The Big Question: Is It Our Moral Duty To Stand Up To Russia Over Ukraine?


Military action against Russia is a possibility argued Sir Graham Watson MEP. Courtesy: BBC.

Is it our moral duty to stand up to Russia? This was the first question debated on this morning’s edition of The Big Questions on BBC1 television in the UK.

And the question cuts to the heart of the Ukrainian problem: what is the right thing to do when faced with illegal actions by a United Nations security council member that has effectively annexed a part of a sovereign independent country?

The programme bills itself as a series of moral, ethical and religious debates on topical issues and I was privileged to be asked to take part in the debate alongside Liberal Democrat MEP Sir Graham Watson, Professor Geoffrey Pridham, East European specialist at the University of Bristol, Dr Tim Brain, academic and former Chief Constable of Gloucestershire, the Right Reverend John Davies, Bishop of Swansea and Brecon, and Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn who was, somewhat appropriately, seated to my left.

Watson kicked off the debate. He has explicitly linked the issue to the events of 1938 when Hitler’s Nazi Germany annexed Austria and Sudetenland part of of Czechoslovakia. “I think it is our moral duty to stand up to Russia and what is happening,” he argued. “This is equivalent to Hitler’s annexation of Sudetenland. What Putin is trying to do is exercise what he considers to be his right to intervene militarily in what, once upon a time, would have been described as Russia’s sphere of influence.” Putin is abrogating agreements, he said, adding that “we must go in and defend the Ukrainians. Ukraine is a unitary state and must be defended”.

Military action

Go in? Watson listed the latest European Union (EU) initiatives – stopping talks on a new EU Russia agreement and on visa liberalisation and targeting sanctions against individual wealthy Russians – but he frighteningly added that if Russia further destabilises Crimea then the response “may have to involve military action” although he qualified that by saying that “nobody is arguing fight a ground war against Russia”.

East European expert Pridham agreed that “all cards” should be on the table spelling out diplomacy, economic sanctions and propaganda and stating that the “military option is behind all that”.

Labour’s Corbyn did not agree: “It seems to me like a recipe for war and incredibly dangerous,” he said. He castigated the “hypocrisy of the West” given the questionable legality of the war in Iraq and “so many interventions” elsewhere. He said that the issue of whether or not Ukraine breaks up is a matter for the Ukrainian people and that the idea that we should move towards a military conflict “seems to me an absolute disaster”. Corbyn was also concerned about the make up of the new Ukrainian government with its alleged far right leanings.


Professor Geoffrey Pridham said that all cards must be on the table including military action. Courtesy: BBC.

Pridham suggested that Putin had begun to worry about the Black Sea Fleet – a reference to Russia’s leased naval base in Crimea. “I have a feeling that that was one influence towards his action in Crimea,” he said.


Then it was my turn. I pointed out that the EU has been pushing ever eastwards since the fall of the Berlin Wall, that we have been promising Ukrainians EU membership, and that from the Russian perspective we could be seen to have encouraged the uprising in Ukraine. This made Russian intervention inevitable, I argued. There is no way Putin or any other Russian lead would allow a Russian naval base to become a part of an EU member state, there is no way that Putin would want to allow a successful revolution in Ukraine, on Russia’s doorstep, to act as a potential precedent on the home front, and Putin would want to be seen to be supporting ethnic Russians. What puzzled me, I added, was why the West was blind to this inevitability?

Leon Clifford, blogger, argued that Putin would not want a Russian naval base to be in an EU state

Leon Clifford, blogger, argued that Putin would not want a Russian naval base to be in an EU state. Courtesy: BBC.

Watson did not believe that the Ukrainians would overturn the legal agreement with Russia over the naval base at Sevastopol which will run until 2047. He also disagreed with the analysis that the EU has been “pushing” eastwards; he characterised it more in terms of the free peoples of eastern European countries asking to become a part of the EU. “I would say Ukrainians were demonstrating in very large numbers in favour of these things,” he said.

Pridham warned that we are “indeed in a potential pre war situation” and that there were already “major concerns” in the Baltic states.

