On 16 June 2015, Westminster Russia Forum organised a debate on ‘The Ukraine Crisis – Assessing the Causes and Solutions’, with the participation of Edward Lucas (the Economist, CEPA), Orysia Lutsevych (Chatham House), Richard Sakwa (the University of Kent) and Peter Hitchens (Mail on Sunday).
Westminster Russia Forum is a re-launched version of a political group Conservative Friends of Russia. CFoR has been re-branded after it received negative publicity in November 2012, following a homophobic attack on Chris Bryant MP, and investigations by The Guardian’s Luke Harding and The Interpreter’s Michael Weiss who suggested that the organisation was a lobby group for the Kremlin and had connections with the Russian embassy. More recently, this year an article in The Interpreter hinted at the possible links between the WRF and the notoriousRussia Today journalist Graham Phillips.
The cross panel debate was, thus, held by two sides, respectively more and less pro-Western. Lucas and Lutsevych kept their position till the end and made their point very clear: Ukraine and its policies shouldn’t largely depend on its place in the map and in the history.
Ukraine and its policies shouldn’t largely depend on its place in the map and in the history
Lutsevych noted that Russia and Ukraine started receding from each other ten years ago: the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine was framed as a step towards Western liberal democratic politics, while the country started to develop the relationships between the citizens and the state. In Russia, on the contrary, the process was the opposite after Putin came to power. Russia’s lack of democracy and aggressive politics is not what Ukraine wants. Lutsevych and Lucas also stressed later that during the Ukrainian Revolution and the subsequent was with Russia, Ukrainians have not been fighting to join EU or NATO, but rather to have a right to decide themselves if they want to do that.
Russia’s lack of democracy and aggressive politics is not what Ukraine wants.
Sakwa whose recently published book Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands as well as his publically expressed whitewashing of Russia has come under criticism by Ukraine experts, shared a different view by calling conflict in Ukraine ‘a civil war about nothing’, Kyiv rule highly militaristic and nationalist, and blaming the EU for the lack of autonomy and failing to distinguish itself from NATO which in his opinion triggers division rather than uniting of Europe. According to Sakwa, the Cold War never ended and up until now it has been merely a ‘cold peace’, which since 1991 was being challenged by Western alliances. The arguments that are featured in his book did not trigger a significant emotional reaction from the audience, apart from a few sarcastic smiles from Ukraine’s supporters who are familiar with Sakwa‘s stances.
Russia, more than anyone else, is averse to the idea that countries in its current or former sphere of influence might be able to choose their own policies, friends and vision of the future. Edward Lucas
Sakwa’s opponent Edward Lucas frequently appears in debates and media as a strong supporter of Ukraine and the Baltics, who is also from time to time attacked by Russian media and the supporters of Russian regime. Lucas pointed out that Russia, more than anyone else, is averse to the idea that countries in its current or former sphere of influence might be able to choose their own policies, friends and vision of the future. This raised a question from the public if the EU likes autonomous countries’ decisions that are against their policies. Lucas responded by asking rhetoric questions on what the EU would do when either Azerbaijan, or Turkey, or Belarus worked against their value system. The answer is pretty clear, underlined the speaker: they do not invade them.
In turn, Hitchens asserted that all countries have their spheres of interest and all of them react to their neighbours’ foreign and even domestic policies: ‘How would America react if China launches its military bases in Canada?’ He stressed, however, that in modern world invasions are not needed anymore, considering that we have revolutions, media covering them, and policies that can be influenced or changed without a literal invasion. As for Ukraine, we can see that in this case both direct and indirect invasion have happened, said the speaker.
As for Ukraine, we can see that in this case both direct and indirect invasion have happened. Hitchens
Hitchens blamed both Russia and the West for the conflict in Ukraine. He also criticised the UK by saying that ‘people who live surrounded by water’ have very limited view on how important borders and neighbours are, and therefore sometime turn their back to what is happening in Ukraine.
The discussion became lively when the questions from the audience, including people from the Russian Embassy, started. Lutsevych advised Sakwa to ‘pick up his facts’ and stop repeating Kremlin’s lies about civil war and language discrimination. While reflecting on the possible trends of the development of Ukraine she suggested that the country will decentralise, establish a constitution which would give more power to the regions, while foreign policy will remain in Kyiv. Lutsevych mentioned the importance of research on transparency in Russian politics, as a possible tool to help people understand the scale of corruption that affects them directly and the amounts of money stolen from them. While this may help to decrease the support for the regime, though, only Putin can say what will happen in military terms in the nearest future. Lutsevych claimed that Putin does not necessarily want post-Soviet territories, but rather wants them to know their place, which is a statement that needs to be taken into account when trying to understand Russia’s foreign policy.
Overall, despite the dodgy background of the event, and although the panel did not name any specific solutions to the conflict, the debate seemed to address major problems and concerns related to the crisis, and showed an example of a discussion where both sides have the right to talk and decide what to support. While this is one of the cornerstones of democracy, one should also keep in mind that a balanced discussion does not equal simply inviting speakers from opposing camps in order to pursue multivocality. It is crucial to have the freedom of speech; however, the background and political stances of the participants and organisers should be paid particular attention, and ‘balance’ in discussions like this one should be taken with a pinch of salt.