Conference report. Russia-Ukraine Conflict: One Year After the Annexation of Crimea  

February 28, 2015 • Articles • Views: 1962

global diplomatic forum

On 24 February 2015, the Global Diplomatic Forum, an international affairs institute based in London, hosted a round table discussion titled “Russia-Ukraine Conflict: One Year After the Annexation of Crimea”. The panel featured a diverse range of perspectives from the think tank, private-sector country/regional risk analysis, the House of Lords, international public law, as well as the official Ukrainian position.

Initially, the panel discussed the “Implications of the Ukraine-Russia Crisis”. As a fairly general heading, most panellists’ analysis of recent developments indicated well where they expected the discussion to head.

Whither the Russian-Ukrainian Crisis?

The private sector was represented by Alisa Lockwood, Senior Manager, Global Macroeconomics & Country Risk with IHS, who emphasised the setbacks experienced by the Russian economy in light of recent sanctions. IHS expects Russian growth to slow down – as opposed to Europe – by four per cent this year and its US$100 bn equivalent in currency reserves to deplete. Strategic developments in Ukraine would inevitably factor into Russian considerations concerning the Middle East, although it does not necessarily differ from Western interests on Da’esh in Iraq and Syria or on nuclear proliferation in Iran.


James Nixey, Head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, stressed that common ground between Ukraine and Russia is virtually nil, and that a diplomatic resolution of the crisis would therefore be impossible. More importantly, the West is still in search of a long-term strategy by which to address Russia, thereby lacking the resolve to confront it anytime soon. Russia, according to Nixey, admixes legitimate with illegitimate interests, ignoring that territorial integrity and national self-determination are fundamentals of international order the West also legitimately seeks to maintain, and Ukraine must defend if it is to survive. For this reason, Europe cannot afford to ignore or cast aside the crisis, and contrary to common narrative, military options are plenty.

James Nixey

Agreeing that a diplomatic solution was practically impossible, Anatolii Solovei, Head of the Political Section within the Ukrainian Embassy in London, painted a bleak picture of the situation on the ground, demanding the West take stronger action. Facing “an unprovoked Russian aggression”, the diplomat called for delivery of arms to Ukraine, pointing out his country’s crucial role as a deterrent to further Russian ambitions, especially in the military domain. Solovei further underscored the determination of Ukraine, pointing out that the defence of the new terminal at Donetsk airport outlasted that of Stalingrad in World War II by 40 days, and that Putin had demonstrated casual disregard for his ethnic compatriots in Ukraine as well as for human life by the tactics used in the sack of Debaltseve, a town in eastern Ukraine of strategic importance due to its transportation nodes.


Bill Bowring, Professor of Law at Birkbeck and an expert on international human rights law, expressed a clear preference to call events in Ukraine hybrid warfare rather than war. He identified the recent battle in Debaltseve as “a classic kettle” in the style of the Second World War, further adding that Russia is in no position to commit to full-spectrum hostilities as vital military reforms announced in the late 2000s had to be delayed for lack of resources. In reference to some of the legal foundations of the conflict, Professor Bowring spoke about Crimean autonomy implemented by a mandate of the 1996 Ukrainian institution. Its provision to grant the peninsula autonomy, unusual in light of the Unitarian administration the constitution envisions, helped stave off nascent Crimean Russian irredentism. All policies towards Crimea must always be considered in view of the Crimean Tatars, to whom the peninsula constitutes their ancestral homeland. Despite the tatar’s frequent discontent with Ukrainian minority policy, such as the government’s failure to implement the ILO’s Convention on Indigenous Peoples, Tatar leadership did not wish to join the Russian Federation, given Russia’s maltreatment of tatars historically. Bowring pointed out that Russia’s legal position on Crimea contradicted its stance on Kosovo, and that the former is potentially self-defeating, as the Tatars may claim self-determination over the same territory. He then went on to point out that Russia had only gone on to annex Crimea once Sevastopol had turned out to be a tactical threat to its operations in Ukraine. Despite these unanticipated deviations from its original plan, there seems to be no realistic prospect of a voluntary retreat.


Former Minister for Defence Equipment, Lord Davies of Stamford, outlined the context and trajectory of the British stance on the crisis. He expressed his pleasure that “the EU has held together reasonably well”, that Ukraine must be allowed to decide its own future, and that the UK cannot be seen to have torn up the Budapest Memorandum, in which it guaranteed Ukraine’s safety in return for nuclear disarmament.

