Explained: What does Zelensky mean by Ukraine's neutrality?
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke at length on a key element in future peace talks: Ukraine's neutrality
- Zelensky and Ukrainian authorities have long stated that they are willing to discuss Ukraine's neutrality if NATO is unwilling to accept the country as a member of the alliance
- In principle, this would satisfy one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's demands that Ukraine abandon its NATO ambitions
"We are ready to accept this," Zelensky added. "This is the most important point."
Zelensky and Ukrainian authorities have long stated that they are willing to discuss Ukraine's neutrality if NATO is unwilling to accept the country as a member of the alliance.
But it's not quite that straightforward. Zelensky has also stated unequivocally that Ukraine will reject "neutrality" in the absence of legally obligatory security guarantees. And, with Russia on the verge of invading Ukraine, the Ukrainian president has stated that he isn't interested in hollow promises.
“I'm interested in making sure it's not just another piece of paper a la the Budapest Memorandum,” he said.
Zelensky was referring to a mostly forgotten episode in post-Cold War history. With the demise of the Soviet Union, Ukraine gained custody of the world's third-largest nuclear stockpile, at least on paper.
Russia retained operational control of those weapons, but Ukraine agreed in 1994 to give up nuclear weapons stationed on its territory in exchange for security guarantees, including the safeguarding of Ukraine's territorial integrity and political independence. That is something that Russia, a signatory to the Budapest Memorandum, has blatantly violated with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the invasion of Ukraine in February.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Zelensky, has stated that security assurances must include guarantors' pledge to support Ukraine in the case of assault.
It's also worth noting that neutrality – the kind that Putin could find appealing – isn't something Zelensky can simply give. Ukraine's constitution expressly states that it wishes to join NATO.
That's when Zelensky provided Russian journalists a crash course in Ukraine's democratic processes. He stated that security guarantees would have to be followed by a referendum in Ukraine.
“Why? Because we have a law about referendums,” Zelensky said. “We have passed it. Changes of this or that status... And security guarantees presuppose constitutional changes. You understand, don't you? Constitutional changes.”
And therein lies the difference. Russia has a political system built around one man — Putin — and Zelensky is the head of a democratic state. Even if neutrality is on the negotiating table, the Ukrainian people will have to have their say.