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Ukraine’s Best Chance for Peace

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At this stage of the war in Ukraine, as Russia steps up its offensive in the Donbas and more revelations of the atrocities committed by its forces emerge, the prospect of any kind of negotiated peace between Moscow and Kyiv seems remote. Even earlier this spring, when delegations from the two sides were meeting, the talks had little impact on either Russia’s or Ukraine’s determination to keep fighting. And at times, both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been dismissive of the negotiations. Today, the sides have effectively suspended their diplomatic efforts.

Amid the gloom, it would be easy to forget the real progress that negotiators have already made. In late March, Ukrainian diplomats introduced an innovative framework for a deal that could provide a pathway out of the war. And crucially, the proposal, which was leaked to the press following talks in Istanbul on March 29, has already received at least preliminary support from both sides. At the center of the proposed deal is a trade: Kyiv would renounce its ambitions to join NATO and embrace permanent neutrality in return for receiving security guarantees from both its Western partners and from Russia.

Perhaps because of its novelty, the significance of the Istanbul proposal has yet to be appreciated in many Western capitals, where security guarantees have become synonymous with treaties of alliance. Unlike an alliance, which unites close partners in common defense, usually against a potential enemy, the proposed deal calls for geopolitical rivals to guarantee Ukraine’s long-term security jointly, outside of an alliance structure—and to do so despite one of the rivals’ ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine. If the proposal were to become the basis of an eventual settlement, the result would be a mechanism, however counterintuitive, that would make Russia itself a stakeholder in Ukraine’s security.

In the context of Ukraine, officials and analysts have tended to equate security guarantees with Article 5 of NATO’s foundational North Atlantic Treaty, the provision that treats an “armed attack” on one ally as an attack on all and calls for each ally to respond with “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” Indeed, Ukraine aspired to join NATO in large part for this collective defense pledge. And the United States and its NATO allies have been reluctant to offer Ukraine membership because of the Article 5 obligations it would entail, and the resulting risk of direct conflict with Russia.

The Istanbul proposal envisions a very different mechanism for ensuring Ukraine’s security. According to the communiqué that was leaked to the press, the proposal would establish Ukraine as a permanently neutral country and provides for international legal guarantees of its nonnuclear and nonaligned status. The guarantors of the treaty would include all the permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—as well as Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Poland, and Turkey. In the event of an attack on Ukraine, these guarantor states, after receiving an official appeal from Kyiv and conducting urgent consultations, would provide assistance to Ukraine, including, if necessary, the use of armed force “with the goal of restoring and then maintaining Ukraine’s security as a permanently neutral state.”

According to the proposal, the guarantees would not extend to parts of Ukraine occupied by Russia (although Ukraine would not concede its legal claims to the entirety of its internationally recognized territory). Ukraine would commit not to join any military coalitions or host any foreign........

© Foreign Affairs

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