Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has said his government is prepared to consider adopting a neutral status as part of a peace deal with Russia. But what would neutrality mean for Ukraine, and which other countries in history have adopted a neutral status? Peter Caddick-Adams investigates…


The world looks on in horror as the war between Ukraine and Russia continues. Each day takes fresh lives, often of the innocent, unable to defend themselves as their homes are ground to dust. Russia is resorting to destroying infrastructure – schools, hospitals, maternity centres, factories, shopping centres, power stations, television masts – as a way of putting pressure on Kyiv to capitulate. The refugees themselves, their humanitarian aid corridors and online information, have all been ‘weaponised’ to become instruments of terror by the Kremlin. This explains the relentless attrition of all these sectors and people. Moscow’s message is clear: ‘Do as we say, or we’ll make the suffering even worse’. Russian Federation aggression is also directed at the wider world, demanding that it refrain from intervention, and applies further pressure on President Zelensky to cave in.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky
A screen grab captured from a video showing the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky speaking about the talks to be held in Turkey between Ukraine and Russia, 28 March 2022. (Photo by Ukrainian Presidency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Zelensky, the actor-turned-president who is playing the role of his life, is a clever man. He has courted and won the hearts of much of the planet but has also put out peace ‘feelers’. One card he has placed on the table is to end Ukraine’s attempts to join Nato (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and promise not to seek membership in the future. Instead, he has focused on the greater prize for Kyiv of membership of the 27-nation European Union, which would confer some security benefits but mostly economic ones.

Ukraine and the EU

On 28 February 2022, Zelensky formally filed for membership of the EU, and on 11 March, after five hours of heated debate, the EU Council voted overwhelmingly to approve the country’s “euro-integration”. It will take years for the future Ukraine, however it looks, to restructure its banks, trade, taxes, and economy, free from corruption and influence of oligarchs, to meet EU needs, for full membership to be approved. However, the process of binding Ukraine closer to the European community, and away from the clutches of Russia, has begun.

By being a future member of the EU but not of Nato, Ukraine would join countries such as Cyprus, Austria, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden. The island of Cyprus is divided between the Greek-supported Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, supported by Turkey. That Cyprus remains two separate entities, each belonging to a different Nato ally (Greece and Turkey), complicates its future admission to the North Atlantic alliance. Meanwhile, Austria, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden regard themselves as neutral in different ways. As Ukraine’s future trajectory, excepting interference from Russia, seems similar, it is worth examining what neutrality would mean for President Zelensky’s country, and whether it is workable.

What does neutrality mean?

Neutrality means a country does not ally itself militarily with others.

Austria’s neutrality was agreed by the four post-Second World War occupying powers (the Soviet Union, United States, Britain, and France) when they left the country in 1955, as well as by Austria itself. The state is prevented from entry into military alliances or allowing foreign military bases on Austrian territory. Austria maintains national conscription, but as a result of this five-way treaty it spends little on defence and fields only a tiny army. The non-alliance demands came from the Soviet Union, who modelled the Austrian example on neighbouring Switzerland, perhaps the best-known example of a neutral country.

The Swiss were first considered neutral at the end of the bitter Thirty Years’ War in 1648, reconfirmed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when Switzerland’s neutrality was guaranteed by the major powers of the era – Austria, France, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia. Swiss neutrality comes at a high price, with conscription, active training, constant procurement of up-to-date equipment and a budget of around 1 per cent of GDP, although the nation spent double that during the Cold War.

A painting of the Congress of Vienna in 1815
A painting of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (c1900). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Sweden is the other European country with a long tradition of neutrality. This arose from a military policy of non-alignment in the first half of the 19th century, then formally proclaimed in 1834. Sweden had long been a strong military power in the Baltic, and, like Switzerland, has created the concept of ‘armed neutrality’ to protect its status. Since 1940, Sweden’s security has been dependent on the status of neighbouring Finland, and indirectly on the policy of the Soviet Union and latterly Russia, towards Finland.

Of all the wars fought in the past hundred years, that of Ukraine, still in play, seems closest to the 103-day contest between the Soviet Union and Finland. Known as the First Soviet-Finnish War, or the Winter War, it waged from November 1939 to March 1940. Vastly outnumbering their opponents, around one million Soviet troops launched an unprovoked land grab against Finland from several directions. With little happening in western Europe between France and Germany at that moment, newspapers then, as now, made great play of the plucky smaller army skilfully and effectively defending its homeland.

