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There Is No Alternative to Sovereign Choice By Heather A. Conley and Kathleen H. Hicks

It has become fashionable to advocate for arresting NATO expansion and instead offering countries located between NATO and Russia’s borders “permanent neutrality” ensconced in a new European security architecture. The goal of this architecture, its advocates argue, would be to create an enduring stability between the West and Russia. But in reality this “new” architecture would be the temporary institutionalization of a new European dividing line approximately 1,000 kilometers east of the storied Cold War–era Fulda Gap, but less militarized (for now).

Transatlantic security does not require something new; the United States and Europe simply need to remember and courageously defend their principles: the freedom for every country to choose its course.

The concept of “permanent neutrality” is a policy contradiction. Those who support it say that non-NATO states along Russia’s western border would have full freedom to choose their forms of government and diplomatic relations, yet they deny them the freedom to join any formal security organizations. The historic example of “permanent neutrality” was the concept of “Finlandization,” an idea based in the 1948 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between Finland and the Soviet Union. The concept describes Finland’s desire to “choose” nonaligned status, free from military alliances yet willing to assist the Soviet Union in the event of “ aggression by Germany or any state allied with the latter,” while retaining a democratic government and capitalist economy. In reality, Finland’s neutrality was enforced by the Soviet Union and accommodated by Finnish leaders. The notion that such a choice was freely made was belied by Finland’s decision in 1995 to end its nonaligned status after the collapse of the Soviet Union and join the European Union. Would “permanent neutrality” today include disavowing the growing EU security and defense efforts?

Ukraine also practiced “permanent neutrality” prior to the 2013 Euro-Maidan demonstrations. Ukraine’s constitution stated that it would not seek NATO membership. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and incursion into the Donbas in 2014 immediately changed Ukraine’s posture of neutrality to one of actively seeking NATO membership (which was approved by Ukraine’s parliament in a December 2014 legislative amendment). In fairness, Ukraine thought it had sufficient security guarantees from the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia after giving up its nuclear weapons to protect its neutrality, but this proved illusory. Russia’s military actions in the Baltic Sea region have also led Sweden and Finland to contemplate options other than their nonaligned status. It is Russia’s actions that drive countries to rethink their neutrality and contemplate NATO membership.

The Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the founding document of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), put a stake in the very heart of the concept of forced neutrality in its first article: Every country has the right “ to belong or not to belong to international organizations, to be or not to be a party to bilateral or multilateral treaties including the right to be or not to be a party to treaties of alliance. ” The Soviet Union signed and the Russian Federation reaffirmed these principles, as well as the inviolability of territorial integrity, confidence-building measures and transparency, and the acceptance of the importance of human rights.

But the reality is that Russia does not recognize the sovereignty of its neighbors. Its military actions in recent years—in Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and most likely in the future Belarus—are designed to prevent sovereign countries from taking independent policy action. Despite the fact that there are numerous legally binding commitments to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity and not to change borders through force from the United Nations Charter, the Helsinki Final Act (1975) to the Charter of Paris (1990), these legal instruments did not prevent Russia from invading, annexing, or occupying Georgian or Ukrainian territory, so we can have little confidence that Russia would respect “permanent neutrality.”

Precluding future members from joining NATO may seem an expedient way to appease Russia today, but doing so would sacrifice core democratic and international legal principles of sovereign choice and, in so doing, destabilize Europe and harm U.S. security interests. What antagonizes Russian president Vladimir Putin is not simply NATO expansion but the Alliance’s very and continued existence. Mr. Putin’s position on NATO has evolved since the late 1990s, to be sure, but it seems clear today that the only way to end Russian concerns (for the moment) is to end NATO. Those in the West who have become enamored with the concept of creating a zone of “permanent neutrality” between NATO and Russia generally do not themselves seek NATO’s demise, but wittingly or otherwise, their proposal chips away at NATO and the right of sovereign choice nevertheless.

At the same time, it is essential that potential NATO members demonstrate the capability and will to fully meet the responsibilities and obligations of alliance membership and contribute to transatlantic security. The current efforts by NATO members to meaningfully increase their defense spending and their deterrence and collective defense posture will underscore that NATO is not a social club but a military alliance that must be able to credibly defend current and future members against a range of threats.

Finally, although the refrain for a new European security architecture can be heard from the halls of the Kremlin to the German Foreign Office to the pages of various newspapers, the reality is that a European security framework exists and Russia is an active member: the OSCE. The OSCE is seldom remembered in the United States as NATO’s twin pillar of transatlantic security. Before we offer “bold” ideas like permanent neutrality that threaten to impinge, de facto even if not de jure, on the sovereign choices of European nations, let’s first revisit the foundations upon which our successful security institutions were built and rededicate ourselves to implementing them. We may be surprised that these foundational ideas are very relevant to addressing today’s challenges.

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, and Dr. Kathleen Hicks is senior vice president, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved. 


The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.

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