A key concession: Zelensky says Ukraine understands that it can never join NATO

Formal neutrality by Ukraine towards NATO was one of the demands made by Russia eight days ago, after it stepped back from Putin’s pledge to settle for nothing less than “denazification” and demilitarization of the country. It was also the easiest demand to meet since it didn’t require Ukraine to concede territory.


So here’s Zelensky seemingly meeting it, on a day when Russian and Ukrainian negotiators are back at the bargaining table, no less.

I can’t find a subtitled version of the clip, unfortunately:

Per Newsweek, the relevant quotes:

“For years we’ve heard the opposite, open doors, However, it is not,” he said Tuesday according to Ukrainian news outlet, Trukha.

“Our people understand this, and we are beginning to count on our own strength,” he added.

Media outlet Nexta quoted Zelensky as saying: “We realized that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO. We understand this, we are adequate people.”

“Kyiv needs new formats of interaction with the West and separate security guarantees.”

Would Putin settle for a formal pledge of neutrality towards NATO if it comes packaged with new treaties between Ukraine and the west? The point of this adventure was to drag Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence before it transforms into a thoroughly Europeanized nation. The thought of Russians looking across the border to see their cousins profiting from democracy and good relations with the west is intolerable to Russia’s authoritarian leader irrespective of whether Ukraine is technically part of NATO. It sounds like Zelensky is willing to meet the letter of Russia’s demand but not the spirit.


His concession is a costless exercise, though. If Putin and the Kremlin are truly panicked about being able to keep their army operating, they might seize Zelensky’s olive branch as a way to withdraw while declaring victory. If instead Putin intends to fight on until his army prevails or collapses — and he almost certainly does intend to — then Zelensky’s concession costs Ukraine nothing while broadcasting to the world that he’s straining to compromise, to the point of even giving in on one of Russia’s key demands. He’s highlighting the fact that it’s the enemy who refuses to make a deal in the name of ending the killing.

Zelensky might also believe this is a fateful moment as China decides whether to help an increasingly isolated Russia. Jake Sullivan warned the Chinese in a meeting yesterday that there would be unspecified consequences if they rode to Putin’s rescue with military and economic aid. Zelensky’s olive branch on NATO might be another way to pressure China into approaching the conflict in the role of peace-broker rather than as an arsenal for Russia. If Ukraine is already making key concessions, China might believe that a deal is more feasible than it believed.

And if China decides to ignore Zelensky’s concession and help Russia to arm up, the Chinese will look that much more belligerent and unreasonable in doing so.

What sort of weapons might Russia expect from Beijing, anyway? The AP is assuring readers today that it’s unlikely to be heavy arms, but are heavy arms what Russia needs?


If anything, smaller items such as bullets and meals are more likely than fighter jets and tanks, experts said.

China “probably wants to avoid high-profile or big-ticket arms sales to Russia in the midst of a conflict which would expose Beijing to international sanctions,” said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. Defense Department official currently at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

Beijing would be more willing to provide spare parts, consumables, ammunition, and dual-use items that don’t contravene sanctions and could fall below the threshold of international reprisals, Thompson said.

In other words: Basic logistics help, precisely the thing that’s hampered Russian troops in the field. If China can keep them armed and fed, Moscow can presumably keep them well supplied with the shells and rockets they need for its new seat-of-the-pants “pound Ukraine into submission” strategy. Putin may have no choice in that regard: Sophisticated Chinese equipment could take months to provide and might require training for Russian troops. And if you believe the Ukrainians, Russia doesn’t have time.

A mystery in all this is how the U.S. discovered that Russia had made its request of China. It may be a mystery to China too, to its dismay:


Some are complaining this afternoon that Zelensky should have offered his new concession about NATO a month ago, as it might have placated Russia and averted war. But it’s inconceivable that Russia won’t demand territorial concessions as well. If Zelensky had said a month ago that Ukraine will avoid NATO and forfeit Crimea and the Donbas to Russia, *maybe* Putin would have bitten. But I doubt it: He was still babbling at the time about denazifying Ukraine and rebuilding Russia’s empire, laboring under the belief that the Ukrainians would roll over within three days after his army invaded. Why would he have accepted a deal for bits and pieces of Ukraine when he thought he could swallow the whole country in one gulp?

I’ll leave you with Zelensky scolding NATO today during a call with Boris Johnson for cowering before Russia. He may be willing to risk a regional or even world war to help Ukraine but westerners wisely are not.

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