Redefining neutrality, in a changing political landscape

In this sense, we should not shun a mature debate on redefining our Neutrality clause, in the radically-changed landscape of our times

Last Monday marked the first anniversary since Russian Premier Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine, by launching a full-frontal assault on several of its main cities: including its capital, Kiev.

One year later, it is clear that the attempt to overthrow Ukraine’s legitimate government has failed.  Not just in the military sense – though Russia’s failure in that department is clearly evident, too – but also, in the very objectives that the invasion had set out to achieve, in the first place.

For while Russia had justified its invasion on the pretext that Ukraine was edging too close to NATO, and the EU; in reality, Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has clearly had the opposite effect.  Not only has the EU formally recognised Ukraine as a candidate country, since then; but Sweden and Finland have also ditched their own neutrality, and applied to join NATO themselves.  

Furthermore, the Western alliance has so far been compact in its response: imposing sanctions on Russia, and sending weapons - including tanks – to assist with the Ukrainian war effort.  In the end, the invasion has only served to reinvigorate the Western alliance, as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Europe.

This suggests that Putin has failed, not just in securing the ‘quick victory’ that Russia had clearly anticipated; but also, in his primary objective of creating a buffer-zone between NATO and Russia.  Moreover, Putin’s ongoing attempts to portray Russian troops as ‘liberators’ - freeing Russian-speaking Ukranians, from ‘Neo-Nazi tyranny’ - contrasts sharply, with the global revulsion after mass graves in Bucha and Izium (among other evidence of war crimes committed by Russian troops, against Ukrainians).

Yet despite all these setbacks, Putin may still be ‘in it for the long haul’: hoping that the energy crisis – and resulting inflation - will weaken Western resolve; as European electorates become restless, and more prone to elect populist and far right governments, who may waver in their support for Ukraine.  

Putin may also bank on the tacit approval of China; as well as the justified mistrust of the West in the global south; which is rooted in revulsion against Western colonialism, and double standards on issues like the occupation of Palestine.  

Whatever the case, however - despite heroic protests in the initial days of the war, which were met with arrests and repression in Moscow - there are still no signs that the Putin regime is ‘crumbling’.   

Despite these risks, however: all the indications, one year later, are that Putin has overreached himself; and is now fighting to retain the annexed Ukrainian territories, rather than posing a threat to Kiev and its government.  Moreover, while Putin relies on Russian conscripts, sent to the meatgrinder of a war he alone is responsible for: Ukranians have shown courage and determination in defending their country; even winning back key cities like Kharkiv, from which the occupiers were driven back in humiliation.  

In fact, the greatest risk at the moment is that of a prolonged stalemate.  For while Ukraine is perfectly right, to insist on Putin withdrawing all his troops from occupied Ukraine, before any negotiations can take place; it is extremely unlikely for Putin to ever accept such a humiliating retreat.  

The West’s gamble, on the other hand, is that - armed with tanks and long-range missiles - Ukraine may inflict severe damage on Russian forces in the next months: thus forcing Putin to negotiate from a position of weakness, rather than strength.  

On its part, Malta has so far fallen in line with EU sanctions on Russia; while being firm in its own condemnation of naked Russian aggression.  This has raised questions about what being ‘Neutral’ actually means, for a European Union member state such as Malta: especially now that Finland and Sweden are in the process of joining NATO. 

Unlike larger countries, Malta has nothing to offer in terms of actual military support.  But we cannot ignore the fact that, together with our EU allies, we are also waging an economic war against Russia: which may expose us to security risks.  

But while the Lisbon Treaty includes a ‘solidarity clause’ - that states that if a member of the European Union is the victim of “armed aggression on its territory”, other states have an “obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power” - it remains unclear how this can ever be enforced, in the absence of a common European army.  

Malta may well take note of the actions taken by the EU’s only other remaining neutral member-state: Ireland, where the National Parliament approved the participation of its Defence Forces in four new Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects, related to cyber threats, disaster relief capability, medical training, and systems for mine countermeasures.  

What is certain, however, is that the current war has shattered any illusion that Malta can remain equidistant in global conflicts; and when it comes to upholding international legality.  Our best bet may well be a European Union which is more sensitive to our own security concerns and sensitivities.  

In this sense, we should not shun a mature debate on redefining our Neutrality clause, in the radically-changed landscape of our times.