Ukraine: Spheres, Orbits & Thoughts on Neutrality


Sometimes it seems we are living in different worlds — Vladimir Putin, 23 December 2021

There is another world, and it is this one — French poet Paul Éluard


The curtain was raised on 2022 with the stage set for not one, not two, but three major regional conflicts, each with the potential to wreak global havoc and even escalate from conventional to nuclear war: in Europe, over Russia’s demand (unsubtly backed by massive troop build-ups) that Ukraine never be allowed to join the world’s only nuclear-armed alliance, NATO; in the Middle East, where efforts to revive the Iran Nuclear Deal, abandoned by President Donald Trump, seemed doomed by the failure of President Joe Biden to do the obviously right thing – reverse Trump’s decision, and lift his sadistic sanctions; and in East Asia, where both China and the US seem increasingly prepared to go to war, including nuclear war, rather than ‘lose’ Taiwan.

Three nuclear war scares – with alarming ‘noises off’ from North Korea – seems rather a lot, and while I focus below on the European crisis, the desperate ‘big picture’ is the incessant, intolerable strain now being placed on the world system by the world’s worst weapons.


In Moscow on December 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin told a doubtless startled audience of foreign ambassadors that Russia was happy to engage “in dialog with the United States and its allies” on one momentous condition: “the elaboration of concrete agreements that would rule out any further eastward expansion of NATO and the deployment of weapons systems posing a threat to us in close proximity to Russia’s territory.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, ceremony for presenting letters of credence 1 December 2021. Photo by Rossiya Segodnya

NATO leaders had long grown accustomed to Kremlin accusations of duplicity over successive waves of NATO expansion, dating back to the famous (in Russia) ‘big lies’ of 1990: the repeated verbal assurance offered by American and West German leaders to the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, that the Alliance would expand “not an inch” into East Germany (or, by implication, any further) and – just to be clear – the pledge to Gorbachev by US Secretary of State James Baker that NATO would never “leap frog” over a reunited Germany.

The US now insists, to quote Secretary of State Antony Blinken, that “there was no promise that NATO wouldn’t expand.” Having studied the documentary record, I conclude, with Melvin Goodman, professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, that “the current crisis over Ukraine could easily be defused if the United States would honor its agreements for 1990,” for while “the commitment to forswear stationing of Western troops in Eastern Europe was never part of any written agreement…Putin reasonably believes that a pledge was made at the highest levels of the US government and then broken by a succession of US presidents starting with Bill Clinton.” And as Goodman adds, the “US explanation that NATO ‘rotates’ troops through Eastern Europe rather than ‘stations’ troops there is pure sophistry.”


Why, though, is Putin now throwing his unexpected demand for ‘concrete agreements’ into the mix? Sometimes, Samuel Beckett wrote, “there is last even of last times;” and in Stockholm on December 2, addressing his counterparts in the 57-state Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that a last chance for peace was at hand. The entire “strategic security architecture” of Europe, he cautioned, “is rapidly collapsing;” NATO’s “military infrastructure is being irresponsibly moved closer to Russia borders, with missile defense systems that can be used as strike systems deployed in Romania and Poland;” and new, previously-banned, “American medium-range missiles” may “soon be deployed” on NATO territory. With “the nightmarish scenario of military confrontation…looming again,” Moscow would “make relevant proposals in the near future,” which “we expect to be considered seriously, in essence and without excuses.”

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Geneva, June 2021.

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Geneva, June 2021. (Source: TASS)

The near future arrived on December 15, when American officials in Moscow were handed two draft accords: a “Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees,’ and an ‘Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.’ A Foreign Ministry press release (December 17) expressed the “hope that the United States will enter into serious talks…using the Russian draft treaty and agreement as a starting point.”

The last two words are important, as the drafts have been relentlessly denigrated in mainstream western media as Russia’s last word, a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum whose inevitable rejection the Machiavellian Putin would then use to justify military action. And both texts take as their own, non-confrontational starting point documents already agreed by all members of the OSCE and its predecessor, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), established by the cornerstone document of East-West détente, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.

