Russia has reportedly been demanding a promise of neutrality from Ukraine in exchange for a ceasefire. Ukrainian neutrality would leave Russia better off than she is currently, for at the moment Ukraine is a Western march: allied with the West without being under the West’s security umbrella. A neutral Ukraine would not be under the Western security umbrella either, but also could not act as a Western ally in military affairs.
But neutrality is not just something that a country declares.
To be neutral, a country must posses sufficient resources to defend herself against all potential attackers. If not, then, even if she declares neutrality, a threat will cause her to seek help from others, and her neutrality will disappear. Switzerland and Finland were able to be neutrals in the 20th century because they are hard to dominate. Switzerland is defended by her mountains. The Finns showed their capacity for self defense in the Winter War.
So, how to make a Ukrainian promise of neutrality credible?
Replace her nuclear weapons, and give her the means to launch them. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine had about 1,700 nuclear warheads. In 1994, she agreed to destroy them in exchange for a Russian promise “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” It is only just that, given Russia’s breach of promise, Russia should restore Ukraine to the nuclear position Ukraine once occupied.
But not only is it just, it is also good for Russia. For a nuclear Ukraine would have the resources to defend herself against all potential attackers, making her a true candidate for neutrality.
Today, Ukraine is a Western march because Ukraine needs Western help to defend herself against Russia. In exchange for that help, she must be willing to tolerate a Western military presence on her soil (indeed, she is begging for that presence). If Ukraine continues to be a Western march after the war, Russia can be certain that Ukraine would permit the West to transit through Ukrainian territory en route to attacking Russia.
But if Ukraine were to have nuclear weapons after the war, then Ukraine would no longer need the West to help her defend herself against Russia. And if Ukraine would not need the West, the likelihood that she would allow the West to transit through her territory en route to making war against Russia would be reduced. Indeed, given the potential for such an attack to spiral into a nuclear conflict, and the fact that Ukraine would then have nuclear weapons and so be a natural target of Russia in such a conflict, Ukraine would have a strong incentive to preserve her neutrality and not to permit such transit.
Nukes mean independence. And independence is a prerequisite of neutrality. If all Russia seeks from Ukraine is neutrality then it is in Russia’s interest to reward a Ukrainian promise of neutrality not just with a complete withdrawal of troops from Ukraine but with 1,700 free nuclear weapons, and the means to launch them—both at the West, and back at Russia.
If Russia won’t consider renuclearizing Ukraine, then Russia’s demand of neutrality is not sincere. Indeed, if the reports that Russia is also demanding demilitarization are correct, then what Russia really wants is to make Ukraine a Russian march—a territory through which Russia can transit at will but to which Russia need make no promises—for example, of mutual defense—in exchange for that power.