Logistical difficulties, poorly equipped Soviet conscripts, as well as Finnish bravery and their maximisation of the use of snipers, caused massive Red Army casualties. However, in February 1940, large-scale artillery bombardments breached the Mannerheim Line, Finland’s southern defensive barrier, and the Soviets broke through. Unable to gain British or French support, Helsinki made peace on 12 March 1940, losing a slice of territory.

Members of the Finnish Army's 'International Brigade' during the war with the Soviet Union, January 1940
Members of the Finnish Army's 'International Brigade', stationed on the Northern Finnish Front during the conflict with the Soviet Union, have a warm drink to ward off the cold. Photo dated 2 January 1940. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Finland later, understandably, took the field alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, and later concluded an Armistice in 1944, which morphed into the Soviet-Finn Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance of 1948. This treaty forbids either side to join a military alliance against the other – Finland cannot not allow its territory to be used for an attack on Russia but is allowed to preserve its neutrality by aggressive defence. Unlike Switzerland, Finland’s neutrality is not protected by international guarantees, but, like Austria, is a case of enforced neutrality, again by Russia and its predecessors.

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The Budapest Memorandum

The present Russia-Ukraine conflict finds its roots in the Budapest Memorandum signed in Hungary on 5 December 1994. In it, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States gave assurances not to threaten military force or economic coercion against Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, in return for those states giving up their nuclear weapons in the chaotic aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The focus was not the protection of Ukraine, but the removal of nuclear warheads from the anarchy of the post-Soviet world, where it was feared they might fall into criminal hands. However, the ‘assurances’ were not the same as internationally recognised ‘guarantees’ – a difference of interpretation which led the western powers not to challenge Russian encroachments into Ukraine until too late.

Today, Ukrainian officials insist that security guarantees will need to be much more specific than the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Ukraine will want to know the precise terms under which countries are prepared to come to its defence in the event of further Russian aggression, writes BBC News diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams.

What would neutral status mean for Ukraine?

Any future neutrality of Ukraine would probably have to rely on an international agreement, such as that which created Swiss or Austrian neutrality, plus aggressive self-defence, as practiced by Sweden and Finland.

Outside of Nato, Sweden has just announced a rise in its defence spending from 1.3 per cent of GDP to 2 per cent “as soon as is practically possible”. After a men-only military draft was ended in 2010, mandatory military service was reintroduced from 1 January 2018, with the numbers in uniform set to rise again.

The same is true of Sweden’s neighbour, Finland, which has always leant heavily on national service, and where military expenditure has always been significant. Architects will show you the air raid shelters which are mandatory in public buildings of a certain size, which double as sports facilities. However, both Sweden and Finland are now re-evaluating their attitude towards joining Nato, with public opinion in both countries firmly in favour.

President Zelensky will be looking for international guarantees, with stronger teeth than those of the failed assurances given in Budapest in 1994

The February 2022 Russian aggression in Ukraine has triggered a European arms race of a kind not seen since 1914. However, as nations like the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium found to their cost in the 20th century, declaring neutrality and it being respected are two different matters. Nazi Germany stormed into all three in 1940. Thus, it will not be enough for Ukraine simply to announce neutrality.

Adolf Hitler at his headquarters at Bruly-de-Peche, Ardennes, Belgium, 1940
Adolf Hitler at his headquarters at Bruly-de-Peche, Ardennes, Belgium, during the campaign of May-June 1940. Left of Hitler is General Alfred Jodl, and on the right is Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, commander-in-chief of the German army. Next to him is Admiral of the Fleet Dr Erich Raeder. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Although Kyiv reintroduced selective conscription in 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea and attacked the Donbas region, its future reach will have to be wider and its training and equipment thorough and meaningful, in the manner of the Swedes and the Finns. From Europe’s experience elsewhere, a minimum peacetime defence expenditure of 1.5 to 2 per cent of GDP will be required. However, President Zelensky will also be looking for international guarantees, with stronger teeth than those of the failed assurances given in Budapest in 1994.

The world has entered a new era, and it is unlikely that Ukraine will be left out in the cold again.


Peter Caddick-Adams is a writer and broadcaster who specialises in military history, defence and security issues. He lectures at universities, military academies and staff colleges around the world and spent 35 years as an officer in the UK Regular and Reserve Forces. His next book, 1945: Victory in the West, is due to be published by Penguin in May 2022


Peter Caddick-Adams is a writer and broadcaster who specialises in military history, defence and security issues