US ready to accept neutral Ukraine
Washington would not oppose Ukraine declaring itself a non-aligned, neutral country, according to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s testimony in the Senate on Tuesday. The US seeks to arm Ukraine to strengthen its hand at the negotiating table, but can’t be “more Ukrainian than the Ukrainians” and the ultimate decision will be up to Kiev, Blinken said.
The crisis in Ukraine, which Blinken visited over the weekend with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, dominated Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the State Department’s 2023 budget.
At one point, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) voiced his concern that Ukrainians were “being pushed and goaded by half the members of the Senate who want them in NATO,” and that they might have otherwise agreed to neutrality, as Moscow had asked.
Asked by Paul whether the US would accept Ukraine becoming a neutral state and not a NATO member, Blinken implied that Washington just might.
“We, senator, are not going to be more Ukrainian than the Ukrainians. These are decisions for them to make,” he told Paul. The purpose of the current US military aid to Ukraine is to give Kiev the ability to “repel the Russian aggression” and “strengthen their hand at an eventual negotiating table,” Blinken added.
Claiming that the US has “seen no sign to date” that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “serious about meaningful negotiations,” Blinken said that “If he is, and if the Ukrainians engage, we’ll support them.”
Some in Moscow believe the US and the UK have influenced Kiev to backtrack from the talks with promises of support, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a TV interview on Monday. He also said that trying to negotiate directly with the US and NATO did not give results, as they listened to Russian concerns and then ignored them, “rather impolitely” making it clear that it was not up to Moscow to decide its own security.
On Tuesday, Blinken claimed the US had taken Russia’s security concerns “very seriously” and “sought to engage” with Moscow, and denied that talk of Kiev joining NATO may have played any role in the escalation of hostilities in Ukraine.
“This was never about Ukraine being potentially a part of NATO, and it was always about [Putin’s] belief that Ukraine does not deserve to be a sovereign, independent country, that it must be reassumed [sic] to Russia in one form or another,” Blinken insisted.
If the West continued “pumping Ukraine with weapons” there was little chance of the peace talks succeeding, Lavrov said on Tuesday.
While the State Department head was talking to the Senate, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Germany organizing US allies to ship more weapons to Kiev. Speaking with reporters after the meeting at Ramstein, Austin said he could see Ukraine eventually joining NATO.
“I do believe that in the future, if the possibility exists, I think Ukraine will seek to once again apply to be a member of NATO, but that’s probably a bit down the road and speculation at this point,” he said.
Russia attacked the neighboring state in late February, following Ukraine’s failure to implement the terms of the Minsk agreements, first signed in 2014, and Moscow’s eventual recognition of the Donbass republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. The German and French brokered protocols were designed to give the breakaway regions special status within the Ukrainian state.
The Kremlin has since demanded that Ukraine officially declare itself a neutral country that will never join the US-led NATO military bloc. Kiev insists the Russian offensive was completely unprovoked and has denied claims it was planning to retake the two republics by force.