Time is of the essence. Many lives hang in the balance. Will the fate of Kyiv and Kharkiv conjure Aleppo and Grozny? The Ukrainian resistance to the reprehensible and vicious Russian invasion has been heroic. But continued Ukrainian bravery and the considerable financial and military support offered by most of the world will not change the eventual outcome. The inability to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine will ensure an eventual Russian military victory. If necessary, Russian forces will destroy and capture Kyiv. Of course, defeating an army and capturing a city remains quite different than controlling an entire country.
Ukrainian resistance demonstrated to Russia and the entire world that Ukraine will not become Belarus. The capture of Kyiv, the removal of the Zelensky government and the establishment of a puppet regime, will immediately trigger a fierce and determined partisan guerrilla war. Maintaining a loyal government will require a permanent Russian occupation that will become the target of continual violent attack. Russia does not have the ability to vanquish Ukrainian resistance.
Despite the utter futility of his extraordinary military gamble, Putin remains determined to pursue his current course of action. While his decision to invade represents the most significant strategic blunder of his political tenure, Putin will double down on his military offensive if necessary. Accordingly, the Zelensky government has an important choice to make. It is an awful choice, but one that must be made immediately to save many lives and maintain Ukraine’s political sovereignty. Zelensky should renounce any desire for Ukraine to join NATO and the EU. In effect, Zelensky must declare Ukraine’s political and military neutrality.
Zelensky must be persuaded to accept the geopolitical significance of how Ukraine borders Russia. Ukraine is not Canada. Russia’s perception of Ukraine joining NATO as an existential threat must be recognized and respected. Would Biden or any president accept Mexico or Canada establishing a military alliance with Russia? We must understand Russia’s insistence on Ukraine remaining neutral as asserting its version of the Monroe Doctrine.
Zelensky’s choice before the Russian invasion remained stark and clear: to decide to become Finland or risk sharing the fate of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Russian tanks rolled into Prague. Finland remained neutral during the cold war and avoided Russian invasion, while remaining an independent democratic nation. Ideally, all sovereign nations should enjoy the freedom to determine its political alliances. But the world has never worked that way. The Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz, who ruled Mexico before its Revolution in the early 20th century, once said: Poor Mexico, so far away from God, so close to the United States. With rueful wisdom, Porfirio simply acknowledged how countries living in the shadow of a great power must respect the interests of that power. The same holds true for Ukraine today.
Even at this moment, Ukraine might be able to maintain its political sovereignty, its freely elected government and independent civic institutions. But it must safeguard these right now by renouncing any desire to join the Western alliance. It must become and remain officially neutral to protect the Ukrainian people and its cities from further devastation.
Some will consider this to be a policy of appeasement. But there is a great difference between appeasement and acknowledging brute geopolitical reality. Where a country is physically located in relation to a great power has enormous consequence. The world has united in its opposition to Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. We are operating from a position of strength not weakness, the way Chamberlain approached Hitler in 1938. Biden should get on the phone right now to tell Putin he cannot win. In fact, he should add, no one wins. Everyone loses. Russia, the West and the entire world loses, if he continues with his invasion. Perhaps Putin has received that message from friends like Erdogan and other leaders like Macron. It is a message that bears repeating.
To those who want to continue to arm Ukraine, what is the goal of that strategy? To defeat Russia on the ground? To engineer a stalemate forcing Russia to negotiate? That is extremely unlikely. Meanwhile, many more Ukrainians will be killed and whole cities will be destroyed. The West and the world must accept the fact that no matter how many weapons Ukraine is given, the grim military outcome will remain the same. Offering Ukraine’s political and military neutrality in exchange for an immediate end to the violence is a deal worth making.
Zelensky’s decision to publicly declare Ukrainian neutrality would be exceedingly difficult and painful. It would have to be explained not as a surrender, but as an acceptance of geopolitical reality and the inevitable military outcome. It would have to be framed as the best decision to save lives and Ukraine’s continued sovereignty. In exchange, Russia would have to withdraw its troops and accept the Zelensky government as expressing the will of an independent Ukraine. And the Minsk accords would be reaffirmed by all parties. Would Russia accept these terms? Ukraine and the world would do well to find out. If Putin refused, it would reinforce his political isolation, expose Russia to the full weight of economic sanctions and elevate the risk of political instability at home and in friendly countries like Belarus and Kazakhstan. Time is of the essence. Zelensky must make his decision. Many lives and cities, and Ukraine’s political sovereignty itself, hangs in precarious balance.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano