On February 24th, Russia invaded Ukraine. This is the latest in a series of aggressive actions taken by President Putin: having invaded Georgia in 2008 and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, his aspirations for reviving the Soviet Union have been made painfully apparent. As Ukraine defies expectations by raising a fierce defence against the Russians and maintaining their hold of Kyiv and other major cities, many across the world are wondering what will happen next. To engage its members with the unfolding events, the Oxford Union held a Panel Discussion on Ukraine to discuss the crisis.
Guest speakers included Mr Robert Brinkley CMG, formerly HM Ambassador to Ukraine and Head of the Ukrainian Institute; Professor Neil MacFarlane, a world expert in the international relations of the Former Soviet Union and a professor at St. Anne’s College; and Sir David Manning, who was the UK Permanent Representative at NATO from 2000 to 2001 and served as the British Ambassador to the United States from 2003 to 2007.
A key theme of the panel was the unanimity of the speakers. All three were in agreement that Russia’s actions are both unexpected and condemnable, and that the West’s reaction has pleasantly surprised them in its strength and collaborative nature.
Molly Mantle, President of the Oxford Union, directed questions at the panellists throughout the event. She began by asking whether they were expecting Putin’s invasion.
All three admitted that they had not anticipated the crisis to escalate as it did. Robert Brinkley said of Putin: “He has been locked away for much of the last two years and I think that has not helped his frame of mind.”
Sir David acknowledged: “I didn’t expect this, but I didn’t expect Crimea in 2014. I thought that if he did [invade] he would stop in the Donbass region. I was wrong, and I now suspect he will go the whole way, but I hope there is still a chance for peace.”
However, Sir David suggested that Putin was also surprised by the response of the West. “Putin thought the EU would be divided in a repeat of Crimea… instead, half of Russia’s reserves are out of action and unavailable, with emergency interest rate hikes, a run on the banks, and the collapse of the Ruble.”
He pinpointed the reaction of Germany as greatly significant. Whereas the Germans had previously sought a commercial and cultural relationship with Russia, they have suddenly resolved to spend 2% of their GDP on their military. Sir David said, “this is going to change the balance of power inside Europe and inside NATO… suddenly the Germans are going to be much more powerful military players”.
Nonetheless, there is a very dark side to this military expenditure: Sir John predicted the spread of nuclear weapons becoming harder to control, with Japan requesting nuclear resources in the last 48 hours and others sure to follow.
Discussing the imposition of heavy sanctions on Russia, Professor Neil said: “the 2014 sanctions were pretty marginal in terms of actual effects on the Russian economy. The current sanctions will have a much more substantial impact”. He admitted that “the one apple that nobody wants to bite just yet is the prohibition of the import of Russian oil and gas”.
Professor Neil also noted that “Putin is having trouble at the moment militarily… the temptation must occur to him to do something about that by retaliating.” The possibility of a nuclear retaliation by Putin was held up as a terrifying but plausible consequence of Western sanctions.
However, Sir David emphasised the need for a strong response to Putin’s advances: “our values remain extraordinarily powerful … it’s terribly important that we take on our role of championing them and defending them, particularly at a time when our democracies are somewhat in disarray.”
Image Credit: Max Kukurudziak