In response to the developing situation in Ukraine/Crimea in March 2014 the School of Politics convened a round table for students to hear four different perspectives on the crisis from members of the academic staff of the University. Their contributions are summarised in the following blog pieces.


Dr Maxine David, Lecturer, School of Politics

Once again, as a result of Russia’s recent actions in relation to Ukraine and particularly its effective annexation of Crimea, we are back to describing Russian foreign policy as unpredictable. This signals not only criticism of Russian behaviour but also frustration that we seem once again to have failed to understand what motivates Russia and to discern its intentions. It reflects also the many and varied failures of the post-Cold War era. So much for an end to ideological differences.

As such, we are left to ponder how we lost Russia and to wonder also if we care to try and get it back. But perhaps what we first need to do is to return to some foreign policy basics, thinking closely about Russia’s domestic arena as much as its external relations.


Whatever we may think of the consequences for Russia’s relations with external actors, there can be no doubt that recent Russian behaviour has played very well in the domestic Russian arena. All evidence is that Putin is riding high on +70% approval ratings. This evidence comes not only from the state-run VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center) but is matched by polling conducted by the independent Levada Centre.

Putin understands the Russian people. The headlines of February 2014 in which Putin – and by extension Russia – was said to be humiliated were a worry to anyone who knew how much status matters to Russians. In this context, those approval ratings are easily understood.

Not that Putin’s actions were without some self-regard, however. He is much criticised by outside actors, regarded by many as the sole architect of Russian foreign policy. But Putin understands that his position is reliant on a small base of support from like-minded oligarchs at least and that the loss of Ukraine after the Maidan events required him to do something. Beyond that, Putin understands the mentality of military and security forces and the need to keep them onside.

There was too the simple matter of the Russian identity and its interests. Russia’s Black Sea fleet is precisely that – a Black Sea fleet. That said, this is not solely about mere sentimentality for a great historical past, or revenge for perceived wrongs in Kiev; Crimea is of strategic significance to Russia.


Foreign policy is, of course, about any actor’s relations with others and the extent to which it feels constrained or not by those relations. Putin is undoubtedly engaged in a game of brinkmanship and Crimea’s annexation was based on a clear calculation that the West is powerless to intervene. In other words, Putin does not feel Russia is constrained either by its relations with other states or by its membership of regional or international organisations. Thus, Putin has effectively shown that the decline of the West narrative he has adopted to such effect lately is more than mere rhetoric; it is an accurate description.

Further to that, Russia’s actions are rooted in an utter contempt for international law. The images of the UN Special Envoy being unceremoniously forced to take shelter in a coffee house before beating an undignified retreat from Crimea were proof enough of that. Certainly, to some extent, Russia cares: it is why it denied it had boots on the ground for so long; it is why it refused to recognise the interim Ukrainian government; and it’s why it continued to support the former Ukrainian President, Yanukovich, despite the fact he had effectively renounced his own leadership by his own ignominious departure from Ukraine. But beyond that, Putin knew that the law would not stop him.

International organisations are, of course, supposed to have some capacity to rein in the worst excesses of their members. They have failed to affect Russian behaviour. In annexing Crimea, Russia has lost membership of the G8 – not a “big problem” says Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia only joined the WTO in 2012; in response to the recently-raised question of its expulsion, a Duma representative has expressed little belief in that actually occurring and even less belief in the utility of the WTO for Russia. As for the UN, well, taking Syria as an example, lately Russia has looked to be more politically sure-footed (even if less guided by ethics) than any western state and indeed, has to be credited with saving Obama’s political face on the thorny issue of chemical weapons. If anything, Russia has seemed to be more needed than in need.

However false this premise, the Russians understand brinkmanship. They are playing big power politics and relying on the West not to push them too far into a corner. This may well prove to be the right calculation as none of the big Western powers wants to be seen to be part of creating a war. They left Russia to it in Georgia in 2008 and then hurried to make an accommodation in order to return to business as usual; Russia has no reason to think they will behave differently now. Sanctions have been taken out, but they do not currently cut wide or deep enough to do real damage to Russia and Russia knows all too well that Europe will feel the effect of sanctions almost as much as Russia and that this is something it can ill-afford.


Russia’s big miscalculation may be to ignore the smaller players in this drama. Transnistrians have been watching events closely and have already made appeals to join Russia. Russia had best hope they do not try to force its hand. They had best hope further that separatists in Chechnya and Dagestan are not following events and justifications too closely. Add to this plenty of recent troubles at home with migrant workers and xenophobia and you have to conclude that Russia is vulnerable to destabilising influences from within and nearby and that it may be sending all those forces all the wrong signals.

And all this is to forget China. Russia has, overtly at least, interpreted the Chinese reaction as favourable. At best, however, China can be said to be walking a line of neutral unconcern. But Russia, suspicious as it is of others, should worry that China has made careful notes with the aim of using the “defence of Chinese nationals” argument later on to claim part of Russian territory.


