After World War II, Austria, like Germany, was divided between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. As any viewer of The Third Man film knows, Vienna, like Berlin, had four occupation zones. In contrast to the solution for Germany, the Western powers and the Soviet Union agreed to a state treaty in 1955 which resulted in Austria being unified and neutral. It produced the withdrawal of Soviet and Western forces from Austria, the only time the USSR withdrew forces from Europe during the Cold War. Looking at the situation in Ukraine today, why wouldn't a similar solution work?
The United States and its Western partners could offer the Russian government a proposal that both sides guarantee the neutrality of Ukraine. In return, Russia would also accept Ukrainian statehood and neutrality and withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian border. The treaty could also encompass the tendentious issues of U.S. anti-ballistic missile systems in Europe and Russian troop deployments within a new Conventional Forces in Europe agreement. The Donbass region, which already is basically lost to Ukraine, could integrate into Russia as part of the deal. Crimea would also remain part of the Russian Republic. Ukraine could then focus on building its own political and economic system much as West Germany did without East Germany.
While it is true that every country has a right to determine its alliances, this holds true as well for the for the United States and the West itself and not simply for Ukraine. The hasty and unprepared statement at the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008 on eventual NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia was a major strategic mistake which was pushed through by the Bush administration despite German and French opposition. Even if Ukraine would like to be a member of NATO and the European Union, there is no reason that this must be acceptable or in the interest of either the United States or the EU.
While no one wants to talk about spheres of influence, it is clear that both strategic concern and geographic proximity favor Russia while neither the United States nor its NATO allies would want to get involved in a war over Ukraine. It would be the equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis, only this time with the roles reversed. It is more than likely that the current Russian military pressure is intended to reach a diplomatic solution rather than a military one. The cost to Russia of an invasion of Ukraine would be prohibitive and would destroy any prospects for a peaceful European future and raise the danger of a wider war. It is true that Moscow has violated the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 which promised Ukrainian sovereignty in return for Kiev giving up its nuclear arsenal, so any agreement must be a treaty, not a memorandum. If Russia were then to violate the treaty the consequences would be more severe.
If Ukraine is lucky, it can end up as the next Austria. It is neither in the Ukrainian interest or that of the West to continue the strategic ambiguity that now exists. NATO is not weaker with a neutral Austria and would be more stable without the continuing ambiguity of Ukraine. U.S. security commitments are severely overstretched in both Europe and the Middle East, and the China challenge is now forcing a major strategic reappraisal in Washington. A Russian invasion or escalation in Ukraine would increase America’s strategic overstretch and weaken its position in Asia. Given its recent experience in Afghanistan, it does not need another unstable and corrupt government with a large minority population as an ally. It is a time for cold realism rather than an outdated nostalgia for American exceptionalism.
This leaves open the question of EU membership, which in many ways triggered the crisis in 2014. Austria, while not a NATO member, joined the European Union in 1995 without objection from the USSR. This would be an issue for the EU, not NATO. Given the pervasive enlargement fatigue which has stalled, if not killed, any expansion of the EU into the western Balkans and the development of the Eastern Partnership as an alternative to membership, Ukrainian membership would be a distant prospect at best.
It is not in the interest of either the West or of Russia to allow the confrontation over Ukraine to continue. When the American and Russian teams begin this month to negotiate over Ukraine, they should look to Austria for a way out.
Stephen F. Szabo is Adjunct Professor, the BMW Center for German and European Studies, Georgetown University, and author of Germany, Russia and the Rise of Geo-economics.