Indeed, Russia’s central contention is that NATO expansion renders impossible the construction of what Gorbachev called a “common European home,” an overarching architecture based on the principle, enshrined at Helsinki, of “the indivisibility of security in Europe”: the recognition, to quote the 1990 CSCE Charter of Paris For a New Europe, that “the security of each participating State is inseparably linked to that of all the others.”


Thus Article 1 of the draft treaty states that the two sides shall “cooperate on the basis of principles of indivisible, equal and undiminished security,” not allowing any “military alliance or coalition” to “undermine the core security interests of the other Party.” What that means in practice, in Moscow’s view, is then elaborated, most consequentially in Article 4:

The United States of America shall undertake to prevent further eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and deny accession to the Alliance of the States of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The United States of America shall not establish military bases in the territory of the States of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, use their infrastructure for any military activities or develop bilateral military cooperation with them.

President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev at the first Summit in Geneva

US President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev at the first Summit in Geneva, November 1985

The next three Articles specify a comprehensive set of confidence-building, transparency, risk-reduction, and arms control measures that the US promptly expressed willingness to lift out of the text and consider separately. For Moscow, however, that would mean lifting them out of the very context – the borders and bases of NATO – that renders them meaningful: we have tabled a treaty, as Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov quipped, “not a menu.” When the US finally replied in writing, however – in a private note delivered to the Foreign Ministry on January 26 – it was to ‘place its order’ for talks on some topics, but say ‘Nyet’ to negotiations on NATO. “There is no change. There will be no change,” Blinken insisted, meaning, alas, there is next to no chance the de-escalatory steps in the draft will be taken, including commitments:

  • to “refrain from flying bombers equipped for nuclear or non-nuclear armaments or deploying surface warships of any kind…outside national airspace and national territorial waters, from where they can attack targets in the territory of another country;”
  • to not “deploy ground-launched intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles outside their national territories;”
  • to “refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories and return such weapons already deployed outside their national territories;”
  • to “not train military personnel from non-nuclear countries to use nuclear weapons;” and
  • to not “conduct exercises or training for general-purpose forces, that include scenarios involving the use of nuclear weapons.”

The draft treaty’s preamble reaffirms the ‘Geneva formula,’ first adopted by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev in 1985, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” The Russian drafters, though, missed a golden opportunity to cite the rest of that historic statement emphasizing “the importance of preventing any war between them, whether nuclear or conventional,” and pledging never to “seek to achieve military superiority” – the very thing the Soviet bloc ‘enjoyed’ for so long over NATO, and which post-Cold War NATO now ‘enjoys’ over Russia, last year spending $1.17 trillion on ‘defense’ to Russia’s $62 billion.


The draft agreement is based on the same premise as the draft treaty – that NATO expansion is irreconcilable with solemn undertakings on common security – and draws the same conclusion – that expansion must not just be stopped but reversed. The agreement is more specific than the treaty in stipulating that ‘old NATO’ (my phrase) – the 16 states of the Cold War alliance – “shall not deploy military forces and weaponry” in the 14 (!) states that acceded after May 27, 1997, the date of the signing of the NATO-Russia ‘Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security’ that once again proceeded “from the principle that the security of all states in the Euro-Atlantic community is indivisible.”

Like the treaty, the agreement contains some commendable threat-reduction measures, notably that the two sides “shall not conduct military exercises or other activities above the brigade level [3,000-5,000 troops] in a zone of agreed width and configuration either side of the border line” dividing the two sides. Predictably, however, the stated willingness of NATO leaders to engage in dialog on such steps was matched only by their refusal to consider the ‘non-starter’ articles on expansion and deployments.

