Opinion: Liberals must stand up to Russia over Ukraine

The weekend after the party gathered in Liverpool, Liberal Youth gathered in Leeds for our spring conference. There was plenty of campaigning, socialising and of course stimulating debates on policy. Stuart Wheatcroft has already written an excellent summary of the motion we debated and voted for on Ambitious Liberalism; for my part, I submitted a motion on Russia’s actions against Ukraine.

In writing this motion, I aimed to cover the two principal reasons I believe any self-respecting Liberal must stand against what Russia is doing in the region. Firstly, they are attempting to forcibly thwart the will of the Ukrainian people. When the Ukrainian people expressed a desire to look to the EU, they did not at the same time express a desire to go to war with Russia. They are seeking a better life; one bounded by democratic accountable institutions – the same promise extended by the EU to the former Warsaw Pact countries. In attempting to smear the Kiev government as a group of “fascists” as well as sending troops to occupy portions of Ukraine, Russia has attempted to corral the Ukrainian people into giving up these hopes for a brighter future.

Secondly, the actions of the Russian armed forces strike at the tap root of an orderly international environment; something that, again, Liberals have long argued and worked for. The UN Charter cannot be clearer; “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, complete with a referendum held at the point of a gun, as well as its presence in Eastern Ukraine, represents a clear violation of this basic norm of international law. As Liberals, we have long argued for rules to bound states’ abilities to decide when they go to war, as well as how they go to war. Russia’s war in Ukraine undermines those rules.

I was glad that conference resoundingly voted for the motion in the end, and I hope other bodies within the party join in pressing, not just for a firmer line against Russia, but also one in support of the Ukrainian people and their hopes for the future.

Beyond this, I would also like to express my thanks to the Liberal Youth executive for organising such a fantastic conference. It was gratifying to chair the reports from the executive (first time ever chairing at a Lib Dem event, apologies to all) and to call so many votes on so many motions of commendation. The executive this year has been dominated by talented and capable young people who have done so much to revive Liberal Youth. As Stuart remarked in his piece; our future as a party, in their hands, is a bright one indeed.

* Tim Oliver is a party member in Leeds, who has recently submitted a PhD on British foreign policy at the University of Hull.

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  • Well said.

  • Jenny Barnes 25th Mar '15 - 5:02pm

    I think it’s entirely possible that the “will of the Ukrainian people” as a whole was probably not to join the EU and then NATO, as was entirely likely following the Maidan revolution. The Crimean referendum was 93% in favour of becoming part of Russia, as I recall, and I don’t think that was the usual dictators turn out. The Ukrainians in the heavy industrial areas of Donetsk etc look to Russia, not west. It’s likely that an EU membership would lead to the destruction of the coal and steel industries in those areas. Maybe that’s the logic of neo-liberal global capitalism, but just maybe the people of that area would rather their industries were not destroyed. What do you think the ex UK miners, shipbuilders, fishermen, steelworkers would have done if there had been an alternative to the destruction of their communities in the 80s?
    So I don’t think it’s as simple as Russian aggression bad, EU ” liberals” good.

  • Clearly the author is a simpleton in regard to foreign affairs.
    “The Ukrainian people” are Russians, apart from in the far west, which should really be a part of Austria, Hungary and Poland.
    Kiev is the original capital of Russia. The only people who want Ukraine to join NATO are Oligarchs who see personal financial gain in the enterprise. Liberals should be standing up to our American overlords and standing with Merkel and Hollande in directing an independent European future, not dictated to by the Pentagon or the Kremlin.
    The Ukrainian people are suffering and we allow this US coup d’etat to continue on the very borders of Europe.
    This article is a clear example of how Liberal Democrat foreign policy has completely collapsed since Kennedy and is now fully in line with the Atlantacist Labour and Conservative view.

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 25th Mar '15 - 6:08pm

    Excellent piece, Tim. I simply cannot understand Russian apologism by anyone who purports to believe in liberal values.

    It’s good to see Liberal Youth passing such sensible motions, too!

  • I would have thought that you unionist No campaigners would be falling over yourselves to tell them how much “better together” they were in the Soviet Union and about the advantages of “pooling and sharing” with Moscow.

    No wonder you are going to get wiped off the Scottish mainland!

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Mar '15 - 6:39pm

    I’m a bit of a Russia apologist because I fail to see how international law must be upheld when Russia breaks it, but not when “the west” breaks it.

    I also agree with Len McCluskey that laws should not be followed 100% of the time, so just because someone has violated international laws set by a small clique 70 years ago then it doesn’t automatically justify World War 3.

