Ukraine and the ‘New Cold War’: The Return of Neutralism

Posted on June 4, 2014 by


Whether the Crimean crisis heralds a new era of international relations (or not), it has clearly been a pivotal moment in Russia’s relationship with the West. The world over balances of power are shifting, and though the United States remains unrivalled in sheer power, close to the borders of rising China and the increasingly-assertive Russia (each allegedly emboldened by Obama’s vacillations in Syria and Ukraine), grey areas are emerging. For those states most vulnerable to these ‘revisionist powers’ (those most alarmed by Obama’s ‘hands-off approach’), the policy of ‘neutralism’ appears increasingly worthy of revival.

Neutralism defined a Cold War foreign policy pioneered by Finland and later adopted by Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia, following his split with Stalin in 1948. When geographically sandwiched between two antagonistic blocs, neutralism prescribed balanced relationships with each side. As such, neutral states reaped rewards otherwise reserved for paid-up members of either bloc, and enjoyed a modicum of security in knowing that both blocs considered their mutual neighbour’s neutralism preferable to its defection to the other side.

In this sense Yugoslavia was archetypal. Tito’s split with Stalin had been so volcanic that none foresaw rapprochement (one exchange featured Tito imploring Stalin to “Stop sending people to kill me”, then teasing his paranoia: “If you don’t stop sending killers”, he wrote, “I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second”). Yugoslavia’s ensuing isolation saw its economy decimated by a Soviet embargo. Nevertheless, seeing in Yugoslavia a thorn in the flesh of Communist unity, its trade deficits were quickly soaked up and economy kept afloat by generous Western loans. With the Balkan Pact in 1953, Yugoslavia became entwined with two NATO members, Greece and Turkey, thus affording it some relief from the very real threat of Soviet intervention, without necessitating its formal NATO membership. From here, a rapprochement with the new Khrushchёv regime was possible, and an ostensibly socialist Yugoslavia prospered in the grey area between the messianic empires.

The lynchpin of neutralism was that both blocs needed an interest in the subject’s continued ‘independence’; the crushing of Hungary’s 1956 revolution (while the West looked elsewhere) was testament to the paucity of this circumstance. Therefore in Ukraine, where both Russia and the West vie for influence, it’s not surprising that President-elect, Petro Poroshenko, has already indicated a willingness to rekindle relations with Russia, and perhaps even limit Ukraine’s military activities against its pro-Russian ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ in exchange for closer ties with Vladimir Putin.

If the commentary that abounded shortly after Ukraine’s crisis began (and after Russia and the West declared their implacable allegiance to opposing sides) is to be believed, and a new Cold War is truly on the rise, then now more than ever a policy of neutralism offers intermediary states unique bounties. There is little doubt now that Ukraine will seek further European Union integration—a definitive blow to Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union that will likely come into effect (without Ukraine) in January 2015. Economic stability is surely Poroshenko’s primary interest and, put simply, the EU offers the best means to achieve that. However, while his West-leaning electorate would never countenance a rebalance towards Russia, an exclusive alliance with the EU and IMF might similarly threaten the recovery agenda underpinning his presidency.

The IMF has already warned that major reforms of the Ukrainian economy will be necessary—a potential ‘unemployment nightmare’, and likely to hit Ukrainians’ traditional energy subsidies—the period of austerity may well leave Ukraine again relying on Russia for stability—a gross irony considering the present bloodshed in the East. Having sworn to eliminate the insurgency in not two or three months but hours, a long-foreseen concession on autonomy seems the likely means to defuse this situation. This would be a victory for Russia and pro-Russians alike, and Putin recognises this—evident in his stated readiness “for a dialogue with Petro Poroshenko” where previously Ukraine’s government was denounced as an illegitimate junta.

Though some might decry this a surrender to a self-evidently nasty regime, two problems (of which they’re likely aware) present themselves: none are willing to wage war over strategically-lukewarm Ukraine; nor are any states eager to take full responsibility for its moribund economy. With the weight of IMF restructuring hanging heavily, coupled with the threat of a Russian gas cut-off, to Ukraine’s nascent government neutralism’s likely never looked so appealing.