Corbyn pointed out that the EU was getting ever closer to NATO, in his view, and that this made Russia nervous and encouraged Russian militarism. He felt that the right approach was to try to de-escalate the situation. “There is a terrible danger of a rush towards an economic and military conflict with Russia,” he warned.

Pridham thought the Ukrainian revolution was a reaction to a “very very” corrupt regime.


I pointed out that the facts on the ground were that Russia had effectively annexed Crimea and that the this had in part been made possible by the weakness of the West. “We have been hooked on Russian gas, hooked on Russian cash while we have been cutting our military forces,” I argued. Putin knew we had an empty hand, I suggested.

But Watson suggested that it was Putin, and not the West, that was weak and that Putin was in fact “playing to the gallery back home”.

Bishop Davies pointed out that the history of this part of the world is immensely complicated and immensely frightening: “The option to use military force is a catastrophically frightening option,” he said and quoted Churchill’s “jaw-jaw is better than war-war” dictum.

Jeremy Corbyn MP argued that the EU was getting closer to NATO and that worried the Russians. Courtesy: BBC.

Jeremy Corbyn MP argued that the EU was getting closer to NATO and that worried the Russians. Courtesy: BBC.

Dr Brain asked why we had not heard from the United Nations? Corbyn pointed out that the UN is unable to come down on one side or the other because of the make up of the security council (which includes Russia, China, the US, the UK and France as permanent members). “Therefore it falls to the UN to bring the sides together”, he added.

Watson said that it is “absolutely in (the UK’s) interests to defend international law” and that “military action would have to be a last resort”. “What do we do if Russia does not pull its troops back,” he asked.

Corbyn closed the debate by questioning whether the Russian people have the stomach for a fight and questioning the moral authority of the West to criticise Russia after recent Western military activities.

I am not sure that we answered the question over what our moral duty is – support Ukraine, uphold international law and risk war or accept the annexation of Crimea and seek peace – but it was an interesting debate. Scary too: the spectre of a major European war was raised by serious people – in the centenary of the outbreak of The Great war.

My thanks to the BBC’s The Big Questions team.

Watch the programme

The link to the iPlayer version of the programme which will remain available for a limited time is here.

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6 Responses to “The Big Question: Is It Our Moral Duty To Stand Up To Russia Over Ukraine?”
  1. Jorgen Faxholm says:

    3 statements stood out in the discussion:
    1) Russia will never give up Sevastopol. Not now, and not in 2047. I think this is one of the major motivations for Putin – if not the real and only one, as he suddenly was forced to do something after the Maidan revolution and Yanukovych’s ousting, where events went faster than anyone could think.
    Furthermore, the Krym-coast is owned by wealthy oligarchs, mostly Russians, I think, i.e. Krym is a goner already = Russian.
    But just wait: Putin has now bought himself a Tatar problem!

    2) Pridham’s stmt, that the revolution was a reaction to a very corrupt regime is in my opinion absolutely correct. I would even say THE major reason for people’s Maidan uproar.
    I have followed Ukr. since 2002, stayed 6 months in Lviv 2004-5 (Orange revolution), have a Ukr. family and friends and have corresponded and talked to a large nr of Ukr. people. People simply had enough, after Yanukovych salami-sliced himself into being a Putin model after 2012: dictator with family and friends sucking Ukr. dry. Most top people were even Russians, not Ukrainians (e.g. the FSB director only had a Russian passport!!)
    This was demonstrated quite clearly once we had access to Y’s assets.
    However, Ukrainians really shot themselves in the foot by voting for Yanukovych (although correctly: voted for a Parliament, who then inserted Y.) This is why Putin is wrong about illegitimacy, as the legal Parliament impeached Y (OK – can be argued 😉

    3) Knowing Russia and a good deal of the history, culture and attitude of that part of the world, I am flabbergasted, that anyone can even contemplate military intervention from the West as part of a package. Russia only understands a steel glove, but we must use our economic power, rather than guns, as Russia will not hold back on cutting its nose to spite its face!. It will hurt both parties, but that is something we have learnt from the past and will have to swallow – and prepare for energy independence: nuclear, fracking/shale in particular – all other energy approaches are green delusions.
    Key point is; Russia needs us, as she is in a pretty shambolic state – just have a walk in the countryside outside moscow and St Petersburg. This perhaps one of Putin’s fears: revolution is usually fuelled by hunger.