    Finally, liberals believe in self-determination and I fail to see any of the war hawks coming up with ideas for peace such as a referendum for eastern Ukraine. Why should a referendum not even be contemplated?

    I’m open minded, but those supporting war are not dealing with the issues raised by Russia and the rebels and until I see someone answer their questions then I can’t support UK military action in Ukraine.

  • It’s all very well to strike a strong position on recent events in the Ukraine but some sense of what’s really going on would help.

    Before the Maidan revolution the Ukraine was ruled by a pretty undesirable bunch of oligarchs who were mainly Russia-leaning for good reason; their wealth was intimately tied up in the coal fields and heavy industry of the Donbas region in the far east. Their main customer by far was Russia and without Russian good will and custom they would quickly be toast. Under the oligarchs Ukraine was teetering on the edge of becoming a failed state and had massively underperformed its neighbour Poland since the fall of the Soviet Empire. So it’s not surprising that liberals (and decent folks generally) would protest in the Maidan in the hope that a change in government and an infusion of democratic change fro the EU would help them.

    Unfortunately, as in the French revolution, the Russian revolution of 1917 and others, liberals are really hopeless at staging revolutions that get what they want – at least in the short term. And so it was in Kiev. Liberals were involved in the Maidan but so were neo-Nazis and western-leaning oligarchs. And very soon the liberal elements were side-lined by a bunch of western-leaning oligarch egged on, according to much evidence, by American neo-Cons bent on world domination.

    That important elements (not the whole lot obviously) on the Kiev side are neo-Nazis is beyond doubt – the BBC has repeatedly reported as much. Are Lib Dems really now in alliance with neo-Nazis and oligarchs of (how shall I say it so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of LDV?) ‘dubious’ character?

    Also, there is simply no evidence, as often asserted, that Putin has vast territorial ambitions. He has repeatedly said that he wants an independent Ukraine (as promised to Russia by Clinton while President) with much power devolved to the regions – not wholly unlike what is emerging in the UK in fact. Putin’s idea appears to be to have Ukraine as a buffer between Russia and any threat fro the west and that is entirely reasonable.

    Evidence from the ground is that overwhelmingly Ukrainians are refusing to play Kiev’s game. Now even the western-leaning oligarchs are falling out among themselves and looking more and more like the warlords they really are under the skin. Check out these links for some insight into the real tragedy of the Ukraine.



  • Jenny Barnes 25th Mar '15 - 8:17pm

    Tim : I hadn’t realised your article was a joke. Apologies for taking it seriously.

  • @GF ” Putin’s idea appears to be to have Ukraine as a buffer between Russia and any threat fro the west and that is entirely reasonable. ”

    No, it is very unreasonable, for the simple reason that “buffer zones” and “spheres of influence” are concepts that belong to the bad old days of imperialism. No state has the right to dictate the government or alliances of another independent state. Liberals across the world are outraged when they see, say, the United States of America supporting coup d’états or revolutions in a state whose government or policies they oppose. Russia should be held to no less a standard. Russia’s goal may not be the complete conquest of Ukraine (that remains to be seen); however, Putin is certainly trying to bleed the country white in both economic and military terms, to foster opposition to the democratically elected government of Ukraine, and ultimately to make the Ukrainian government, by whatever means, malleable to Moscow’s authority — in other words, convert Ukraine into a puppet state. Liberals cannot possibly support that; they must support the rights of independent states to be really independent. The Potemkin-democracy created by Putin is in any case not a model that any liberal could support.

  • A Social liberal 25th Mar '15 - 9:47pm

    Jenny Barnes said

    “I think it’s entirely possible that the “will of the Ukrainian people” as a whole was probably not to join the EU and then NATO, as was entirely likely following the Maidan revolution. ”

    Given that the Ukraine government had agreed closer ties with the EU I very much doubt that. It was Yanukovych’s sudden change of direction from West to East (following meetings with the Russian foreign minister [how suspicious !] ) which initiated the Maidan revolution.

  • Tsar Nicholas 25th Mar '15 - 9:52pm

    What a load of rubbish! The Ukrainian people did not express any will to go with the EU or NATO. They had a democratically elected government who chose not top go with the EU and this was overthrown in a violent coup on February 22nd 2014.

    The coup was known about beforehand. The personnel of the new government were chosen by the US Assistant Secretary of State for European affairs, Victoria Nuland, with the US Ambassador in Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt some days before the ouster of Yanukovic.

    There then followed a campaign of violence against ethnic Russians in Ukraine, with the bombardment by air and ground artillery of residential districts. How on earth would you expect the victims to react? By embracing the followers of Stepan Bandera?

