturer at Paris-Est Créteil University and author of a thesis on Austrian neutrality.
- The neutral State must not authorize the installation of foreign military bases on its territory.
- It cannot send soldiers to foreign conflict terrain, except under international mandates.
- Any adherence to an alliance providing for mutual military assistance is also prohibited.
On the other hand, the neutral State has rights, also codified by the Hague conventions. The most important – and the one that is currently seriously lacking in the case of Ukraine – is the right to territorial inviolability.
Moreover, neutrality should not be confused with “neutralization”says Laure Gallouët. “The sovereignty of a State goes hand in hand with the principle of neutralityshe explains. If the country is not sovereign and constrained in its neutrality, it is neutralization. » This same concept is often evoked under the term “Finlandization”, which “described the process by which the USSR could take control of the foreign policy of a European country without transforming its internal regime (unlike the people’s democracies) as was the case for Finland after 1945”, explains the historian Georges-Henri Soutou in his book The Cold War (Plural, 2011).
Moreover, the non-alignment claimed by certain formerly neutral nations – such as Sweden – is less binding than the principle of neutrality. In fact, this “looks like it, but the non-aligned states are content to pledge allegiance to no bloc by practicing a policy of openness”adds Laure Gallouët.
Which countries claim their neutrality?
The principle of neutrality itself responds to several definitions, depending on the conditions adopted by the States that apply it. Some forms are strict and legal, as in Switzerland or Austria; others are more flexible, as in Finland and Sweden.
- In Switzerland, a strict and historic acceptance of perpetual neutrality
Switzerland claims a historic and strict perpetual neutrality. Although its centuries-old practice goes back further, its status as a neutral state was codified in 1815 by the Treaty of Paris.
However, Switzerland has recently taken a step aside, as part of the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After long procrastination, the government finally decided in early March to resume full EU sanctions against Moscow. The Alpine nation had preferred to refrain from taking such measures in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea.
Without abandoning its neutral status, the country is “out of reserve”analyzes Laure Gallouët, adopting the principle of “differentiated neutrality, an interpretation that allows participation in international economic sanctions without breaking its military neutrality”.
- Austria, a permanent neutral state since 1955
The Austrian understanding of neutrality is also rather strict. It was adopted by Parliament and has been enshrined in Austrian constitutional law since 1955. Shortly after, Vienna “sent diplomatic notes to other countries explaining their neutrality, which had the effect of anchoring it in international law”says the lecturer.
Much less armed than Switzerland, Austria claims an especially diplomatic neutrality, mobilized for the maintenance of peace and the reception of international organizations in particular. A member of the EU since 1995, Austria is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
In the context of the war in Ukraine, Vienna respected its principle of neutrality, providing assistance to the invaded country only by chartering flights to evacuate civilians to Moldova, according to Laure Gallouët.
- Sweden and Finland, non-aligned states after abandoning neutrality
Both Nordic countries pursued policies of neutrality during the Cold War, preferring “to protect oneself from the USSR”, according to the lecturer, by showing that they would not take hostile action against her. However, this neutrality was only put into practice through declarations of intent and never found any legislative or constitutional anchoring.
Like Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the EU in 1995 and then gradually abandoned their neutrality, considering that under the EU’s mutual defense clause (Article 42.7 of the Treaty of Lisbon), they would logically intervene in the event of an attack against another Member State.
Both countries currently follow a policy of non-alliance – or non-alignment. We are also talking about a “open door policy in relation to NATO”, explains Laure Gallouët. In accordance with the decisions of Brussels, Sweden has thus provided military equipment and armaments to Ukraine.
These four countries are not members of NATO but are neutral partners through its Partnership for Peace (PPP). This allows them to “to participate in joint exercises with NATO within the framework of interoperability, without however adhering to them and without being bound by the mutual assistance clause”provided for in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.
Vladimir Putin and his interpretation of neutrality
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the Russians have made the former Soviet republic’s neutrality a condition of any ceasefire. The Ukrainian negotiators, for their part, are demanding “absolute security guarantees”because the “neutrality in itself does not constitute protection”recalls Laure Gallouët, citing as an example the significant resources allocated by Switzerland to its defence.
“If a State proclaims itself neutral but does not have the means to ensure its protection, it is not safe from being attacked”, she recalls. The Ukrainian authorities have thus called for the designation of countries to guarantee its security, which would defend it militarily in the event of aggression by Moscow. In Turkey, the Ukrainian negotiators have called for a “international agreement” who would set that protection in stone.
Especially since Ukraine is not yet a member of the EU, it cannot benefit from the mutual assistance clause provided for in Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty. This clause is not incompatible with the status of neutral State, because “the assistance in question may take other forms than military aid”, says Laure Gallouët. On Tuesday, the Ukrainians asked the Russians not to oppose their joining the EU.
These negotiations around the definition of Ukraine’s neutrality “raise the question of state sovereignty”
The principle of neutrality, whatever its contours, would on the other hand necessarily imply that Ukraine does not join NATO. A plausible renunciation since the Ukrainian president had estimated, in mid-March, that it was necessary ” to acknowledge “ that his country would never join the Atlantic Alliance. However, these negotiations around the definition of Ukraine’s neutrality “raise the question of the sovereignty of the State and the leeway it will have to interpret this neutrality”, analyzes Laure Gallouët. Otherwise, more than neutrality, it will be neutralization.
Furthermore, the « models [de neutralité] Austrian or Swedish” evoked by the Russian President are very enigmatic. They refer to two different definitions of neutrality, and the Swedish model no longer even exists. “Vladimir Putin then speaks perhaps of a permanent and lightly armed neutrality, as in Austriaargues Laure Gallouët. Or it refers to pre-1990 neutrality models”in the heyday of the USSR, definitely the nostalgic keystone of this war led by Russia in Ukraine.