In an interview with Russian journalists on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke at length about an important point in possible peace talks: the possibility of neutrality for Ukraine.
“We are ready to accept this,” said Zelenskyy. “That is the most important point.”
Zelensky and Ukrainian officials have long said they are ready to discuss neutrality for Ukraine if NATO is unwilling to accept the country as a member of the alliance.
In theory, that would correspond to one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands: that Ukraine give up its NATO ambitions.
But it is not that easy. Zelenskyy also made it clear that Ukraine would reject “neutrality” without legally binding security guarantees. And given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian leader has said he is not interested in empty promises.
“I’m interested in making sure it’s not just another piece of paper a la Budapest Memorandum,” he said.
Zelenskyy was referring to a little-known moment in post-Cold War history. With the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine acquired – on paper at least – the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world.
While Russia retained operational control of these weapons, Ukraine signed an agreement in 1994 to surrender nuclear weapons stationed on its territory in exchange for security guarantees, including protection of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political independence. Russia, a signatory to the Budapest Memorandum, firmly trampled on that with its 2014 annexation of Crimea and February’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Zelenskyy, said security guarantees must essentially include a commitment by guarantors to help Ukraine in the event of aggression.
And it’s important to add that neutrality — a kind Putin might find palatable — is something Zelenskyy cannot easily offer. The quest for NATO membership is enshrined in the Constitution of Ukraine.
There Zelenskyy gave the Russian interviewers a little lesson about the democratic processes in Ukraine. Security guarantees, he explained, must be followed by a referendum in Ukraine.
“Why? Because we have a law on referendums,” said Zelenskyy. “We passed it. Changes of this or that status… And security guarantees require 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 Zelenskyy is the head of a democratic state. Even if neutrality is on the negotiating table, the Ukrainian people will still have a say.