Advancing to the second point on the agenda, panelists examined the viability of the recently concluded Minsk II agreement, as well as the role of NATO in the genesis of the crisis. James Nixey and Alisa Lockwood converged on the observation that NATO never was a threat to Russia, given the latter’s nuclear parity with the United States, and the observation that Petro Poroshenko enjoys greater legitimacy than all of his predecessors was universally shared. Georgian, Ukrainian, and Russian NATO accession discussions have all turned out to be unviable either due to the geographic commitments these would entail or a lack of interoperability with NATO military standards, or both. Lord Davies, drawing on British lessons from the 1930s, highlighted the importance of the unequivocal credibility of defence commitments, and Professor Bowring argued that it was the EU partnership negotiations that fuelled the opposition by Russia that then widened into the general strategic realm. Ironically, Viktor Yushchenko had imprisoned Yuliya Tymoshenko for her opposition to the EU partnership negotiations precisely because she had maintained that they were supposed to demobilise support for EU membership. Ultimately, Yanukovych’s corruption prevented the conclusion of the agreement. Anatolii Solovei reminded the audience that Ukraine had enshrined both the continuity of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and its neutrality into law long before the crisis erupted, and agreed with James Nixeys

Is Putin Driving or Driven by the Crisis?

Although the panel broadly agreed on most issues, the drivers of Russian behaviour and the impact and utility of sanctions were more contested. Mr Nixey, Professor Bowring and Lord Davies differed especially on the Russian drivers of the crisis, the most important actors within the Russian government and President Putin’s personal disposition with regards to the crisis. Prof Bowring held that Vladimir Putin is a weak leader desperate to convey strength, and that one of his advisors is the architect of intervention in Ukraine, and that his political allies are committed to his persistence as no viable successor is in sight; any transition to another faction will result in their imprisonment. Thirty thousand citizens of Moscow had turned out against the war, and there seems to be little appetite in Russia for open, conventional escalation. The rapid decline of the oil price had already caused wages to be paid in arrears, and war would by no means result in military success in light of virtually abandoned reforms, and both Mikhail Chodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny have cast themselves in a more nationalist light than Putin. Lord Davies differed by labelling Putin a “dictator” and a “tyrant” in the Soviet tradition. Both Stalin and Brezhnev were calculating pragmatists who usurped countries when they believed they could get away with it, while James Nixey insisted that Putin was the driving force behind the crisis, and his ultimate disservice to Russian interests made him unpredictable and “irrational”. Alisa Lockwood identified the pro-Russian separatists, whom Solovei insisted on labelling “bandits and terrorists”, as a heterogenous and unpredictable combination of criminals, and Russian former security services members, imperialists and neo-Nazis whose presencee “does not bode well” for the future of Eastern Ukraine.

Are sanctions effective?

A second sticking point was the impact and the utility of sanctions, revolving around considerations to freeze Russia’s membership of SWIFT.  Lord Davies and James Nixey argued strongly in favour of sanctions. While incurring a cost to Western nations, this would be an inevitable step to preserve the credibility of sanctions for the future both regarding this crisis as well as others. He also pointed to Finland as an example of a neighbour imposing an unbearable cost on Russia. Nixey further dismissed senior private banker Andrey Kostin’s remark that excluding Russia from SWIFT would constitute an “act of war”, offering this label up for the impending separatist attack on Mariupol. Solovei was adamant that such a step would not hurt people in “Deep Russia”.

A Way Out of the Crisis?

The panel clearly fleshed out that the key to the resolution of the crisis does not lie with Russian or Ukrainian capability to defeat the other, but in European commitment to conflict resolution. Most analysis did not equate NATO’s deterrence with aid to Ukraine, and the alliance is unlikely to offer meaningful assistance short-term, despite Polish and Baltic concerns. European hesitation in particular is grounded in a combination of several factors – while an unwillingness to commit political capital to a resolution, uncertainty over the Russian calculus and a need to found common ground on other related issues, such as in the Middle East play a part, too. In fact, the EU’s capacity to offer the material resources required to reinstate deterrence is very much in doubt. While sanctions were not unequivocally deemed effective, there was agreement that they must be upheld and deepened for the sake of credibility, regardless of whether they work, whether they influence regime stability in Russia, or whether they punish the general population in the long run. Hence, Ukraine will come to rely on the mobilisation of its population, its diaspora and sympathetic global audiences towards its own cause while staying the course on reform of domestic governance in order to make more of the limited resources at its immediate disposal.

More photos from the event see at Ukrainian Events in London Facebook page here.

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