NATO’s reasoning is simple – and simplistic: it operates an ‘Open Door’ policy precisely because every ‘foundational’ document Russia cites enshrines the right of every OSCE state to seek to join any military grouping it chooses. Take, for example, the 1999 OSCE Charter for European Security, Article 8 of which states unequivocally: “We reaffirm the right of each and every participating State to be free to choose its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve.” As Lavrov pointed out, however, in a combative press conference on January 14, that sentence forms part of this integral whole:

Each participating State has an equal right to security. We reaffirm the right of each and every participating State to be free to choose its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve. Each State also has the right to neutrality. Each participating State will respect the rights of all others in these regards. They will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States. Within the OSCE no State, group of States or organization can have any pre-eminent responsibility for maintaining peace and security in the OSCE area or can consider any part of the OSCE area as its sphere of influence.

Surely this wording precludes any ‘evolution’ of alliances producing such ‘pre-eminence,’ creating a militarized ‘sphere of influence’ patently dividing an indivisible security space. Unless one grants independence to the Article’s second sentence, it is hard to fault Lavrov’s analysis of its “three components”:

The first of them, which the West loves talking about now, is the right to freely choose how to ensure one’s own security… Then follows [language]…binding each state to respect the rights of other countries and not to bolster its own security at the expense of the security of others. There is a special stipulation that no single state, group of countries or organization can be primarily responsible for the maintenance of peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region and cannot view any part of it as a sphere of its influence. Pocketing the first part of this inseparable package, our US and NATO colleagues then try to cross out all the rest, without which the first part is invalid.


This brings us to the crux of the crisis, for while Ukraine is indisputably free to pursue NATO membership, not only is NATO not obliged to grant it (Turkey, for example, unsuccessfully pursued membership of the European Union for decades), it may be obliged not to: to ‘shut the door’ to a further expansion of an already proscribed ‘sphere of influence.’

NATO, of course, routinely accuses Moscow of addiction to ‘spheres’ and ‘orbits,’ a ‘lost Empire’ complex leading it to annex Crimea in 2014 and install pro-Kremlin separatist rebels – the self-declared ‘People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk – in the eastern, mainly Russian-speaking Donbas region. And for sure, these brutal steps trampled on the ‘Budapest Memorandum’ of 1994, under which Ukraine surrendered the Soviet nuclear weapons left on its territory in exchange for security guarantees its territorial integrity would be respected. In 1994, however, Moscow still hoped to dissuade NATO from an expansion which, just two breakneck decades later, would unthinkably encompass the three former Soviet Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Why, after Ukraine’s corrupt, pro-Kremlin government was toppled in 2014 – not without, in the words of the CATO Institute’s Ted Carpenter, American “meddling” on a “breathtaking” scale  – would Moscow not assume that the new, corrupt but pro-Western regime would soon tread the well-beaten track to NATO membership?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on phone with US President Joe Biden, 28 Jan 2022. (Photo: President of Ukraine)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on phone with US President Joe Biden, 28 Jan 2022. (Photo: President of Ukraine)

For sure, much to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s dismay, Ukraine has not yet been invited to join the Alliance, or even submit a Membership Action Plan (MAP). Nonetheless, in recent years – in a process Russian officials denounce as ‘de facto integration into NATO structures’ – the US, UK and other NATO states have begun arming and training Ukrainian forces. Britain, for example, is – in addition to supplying “eight fast missile warships” – building two naval bases (on the Black and Asov Seas) as part of a “trilateral agreement” between “the UK, Ukraine, and industry” – a phrase testifying to the decisive influence, throughout the NATO expansion era, of the military-industrial complex. As early as April 1995, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev told Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott (according to Talbott’s own summary: “Our military-industrial people are infuriated. They see themselves being frozen out.” “He cited,” Talbott added, “press reports about how the US is already moving to sell military equipment to the CEE [Central and Eastern European] countries as having caused a lot of we-told-you-so outrage among Russian arms manufacturers.”

