What does neutral status for Ukraine mean? Here's what post-war future could look like
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has not exactly gone to plan, but Vladimir Putin could still end up victorious. After 30 days of brutal fighting and destruction, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy acknowledged that the country is ready for a compromise. The two sides are expected to meet again on March 28 in Turkey, after Turkish leader Recap Erdogan made a call to Putin on March 27.
Initially, when the war broke out Zelenskyy firmly refused to surrender any territory, while Russia promised a complete takeover of the nation. However, a valiant defense has forced both sides to change their calculations. On March 26, Russia announced it was shifting all its military focus on the Donbas region, indicating it could pull out of other areas. All eyes are now on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which Russia could annex fully to build a buffer between itself and the west.
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However, it doesn't mean Putin's plans for the entire country have been scrapped. While he may not be winning any new territory, Putin has managed to level many Ukrainian cities and force Zelenskyy to the negotiating table. Under the circumstances, the Ukrainian leader could be forced to accept any deal, which Putin can then sell as a victory. Here's a look at what the possible future for Ukraine could be like under this scenario.
What does 'neutral status' mean?
The first option, as Zelenskyy himself conceded would be "natural status" for Ukraine. "Security guarantees and neutrality, non-nuclear status of our state. We are ready to go for it. This is the most important point," he said to Russian media on March 27. If Ukraine was to accept this idea, it would be in a similar position to that of Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland. The four nations have special international status, and limited foreign policy space, making them ideal locations for international bodies like the United Nations.
Normally, neutrality would mean Ukraine would be barred from joining military alliances like NATO, but that idea has since changed. Austria, Finland, and Sweden are all members of the EU, and its common foreign and security policy, which also includes elements of the military. In recent months, Sweden and Finland have also weighed joining NATO, which we know is a red line for Putin.
So if Ukraine was to be neutral, it would be forced to accept a situation where it cannot join NATO or the EU's security policy. It is the best hope Putin has short of complete demilitarisation, which certainly seems impossible in the aftermath of the war. But, it would allow Russia to slowly rejoin the international order if agreed to by the west. Alternatively, there's another option on the table, albeit a more drastic one.
A Korea situation
Ukraine's intelligence chief said on March 27 that Putin wants a "Korea scenario" for Ukraine. Under this situation, a part of Ukraine would be cut off and controlled by Russia like North Korea, while the other half would be democratic, and open to international order like South Korea. If this was indeed the case, then Russia's announcement about changing its goals makes complete sense.
Russia already partially controls the Donbas region and Crimea. If it managed to wall off the two areas, along with parts of Eastern Ukraine like Mariupol and Kharkiv, Russia would have access to not only a considerable part of Ukraine but also a land corridor between itself and Crimea. However, such a situation would only lead to further isolation of Russia, echoing the days of the Soviet Union before the fall of the Berlin wall.
Amidst these, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have vowed to hold referendums on joining Russia, indicating that the Korea situation is indeed likely to be an easy option for Putin. It would also create a larger buffer between Russia and the west, certainly bringing Europe back to the days of post-war Germany.