Ukrainian diplomats show defiance to Russian invasion in Cambridge talk

What diplomats, academics, and politicians had to say to Cambridge about the Ukrainian crisis

CN: discussions of war and conflict

Students, staff, and members of the public gathered at the Babbage Theatre at the New Museums Site on Monday (28/2) to attend a talk organised by the Centre for Geopolitics and chaired by Professor Brendan Simms on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The 450-seat lecture theatre was almost completely filled with eager listeners, some clad in blue and yellow — the colours of the Ukrainian national flag — and more than 160 others tuned in online to listen to commentators and experts on Ukraine and Russia.

Amongst the panel was Iuliia Osmolovska, a former senior Ukrainian diplomat who now serves as the executive director of the Eastern Europe Security Institute, and Svitlana Zalishchuk, Foreign Policy Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine on European Integration. Both Osmolovska and Zalishchuk joined live from Ukraine.

Putin’s irrational “Blitzkrieg”

Osmolovska reported that Russia’s invasion was a planned “Blitzkrieg” that failed to materialise, leading to severe Russian losses. She also noted that vacuum bombs were used in battle and that such weapons are prohibited by the Geneva Convention.

Responding to a question fielded regarding Russia’s negotiating strategy, Osmolovska remarked that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “driven by emotional triggers” and was neither “logical” nor “rational” in his foreign policy strategy. Models made available to Putin before the invasion showed that human, material, and financial losses incurred on Russia by the conflict would outweigh any economic gain derived from a victorious military conflict, claims Osmolovska.

Zalishchuk was equally as condemnatory of the Russian invasion; at the same time, she believed that the international community’s help came too late.

“The West has made the long-term mistake of ignoring and downplaying the Russian threat since Putin assumed power,” claimed Zalishchuk, noting that even when faced with mounting intelligence that a Russian military buildup was taking place along the Ukrainian border, the fermenting military threat was still not considered a vital issue at the recent Munich Security Conference (18-20/2).

Zalishchuk and Osmolovska both expressed their defiance against the Russian incursion. Zalishchuk emphatically ruled out any concession of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty at the Russo-Ukrainian talks currently held on the Belarusian border.

Even if the Ukrainian government were to fall, she said, a puppet government installed by the Kremlin would be a “government of kamikaze” as it would be “encircled by 44 million enemies.”

Iuliia Osmolovska speaks live from Ukraine to students sitting in an auditorium lit in the colours of the Ukrainian flag (Image credits: author’s own)

A clash of determinations

Other panellists at the talk echoed both diplomats’ positions. Associate Professor of Ukrainian Studies Dr Rory Finnin, whose article on solidarity with Ukraine was referenced in Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope’s latest statement on Ukraine, noted that Ukrainian national identity and unity would sustain themselves throughout the conflict in the form of popular resistance.

Dr Finnin added that any long-term siege by Russia would be extremely difficult.

There was also a strong focus on the inner workings of the Kremlin, especially regarding the mental process of Vladimir Putin. Dr Jonathan Haslam, Emeritus Professor of the History of International Relations, recalled that Putin promised to restore the borders of the former Soviet Union in the first radio interview he gave as President.

Bridget Kendall, Master of Peterhouse and former BBC Diplomatic Correspondent, recollecting on her interviews with Putin, described the President as “open to engagement, combative, and has a clear, but not open mind.” She conceptualised his diplomatic strategy as one of “test and pause,” where Putin will make shows of force and immediately pause to “test” Ukrainian President Zelenskyy on his response.

Air Marshal and Director-General of the Defence Academy of the UK Edward Stringer painted a psychological picture of the war, noting how Russian troops are feeling a “mental disconnect” as they were expecting to be welcomed into Ukraine as “liberators” but instead faced fiercely resisting Ukrainian forces who were psychologically prepared to die for national self-defence.

Turning to comment on possible future trajectories of the conflict, especially in light of recent threats of nuclear warfare, Stringer conceived of Russian foreign policy as driven by brinkmanship, or in his words, “escalate to de-escalate.” Hence, he stated, Russia will go to the farthest of extremes to get NATO and the West to back down.

Former Home Secretary under Tony Blair from 2004 to 2006 Charles Clarke concluded the panellists’ commentary by delineating the risk of Russia to Eastern Europe in general, including the Baltic states and Poland. Clarke opined that the Baltic states will take an active role in shaping the future of collective security within NATO and the EU’s foreign policy toward Russia.

Leaflets on ways students can contribute to the Ukrainian cause were distributed at the talk (Image credits: author’s own)

A way out?

Is there an end to this conflict? Svitlana Zalishchuk remarked that only the internal pressure of the Russian population can force Putin to stop, but a number of the panellists doubted the ability of the international community to engage with the Russian population given Putin’s strict control over domestic media.

The panel concluded that in the meantime, the Ukrainian resistance must continue and international cooperation must be strengthened with China, India, and countries in the Persian Gulf.

Professor Simms adjourned the talk, leaving the audience with the question:

“Do we allow a leader to destroy a sovereign, independent state?”

Additional reporting credits: Eunice Chong
Feature image credits: Sherwood Cheung