The Buffer Zone illusion

There is no “Austrian solution” for Ukraine

This article was originally published by the German Council on Foreign Relations.

NATO will not help Ukraine directly – and neither will the European Union. But those who think they can turn it into a buffer between the West and Russia are wrong. A more imaginative and flexible concept is needed than trying to make 2014 Ukraine into 1950s Austria.

The recent NATO summit changed little, but did clarify the situation. The West will not intervene in the Ukrainian-Russian war. Ukraine can count on technical and financial support in its bid to modernise its army, but no actual military help to speak of. This reduces the chances of Ukraine successfully fending off Russian aggression – and makes it even more necessary to find a political solution. The situation remains drastic, for Ukraine and also for Europe.

There is currently much talk of the “Austrian model,” which would see a neutral Ukraine acting as a buffer zone between Russia and the European Union. American political scientist John Mearsheimer argues for it in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs. The idea has gained traction in the public debate, not least in Germany. The concept is to create a Moscow-blessed neutrality for Kiev that would keep Russia happy – in this instance preventing Ukraine from joining NATO or integrating with the EU. But it has two major flaws. Firstly, there are fundamental differences between post-war Austria and 2014 Ukraine. Secondly, it would enable the West to disengage from the region east of the EU – something it cannot afford.

Austria after the Second World War was an occupied country, divided like Germany, into four zones of occupation, each governed by an Allied power. Ten years later, after the dividing lines of the Cold War had been clarified, Austria regained its sovereignty – paying for it in the coin of neutrality. By the time this was agreed, the Marshall Plan had already ensured Austria was well integrated into the West. So the flag of neutrality did not turn the Austrians over to Soviet influence.

Ukraine is different. It has been a free, sovereign nation for nearly 23 years, and has been fighting alone to retain its independence. The idea of buying its sovereignty with neutrality simply does not compute. Given its sovereignty, Ukraine would not be neutral – it would become more integrated with western institutions like NATO and the EU.

Ukraine has already been disappointed by a greater power ripping up a paper agreement. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum was signed by Russia and the western powers to guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity in return for its relinquishing Soviet-era nuclear weapons. Just 20 years later Russia has trampled all over it. Now, after the NATO summit, Kiev might well conclude it makes little sense to strike an alliance with either side – NATO will not admit it as a member, nor offer military support. But this must be the decision of Ukraine, and NATO must adhere to its basic principle of keeping its doors open. Any attempt to make Ukraine a buffer zone would be a mistake as it would ignore Russian ambitions to control the region – as well as Ukrainian desires to become closer to Europe.

Ruling out any Ukrainian convergence towards the EU would be an even more perilous side-effect of the “Austria model.” This would not only undermine the current policies of the EU, which already include articles of association with Ukraine, but it would also be a slap in the face for Ukrainians who by and large share European values and ideals and are prepared to fight for them.

Thanks to the pro-European orientation of its people, Ukraine is a big chance for the EU to project its transformative power onto a neighbour.

American international policy “realists” like Mearsheimer have never really understood the fundamental import of this policy for prosperity and peace here. Europeans should remember it now and again.

It may be understandable, if tragic, for Ukrainians that the West will not send its soldiers to die for Donetsk. But the less the EU states are prepared to stand by Ukraine militarily, the more determined they must be to stand up to Moscow in other ways, through harsh sanctions and clear economic and political support for Ukraine and its European orientation. That is genuinely in the interests of Europe. Of course efforts to find a political solution to the conflict must continue. But this must not deconstruct Ukraine or give the West an alibi for inaction. The “Austria model” and above all, relinquishing Ukrainian convergence with the EU would lead to exactly that.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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