    I’d like to add (and this was strangely not mentioned in the discussion) that there are powerful and rich men behind Putin as well as in Ukraine (Akhmetov, for ex). None of them want to see Ukr go to the dogs, nor do they want to see Putin treading a war path – and the Ukrainian oligarchs have absolutely no interest in joining Russia. Most of them come from the Donbas, where another key power factor resides: the Donetsk mafia.

    Indeed a convoluted affair, where EU’s Ashton is more elephant than negotiator!

  2. Nick clifford says:

    My concern now that the western politicians are talking tough is that they may have backed themselves into a no win corner over Ukraine. The Chinese May be watching the developments of this issue very closely with the oil and gas deposits of the south china seas of interest to them, if the west fail over Ukraine then would this be seen as a green light for china to annex the whole of the South China Sea. We have already seen their testing the waters figuratively speaking, posturing over no fly zones in this region, although nothing has been enforced. Our politicians should think before charging ahead at full speed, the titanic was sunk no less this way!

  3. Simon Hengle says:

    We should stand up to Russia, but we can’t. We are to weak due to a reliance on fuel from Russia, along with Germany. Ontop of that our armed forces are not in a position to be an effective threat, combined with our European partners lack of military might,
    Even if we did have an effective military force combined with our European partners, I suspect this batch of politicians lack the backbone to do what is necessary.

  4. Nick clifford says:

    After the Second World War the west failed to act on Soviet expansion started by Stalin because of tiredness after the war, Both Churchill and Gen Mcaurthur warned of these dangers as The USSR annexed parts of Japan , the Kuril Islands and basically most of Eastern Europe. why is it only now our western politicians cry foul reference Ukraine which is an ex part of the old USSR anyway. You reap what you sow, and so the west must except its share of the blame. However the west should take note and stop reducing its armed forces to such pathetic levels, well trained yes, but divided politically and the fractures are getting wider. Any way here’s a question maybe Ukraine would be better off under Russian control than the control of Bureaucrats in Brussels, I’m not sure if there’s much difference!

    • Jorgen Faxholm says:

      “maybe Ukraine would be better off under Russian control than the control of Bureaucrats in Brussels, I’m not sure if there’s much difference!”

      Good question Nick, but not the one the Ukrainians on Maidan ask. The drive amongst the many Ukrainian people I know has always been towards a country with normal governance, no corruption, a future for families, etc. It is hard to shed the old Sovjet cloak, particularly as Ukraine has become a historically very hot cauldron. West Ukraine, from where the freedom push has always come, has only been under Russian control 1939-41 and after 1945 till 1991. I can assure you, that their experience is: never to become a Russian minion again. The East, however, was Russified by Stalin and therefore you’ll find the leaning to be Russian even today, but also with a lot of the people wanting their own country, i.e. a Ukraine as they perceive it. The problem is that East and West have different perceptions of what that means. Oligarchs, mafia and lack of democratic experience, coupled with pressure from the outside (from both Russia and EU) make the whole affair quite muddled.
      Putin has no doubt miscalculated the situation, but there will be no solution before he and the Kyiv government (who are perfectly legal, as they were voted into power) begin to talk together.
      Mind you – even Crimea is more Ukrainian than people make it; it was passed to Ukraine by Kruschev in 1954 in exchange of a couple of eastern provinces. But as it is not feasible to re-do this swap and we probably have to look at it with “real-political” eyes, Crimea is a lost case for the Ukrainians. Russia will never abandon the navy-base at Sevastopol.

  5. I think Russia is seeking attention, lets hope this doesnt goes on for long. May peace be restored between Russia and Ukraine


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