A “Belgian Solution” for Ukraine?

"Given the reality that is Ukraine today, an internationally-recognized neutral state within its current borders would be a victory for all."

After Crimeans vote on Sunday to secede, but before Putin annexes Crimea, President Obama, Chancellor Merkel, and other European leaders should take a page from history and propose a "Belgian solution."

President Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski recently proposed "Finlandization" of Ukraine. Ukraine would be allowed "wide ranging economic relations with Russia and the EU but no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed against itself."

Henry Kissinger has warned that “for the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” Reality, he argues, should lead us to accept an outcome that excludes Ukraine from NATO.

An appropriate way to do this would be a “Belgian solution:” internationally-guaranteed neutrality for Ukraine. From the 16th century until the early 19th, armies repeatedly marched through the territory that is now Belgium. When Belgium declared independence from the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830, its future was uncertain. France proposed a partition of Belgium in which it would annex the strategic city of Brussels. But others had a better idea. In the Treaty of London, the UK, France, Prussia, Russia, Austria and Holland agreed to respect Belgium's territorial integrity and permanent neutrality. As a result, Belgium enjoyed nearly a century of peace that ended only with the outbreak of World War I.

Internationally-recognized neutrality has proved a viable solution for a number of other states including Switzerland (which declared neutrality after the Peace of Westphalia) and Austria (in a post-World War II Treaty signed by the US, UK, France, and USSR).

Why, it will be asked, should Ukraine not be free to enter into any economic or military relationship it chooses—including the EU and NATO? In a word, the answer is: history. However inconvenient, Ukraine's survival and wellbeing will remain highly dependent on the forbearance and even largesse of its neighbors—none more importantly than Russia. Russia provided half the raw materials Ukraine imports and supplies more than half the gas it consumes at a discount one-third below market prices. Ukraine’s metallurgical and chemical industries that account for a large part of its GDP are also the largest consumers of discounted Russian gas. Moreover, the territory of Ukraine is sharply divided between East and West, and if a fair vote were taken, a substantial majority of Crimeans would vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Empires never collapse without leaving in their wake divided populations, disputed borders, and decades of simmering grievances. When compared with the dissolution of other recent former empires, the most remarkable thing about the Russian story is how peaceful it has been—so far. Civil war in Tajikistan, a struggle between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, and a short, limited Georgian-Russian war in 2008 aside, the captive nations of Eastern and Central Europe, as well as the territories acquired by Peter, Catherine, and other czars over five centuries, have emerged with strikingly little violence.

Yet of these post-Soviet states, Ukraine is a special case. Home of the original Kievan Rus a thousand years ago, in the minds of most Russians, Ukraine is almost as much a part of Russia as Moscow. When the grand dukes of Muscovy took control of what is today western Russia in the 15th century, they proclaimed themselves as the successors of Kiev. Eastern Ukraine has been an integral part of Moscow’s Empire for more than three centuries.

Ukraine’s current borders are both artificial and accidental. Sevastopol was built by Catherine the Great as a major base for the Russian Navy. Had Nikita Khrushchev not made a symbolic gesture in transferring Crimea’s administrative status to an administrative subunit of the USSR, Crimea would have fallen on the Russian rather than the Ukrainian side of the line when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Economically, Ukraine is a basket case, likely to default on debts due in the year ahead. Politically, Ukraine ranks at the bottom of the charts in corruption and dysfunctionality.

Successful statecraft requires recognizing brute realities and imagining feasible possibilities. Given the reality that is Ukraine today, an internationally-recognized neutral state within its current borders would be a victory for all. By treaty, it could not be a member of NATO or the EU, or Russia’s pale imitations of both; it would give Russia a 100-year lease on the base for its Black Sea Fleet; it should internationalize ownership of the pipelines that take Russian gas to European consumers; it would guarantee minority rights in accord with European standards. Under these conditions, its citizens will have a better opportunity to focus on nation building at home than they will otherwise.

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