Ukraine’s newfound willingness to consider neutrality might squash its chances to join NATO. But a neutral Ukraine would join another club, as it would enter the ranks of several European countries without military alliances.
While the Europe and Central Asia region is one of divided alliances, with almost three dozen countries in NATO and another handful in a military alliance with Russia, 13 countries and micro-countries consider themselves truly neutral: They are in no alliances, and their militaries — if they have them — don’t take sides.
Ukraine and Russia are negotiating what neutrality would mean for the country. Stephen Sestanovich, the director of the International Fellows Program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said it could mean Ukraine agrees not to join military alliances or allow foreign military bases inside its borders.
But neutrality means different things for different countries.
Charles Lichfield, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center, said neutrality has definitions unique to each country, with some forgoing militaries and others declining to get involved in conflicts that don’t involve them. But the main characteristic of a neutral country is that it’s not militarily aligned with other countries.
“A neutral country can defend itself if it’s invaded. But if there’s a conflict between two neighboring countries, the neutral country cannot take a side,” Lichfield said.
There are two major sides in Europe. The largest is NATO, made up of 30 countries, including the U.S., whose members ensure mutual defense. Bosnia and Herzegovina is in NATO’s membership action plan, a stepping stone to potential full membership in the future, while Ukraine and Georgia both have expressed a desire to join NATO in the future.
The other side is the Russia-backed military alliance called the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, which includes five other post-Soviet countries in Europe and Asia: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Azerbaijan, which isn’t a member of the CSTO, signed a treaty with Russia the day before Russia invaded Ukraine.
The European Union is a political and economic collective rather than a military alliance, but a mutual defense clause introduced in 2009 has led to debate about whether it could mean military defense. Lichfield said it’s not the same as NATO.
“The E.U. tests the sense of neutrality a little bit, but the main purpose of the E.U. is economic integration,” Lichfield said. “It’s not as committing and compelling as NATO’s Article 5 — an attack on one is an attack on all. So yes, you can say that being part of the E.U. slightly tarnishes your neutrality, but nothing like being part of NATO.”
Six E.U. countries aren’t members of NATO: Austria, Cyprus, the Irish Republic, Malta, Finland and Sweden.
That might not always be the case, as polling showed support for joining NATO growing in Sweden and Finland. Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry warned Friday that such moves might force Moscow to take “retaliatory measures.”
Lichfield said the new interest in NATO is a direct reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“What is happening is that you see two countries that have been traditionally neutral and not part of NATO, you see them reconsidering their stance and thinking of joining NATO,” he said.
Lichfield said the condemnation of Russia’s actions has been so united that it has pushed neutrality purists like Switzerland to observe sanctions.
Switzerland has a storied history of neutrality, including having been neutral during both world wars. Switzerland’s neutrality was established by the Treaty of Paris in 1815. But that doesn’t mean the country is defenseless, as it engages in so-called armed neutrality and requires men to join the military to fill its ranks.
Micro-countries such as Lichtenstein, San Marino, Monaco and Andorra don’t have regular military forces, according to the CIA World Factbook, a reference resource produced by the agency, and largely rely on the protection of the countries that surround them.
Vatican City, the smallest country in the world, declared its neutrality in 1929 as part of the Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Holy See.
Austria, Malta and Moldova have enshrined neutrality in their constitutions, while Serbia’s neutrality was mentioned in a 2007 National Assembly resolution because of NATO’s involvement in the secession of Kosovo the following year.
Kosovo’s independence is recognized by the U.S. but isn’t recognized by several other countries, including Russia, China and India.
Even so, Kosovo’s parliament approved a resolution March 3 to start negotiations for NATO membership after Russia invaded Ukraine.