What is clear from all this is that Russia does not believe it will pay a price in the long-term for its annexation of Crimea. The West then is left with the choice of doing nothing or doing enough to make Russia hurt. Perhaps most disastrous of all would be a form of retaliation that inflicted little or no cost on Russia. That would serve to convince more people than just Putin that the West need not be taken account of; that it truly is in decline. In many ways, we are back in 1991, except that this time no-one really believes the West is playing from a position of strength.


Dr Arman Sarvarian, Lecturer, School of Law

The alleged Russian use of force in the Crimea engages a number of legal problems. First, there is an open factual question concerning whether the unidentified personnel deployed in the Crimea are either Russian personnel or local Crimeans under the ‘effective control’ of Russia. In either case, their actions would be legally attributable to Russia. That they did not display insignia and that Russia has seemingly denied that it was controlling them are significant facts. If their actions are not attributable to Russia, it will not have committed aggression; however, if it were proved that Russia supplied or supported them in their seizure of governmental authority such support (e.g. supply of weaponry or financing) would constitute an unlawful use of force short of aggression/armed attack and/or an unlawful interference in the internal affairs of the Ukraine. These would not engage self-defence against Russia but would empower the Ukraine to deploy countermeasures against Russia.

Second, are the actions in the Crimea of the ‘scale and effects’ to constitute aggression? The effect of a positive answer would be to engage the right to self-defence. Whilst the so-called ‘peaceful invasion’ has avoided bloodshed and violence, the deprivation of governmental authority in the Crimea would arguably satisfy the test for aggression. This would empower the Ukrainian authorities to use force to restore their authority.

Third, are the de facto leaders in Kiev the ‘government’ of the Ukraine? Russia has until very recently refused to negotiate with them directly and has maintained consistently that Viktor Yanukovich, in its view, is the President of Ukraine. Whilst the recognition of government remains a difficult and contested area of law, arguably the pragmatic test to be applied is whether effective control over the territory of the Ukraine has been established. Applying that test, it would appear that the authorities in Kiev – irrespective of any Ukrainian constitutional problems – are the government. This would invalidate the best Russian defence to any claim of aggression or other unlawful use of force, namely that Mr Yanukovich had ‘invited’ them to deploy in the Crimea.

Fourth, what about the UN collective security system? Although Russia’s Security Council veto precludes any action at that organ concerning its conduct in the Crimea, the alternative possibility of authorisation by the UN General Assembly pursuant to an Emergency Special Session under the ‘Uniting for Peace’ procedure (last employed in 2003 in relation to Palestine) remains. A majority vote of the Assembly would authorise, but not oblige, Member States to adopt collective security measures towards Russia. It should be emphasised that mediation, arbitration and adjudication are available as peaceful mechanisms for dispute settlement – however, as with collective enforcement, all of them depend upon marshalling the requisite political support.

Finally, what of the conduct of ‘Western’ agents in the Ukraine? Russia has alleged at the Security Council that unspecified Western governments have interfered in the external affairs of the Ukraine by providing support (e.g. – weaponry and financing) to opposition groups in the Ukraine in order to ensure regime change notwithstanding the agreement reached between the Yanukovich government and the opposition of 21 February. Although there has been to date no denial of this allegation, it has yet be proved.


Ms Katharine Wright, PhD Student and Seminar Tutor, School of Politics

The Ukraine crisis represents a critical juncture for NATO. The challenge coming from a resurgent Russia has forced NATO to reengage with security and defence from a Cold War mindset and has highlighted tensions within the Alliance. Nevertheless, it offers an opportunity for a NATO drawing down in Afghanistan to reconsider and reconfigure its role in international security.

NATO’s reaction to the Ukrainian crisis is a pivotal moment for the Alliance because as Andrejs Pildegovics, Latvia’s state secretary for foreign affairs argues: “Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it is not under the nuclear umbrella, and there are no obligations to protect it,” he said. “But it is part of Europe, and we can’t forget that” (quoted in the Washington Post).

The most significant development for NATO has been Poland’s invocation of Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty and the subsequent emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council on 4 March. Article 4 states that: “the parties will consult whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the parties is threatened.” Article 4 can only be invoked if a member state feels that its security, territorial integrity, or independence is under threat. The Article makes provisions for a joint decision or action on behalf of the Alliance to be taken as a result of talks at the North Atlantic Council.

The invocation of Article 4 is significant for two reasons. The primary reason is that the invocation of Article 4 is extremely rare; prior to Poland, Turkey is the only member to have used the option since 1949 – once during the 2003 Iraq war and twice over the Syrian conflict, first when a Turkish jet was shot down and then when Turkish civilians were killed. In all three instances NATO took action.

