Freedom from fear is one of the Rooseveltian Four Freedoms. Its original formulation was drawn up for a constellation in which, simply put, some nations have weapons of destruction that make it possible for them to enter other countries and bully them into submission. The freedom from fear was initially connected to a post-World War II attempt to decrease the reserves of such weapons on a global scale. Not much came of that.

During the cold war period we saw a massive build-up of such weaponry by the USA and the Soviet-Union (now Russia), plus a small number of other ‘Nuclear Weapons States’ that according to the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1970) were allowed to have such weaponry: United Kingdom, France, and China. Non-Proliferation was considered the second best option now that decreasing nuclear weapons was not tenable. The result was a highly paternalistic status quo that let the powerful be — powerful, and somewhat responsible. That status quo still exists today, with the important difference that there are more nuclear powers now and a continuation of the fact that not all act responsibly.

Now Vladimir Putin has put Russia’s nuclear force on high alert. Many have said, rightly I think, that his triggering of the nuclear option indicates that Putin’s strategic options are limited. NATO countries are remarkably unified in their support for Ukraine, EU countries are sending weapons, EU declares that EU membership is an option, humanitarian help is widely available, social media are full of likes for pictures showing untrained Ukrainians preparing Molotov cocktails and pick up rifles and assault weapons. Even Hungary stands by the EU. Belarus, Cuba, and Venezuela support Russia. China is remarkably silent. Putin is isolated and in trouble. An isolated Putin in trouble is capable of doing things that most of us — fear.

It is therefore of the utmost importance that the ever-increasing build-up of parties that sympathize against Russia should stop, and that energies should be spent on serious peace negotiations. I doubt that today’s meeting in Belarus, with Belarus present as an observer, will lead to much. Putin’s conditions are clear: Ukraine can be independent but must be neutral, as in not a member of NATO and EU, and a silent buffer between Russia and Europe.

Some observers have claimed that this is a reachable aim and something that Ukraine should agree to. But what if Ukraine will claim that as a neutral country it wants Crimea back and a Donbas free of Russia-backed separatism? What if the Ukrainian people refuse to be treated as a merely tolerated silent buffer between Russia and the EU? What if they want to be a self-governed state that sees to its own fate? What then?

The freedom from fear is in essence not about weapons: it is about being protected against the arbitrary use of power. Morally speaking, peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine can only be successful if Russia accepts that an independent Ukraine should be free to work towards a status as its own sovereign state, which can take its own decisions — including possible memberships of any legitimate international organizations it may want to join. That is not for Vladimir Putin, Ursula von der Leyen or Joe Biden to decide, but for the Ukrainian people.

And that gives us the tragedy of this situation. Ukraine should be allowed to speak for itself, but its main enemy — and possibly some of its friends — is not interested in accepting its right to exist fully independent. Any negotiations that do not work toward a recognition of Ukraine as a state with the same rights and guarantees against arbitrary political and military interventions will sow not peace but an endless cycle of fear.