    I think that the confusion displayed by the majority of posters on LDV on this topic is caused by their reliance on mainstream media such as BBC and the Daily Telegraph. the assumption seems to be that these organs tell the truth when in fact they continually lie – just like they did in the purported gas attack in Ghouta in August 2013, supposedly carried out by Assad when in fact it was carried out by those whom the west supports.

  • A Social Liberal 25th Mar '15 - 10:17pm


    The Ukrainian government was due to ratify an agreement with the EU to have closer ties on November 29th. However, after a top secret meeting at a military base outside Moscow, Yanukovych and his cabinet abandoned that ratification signing and instead announced that they were throwing in their lot with Russia. I don’t know why you are so adamant it didn’t happen – simply google something akin to “Yanukovych meeting russian eu abandoned” and you will get the story from half the worlds press.

    You are correct in that I got one thing wrong though – it wasn’t the Russian foreign minister that Yanukovych met with, IT WAS PUTIN HIMSELF

  • Tsar Nicholas 26th Mar '15 - 3:25am

    A Social liberal

    Whoever Yanukovic met with, it was completely his right to not sign any agreement with the EU. The Yanukovic government was fairly elected.

    Your attitude seems to be astonishingly akin to that of London and Washington in asserting that Iran’s duly elected prime minister Mossadeq had no right to utilise the oil revenues of his country for the benefit of the Iranian people and that therefore they (the CIA) were correct in 1953 in acting to to overthrow him and replace him with the Shah and his Savak.

  • There seem to be even more pro-Putin commentators nowadays than there were pro-USSR sorts back in the Cold War.

  • I find this article complacent.
    What we are increasingly finding is that the west no longer has the levers to pull that will make other countries do what we want. In the case of Ukraine I agree with what we want, but we are not going to get it so then what? We certainly are not going to get Crimea back to Ukraine again. We have gone down the road of implementing sanctions, but we have to be careful this does not rebound on us given the reliance of EU countries on Russian gas.
    So if we say we are standing up to Russia, what specifically will we get from doing so? I am all in favour of doing this as long as I know what the objectives are and the chances of success.

  • David-1 – Do you have any evidence whatsoever that Russia is trying to empire-build in Ukraine? All the evidence I have seen suggests that Russia actually has very limited goals and is merely trying to defend itself from an aggressive and expansionist US empire with, as you DO note, a considerable track record of regime change to secure client governments. It is the US and its allies that are attempting to build a sphere of influence in the Ukraine – and what a mess they’ve made of the country in the process!

    From the POV of those in the east, especially those who are Russian speakers, the Maidan revolution, promptly taken over by Nazis and oligarchs (which are overlapping groups), represented an existential risk, not only because of the direct threats to Russian speakers but because of the economic collapse in the Donbas that would inevitably follow. ALL the evidence I have seen suggests that Russia’s aim is to secure its own position which, as it turns out, is coincident with providing modest help to the ‘rebels’. That is a very different strategic aim from conquest.

    You might also like to ponder what happened to all the 1.5 million of so the BBC reports as displaced by the fighting – an entirely believable number in view of the scale of destruction. In the middle east we see the tent cites that result, in Ukraine not at all so what’s the difference? It is that huge numbers have fled for safety to Russia, many to stay with friends and family. In the west many men have fled to neighbouring countries to evade conscription by a Kiev regime whose war aims they do not support. So the people are voting with their feet. I think that’s something we should respect rather than weighing in on the site of thugs and Nazis.

  • I wonder how these posts would read if a high ranking member of the Russian government was ‘taped’ planning the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Mexico and replacing him with an ‘approved’ candidate?

    Even more importantly; “How would the USA react?”

  • Julian Tisi 26th Mar '15 - 1:20pm

    An excellent article, Tim. Completely agree.

    It’s very sad to see the endless contortions that either pro-Russian or anti-Western commentators continue to go through in order to defend the actions of a man who is very clearly the greatest threat to peace in Europe for a generation.

  • Jonathan Brown 28th Mar '15 - 2:04am

    Well said Tim. It’s really disturbing to see the extent of Putin-esque propaganda flooding Europe, and internet trolls picking up so much of it.

    Obviously we have to be careful how we respond to Russia, and I note that you’re not suggesting we start a third world war, but there are things we can do – to support other European countries threatened by Putin, to assist and encourage the Ukrainian regime to reform, etc.

    Ultimately, the security services-mafia-oligarchy running Russia will only be defeated by Russians getting fed up with them and pursuing the same goals that virtually everyone else in the world wants.

  • Richard Underhill 21st Apr '19 - 9:21pm

    The election in Ukraine today, 21/4/2019 was won by the “comedian”, according to exit polls. The loser intends to remain in politics.

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