This leads onto the second point that this particular invocation of Article 4 was unique because it was the first time an emergency meeting under Article 4 had not resulted in a decision being made on a course of action. Following the meeting on 4 March, the North Atlantic Council concluded that ‘despite repeated calls by the international community, Russia continues to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to violate its international commitments. These developments present serious implications for the security and stability of the Euro‑Atlantic area.’

The lack of a decision on a course of action following the meeting of the North Atlantic Council is reflective of the division across Europe and the wider Atlantic area on what course of action NATO can or should take in the face of a resurgent Russia. The Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski lamented after the talks that ‘the rest of Europe is sometimes half a phase behind us.’

The Ukraine crisis is a test for NATO because it has highlighted the split along Cold War lines over NATO’s role in defence and security. Western Europe and the wider Atlantic area looks forward to a NATO engaged in international security (as in Afghanistan) rather than regional defence. The newest members of NATO (who were formerly part of the Soviet Bloc) have clung onto the symbolism of NATO as a protector from a resurgent Russia.

NATO’s future is never certain despite the Alliance’s track record of reacting to crisis and evolving and transforming to remain a relevant security actor – first over Kosovo and then Afghanistan and Libya. However what defined these events was that they represented a new path for NATO. Kosovo represented NATO’s move to a crisis response role and Afghanistan transformed NATO into an actor in international security, reinforced in Libya. The crisis over Ukraine and the challenge from a resurgent Russia in many ways represents a step backwards for NATO – at least symbolically; the situation invokes NATO’s Cold War purpose and is a challenge for NATO to remember its founding purpose.

The Ukraine crisis therefore represents the opening of a critical juncture for NATO and the future shape of the Alliance. In September in Cardiff the UK hosts the NATO Summit, which will set the Alliance’s course post-ISAF. The tensions within the Alliance over how to react to a resurgent Russia are likely to come to a head here. This could be a position from which to shape a path for ‘future NATO’ but this will require strong leadership and with the vacuum created by the current NATO Secretary General stepping down after the Summit this leadership has yet to emerge.

That the Alliance has lasted so long post-Cold War is perhaps in part because the relationship between the original and more recent members of NATO has not to date truly been tested. This is that test.


Professor Sir Michael Aaronson, Director, cii – Centre for International Intervention – School of Politics

Russia’s surgical annexation of Crimea has removed – at least for the time being – the spectre of a serious armed conflict in Ukraine that could even extend to a violent civil war between different linguistic groups with the inevitable suffering for innocent civilians that would result. However, given the uncertainties about Vladimir Putin’s intentions with regard to the rest of the Ukraine, this possibility remains very much alive and is one we should all fear. Preventing such a bloodbath should be an absolute priority for Western and Russian leaders alike, overriding all other interests.

In its early stages, the conflict between President Yanukovich and the opposition in Ukraine could be viewed as essentially an internal matter; in that respect the challenge for outside powers was to stay out of the trap of becoming involved on one side or the other. History will judge to what extent the West (principally in this case the EU) fell into this trap by its support for the popular uprising that eventually overthrew the Yanukovich regime, or whether Russia misjudged its support for the regime. Be that as it may, Great Powers are not known for their readiness to stand idly by when they perceive their strategic interests to be threatened; the US invasion of in Iraq in 2003, as much as the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008, bear testimony to this. In that sense the progressive locking of horns between the US/EU and Russia was entirely predictable. From the perspective of the civilian population the greatest danger comes precisely from this engagement of an external power in their internal conflict, because the neutrality of those with the power to make a difference that is often a prerequisite of independent and effective humanitarian action is forfeited.

This sad truth is exhibited clearly in the case of the current crisis in Syria. The adoption by the US and Russia – from the earliest days of the Syrian crisis in 2011 – of fundamentally opposing positions on the legitimacy of the Assad regime meant the abandonment of any possible attempt by the UN Security Council to find a peaceful means of resolving the conflict or, at the very least, to insist on respect for humanitarian law by all parties – including guaranteed access for humanitarian agencies to people in need of their help, the safe evacuation of civilians from combat zones, etc. The people of Syria have paid a heavy price for this blinkered approach.

How, then, can a similar disaster be averted in Ukraine? First, by both the Russians and the West acknowledging that there are legitimate political differences both within Ukraine and between external powers with interests in that country, which can only be resolved by political means. Second, by agreeing that however intractable these differences may be they will not be allowed to override the humanitarian imperative of ensuring that Ukraine does not descend into civil war. Third, by collectively supporting efforts by the United Nations to mediate a solution to the conflict – not, as happened in the case of Kofi Annan’s abortive Syria mediation mission, to sabotage it by sticking to competing agendas that made his task impossible. In other words, we should resist the natural temptation to respond to the conflict in Ukraine as if it were primarily an ideological battle between East and West but instead see it as one where preventing a slide into chaos is a moral obligation on all parties, both internal and external.

Does this seem far-fetched? Sadly, yes. However the real challenge for the 21st century is to make it seem entirely normal in future.