First Wednesday: Crisis in Ukraine

March 10, 2014

By Phoebe Hall

As news of the build-up of Russian forces in Crimea dominated the headlines, a distinguished panel convened at the Frontline Club on 5 March for a First Wednesday event examining the current crisis in Ukraine. The insightful discussion, chaired by Paddy O’Connell of BBC 4’s Broadcasting House, largely focused on Russian motivation for intervening in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin’s specific agenda, the extent of Western complicity, and forecasts for the political future of the state.

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L-R Paddy O’Connell, Olexiy Solohubenko, Timothy Garton Ash, Richard Sakwa and Anne Applebaum

Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, and author of works on contemporary Russian politics, kicked off the discussion by arguing that Russian intervention in Ukraine, in the form of military presence, demonstrates a pointed and valid guarding of its interests in the region:

“Putin is responding to a long-term simmering…. The concern that Russia has had is significant… it is a major power with geopolitical concerns.”

Timothy Garton Ash, historian, political writer, and professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford, denounced Russian efforts to “protect their interests”, recalling an earlier meeting with Putin in which he had declared Russia’s “right and duty” to protect all Russian speakers regardless of their citizenship. Garton Ash disputed this logic:

“All international order and respect for sovereignty would break down if the mother country had a right to protect all language speakers in other countries.”

Anne Applebaum, columnist for the Washington Post and Slate and the director of the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute in London, commented on Putin’s central role in manoeuvring the crisis:

“Putin has put himself very much at the centre of this in the last couple of days…and one of the things that has emerged from what he said is that this is very much a domestic issue in Russia. Russia sees the West as some kind of opposite… and feels the need to create an ideology which is anti-Western…. What he really fears is not so much the events in Kiev, but the kind of language we heard in Kiev – ‘anti-corruption, ‘democracy’, ‘rule of law’, ‘freedom of speech’.”

Olexiy Solohubenko, news and deployments editor at BBC Global News and former head and of the Ukrainian Service, agreed, adding that “Putin…in his mentality, doesn’t really accept Ukraine as a state”, and that his actions should be understood within the context of his view of Ukraine as an “artificial construct”. Solohubenko then dismissed tendencies to overcomplicate Putin’s motivations in the region:

“He wanted to pull Ukraine away from Europe – it is not going to happen. He wanted to stem nationalism in Ukraine – he is achieving the opposite. He is radicalising a lot of Russian public opinion.”

The question of Western involvement, and possible complicity, in the current situation in Ukraine was raised. Applebaum responded:

“There has been a stream of efforts to have a good relationship with Russia, that go back twenty years… (which) has almost always ended in disaster… Russia is unable to recognise the countries on its borders… as sovereign and independent states.”

Garton Ash remarked on the West’s cavalier attitude with regard to intervening in other countries without proper international legitimacy, which he admitted could be seen as a contributing factor, but ultimately denied that Europe should shoulder the blame for the crisis:

“The last place in which this crisis was manufactured is the West. Because the problem with the West is that it has done so pathetically little in, and for, Ukraine ever since its independence.”

An audience member commented in agreement with regards to the West’s past failure to act to a sufficient extent in Ukraine. O’Connell enquired as to how the West could positively aid Ukraine in the future; Applebaum responded:

“The most positive thing the West could do is to help Ukraine get out of this cycle of corruption, of cronyism, of poor rule of law, of a weak court system, of bad policing… the best the Ukrainians can do for themselves right now is to fix their economy… and construct institutions that will give the country a more positive future.”

Garton Ash agreed that the Ukrainian government must shoulder the majority of the responsibility for the resolution of the crisis, suggesting that it clearly verbalise its absolute commitment towards all Ukrainian citizens, namely Russian speakers and Crimean tartars. He added that, on the condition of Ukraine adhering to certain democratic principles, the West should welcome the state into its “union of sovereign, democratic countries.”

An audience member, originally from Ukraine, commented on the overshadowing in the Western media of the “popular revolution” in Ukraine by the Russian military invasion.

Applebaum offered a response:

“That was the purpose… to distract attention, to undermine the situation, to change the story… it is now up to Ukrainians to use the energy of that revolution to rebuild their political institutions… The role of the West is assistance, aid, conversation, but not dictation on how to rule.”

Sakwa was in agreement, yet stressed the importance of Russian involvement in the resolution process:

“Ukraine has to have a civilised relationship with its Eastern neighbour… Putin in many ways does reflect the complexity, the angst, the identity issues, of Russia itself… That’s why we need to bring Russia in, and Putin in. Not as a problem, but as the solution.”

The final parts of the discussion saw a focus on Ukraine’s future, with Solohubenko emphasising the mass disillusionment of Ukrainians with their current leaders, and pointing towards two opposition leaders with the potential to command popular support – Vitali Klitschko and Petro Poroshenko.

Solohubenko closed the discussion by highlighting the threat of bloodshed in Ukraine at the hands of Russian military, after which “de-escalation will be almost impossible.”

Garton Ash echoed this sentiment, and commented that if bloodshed is avoided:

“There is a real chance that future history books will see this as a decisive moment in consolidating the independence of Ukraine… one day Putin will go and Russia will think better of where it wants to be. Part of that conversion will be who lost Ukraine. Part of the answer will be Vladimir Putin.”

Watch and listen to the full discussion below:



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