A few weeks later, President Yeltsin begged President Clinton to rethink NATO expansion “because now I see nothing but humiliation for Russia if you proceed. … We need a new structure for pan-European security, not old ones!” Yeltsin even described enlargement as “a new form of encirclement,” a word – given Russia’s tragic history of attack from the west – carrying an intense cultural charge, putting to shame the bizarre claim of columnist Doug Saunders that “Russian leaders before Mr. Putin did not see the geographic expansion of NATO as a threat, but as an encouraging promise.” (He is, I presume, thinking of the ‘Partnership for Peace’ program between NATO and Russia, which Moscow saw as an alternative to enlargement.) Clinton also explained why, even though it had lost its military raison d’être, NATO remained important to Washington:

Clinton: Now the Cold War is over, and Russia does not present a threat to the NATO states. I acknowledge this. The question is, does the US at the end of the Cold War still need a security relationship with Europe along with a political and economic relationship?
Yeltsin: I’m not so sure you do.
Clinton: Well, I believe so.


In the New York Times on January 13, progressive commentator Peter Beinart wondered: “When will the US stop lying to itself about global politics?” After quoting Blinken’s insistence that the idea of “the right to exert a sphere of influence” should be “relegated to the dustbin of history,” Beinart notes that the US “has exercised a sphere of influence in its own hemisphere for almost 200 years” in the form of the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ hideously deforming Latin America’s political development. But America has a (metastasizing) European sphere of influence, too, and for this reason is refusing to support an eminently reasonable solution to the crisis: neutrality. The obvious parallel is the 1955 Austria State Treaty, which saw Western and Soviet troops withdraw from the country on condition it would not be free to join NATO. In a January 12 editorial, the Globe and Mail described the Treaty as “an excellent result for Austrians, and for Europe,” and one that President Putin, as a “nostalgist for all things Soviet…might just be willing to embrace.” Scholar Anatol Lieven – describing neutrality as “a perfect ‘golden bridge’ out of the trap” – adds an example “inexplicably ignored by Western analysts,” the 1948 Soviet-Finnish Treaty which established “Finnish neutrality” and nurtured its democracy.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin and US President Bill Clinton, October 1995

Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton met at home of FDR in October 1995, FDR Presidential Library & Museum via Wikimedia Commons.

Most crucially, as Lieven argues, neutrality would “open the way to a settlement” of the so-called ‘low-level’ conflict – so far costing over 14,000 lives! – between separatist and government forces in the Donbas. Under the terms of the ‘Minsk II’ ceasefire agreement, signed by Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany in 2015, the separatist regions were to be granted (following an OSCE-monitored referendum) significant autonomy, while Ukraine was to regain control of the border. As Lieven notes, “successive Ukrainian governments…have thus far failed” to deliver, “and Western governments have failed to put any pressure on Ukraine to do so” for one “key reason” – the “belief that special status for Donbas would prevent Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO.” Indeed, some analysts believe that the current Russian build-up was prompted by well-founded concern – as Professor Nina Khruscheva (great-granddaughter of Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev), told Democracy Now! on January 10 – that the “Ukrainian government, encouraged by the West and Western military support,” was “trying to take the [eastern] territories by force.”

Neutrality, Lieven concludes, would “end the threat of a war that would do catastrophic damage; end the military tension that has done so much to undermine Ukraine’s economic growth,” and “rule out renewed Russian hegemony over Ukraine.” But to a Western supremacist like Blinken – who, as Khruscheva says, talks about “Russia as if it’s North Korea” – such a peace would leave a nagging question: what happens to the Sphere, if it stops expanding?

The Biden administration would clearly prefer dialog to disaster, ‘jaw jaw to war war,’ and is ‘only’ contemplating draconian sanctions – and more manic militarization of NATO’s eastern flank – if Russia makes a military move (most likely into the Donbas). Many hawks, however, urge a ‘tougher’ response, Republican Senator Roger Wicker even complaining that “first use nuclear action,” as part of a “rain of destruction,” was being ruled out, while Evelyn Farkas, senior official in the Obama Pentagon, is clear: “the US must prepare for war.” “The horrible possibility exists,” Farkas wrote, “that Americans, with our European allies, must use our military to roll back Russians – even at the risk of direct combat. But if we don’t, Putin will force us to fight another day…”

‘If not now, when?’ President Putin, I fear, may be asking exactly that question.


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.