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Oxford Union doesn’t believe Ukraine should negotiate with Russia to end the war

This Thursday night, the Oxford Union voted against the motion “This House believes Ukraine should negotiate with Russia to end the war now.” The final count had 71 members voting for the motion and 171 members voting against. 

Speaking for the motion were third-year Theology student Finley Armstrong of Regent’s Park College, second-year Magdalen PPE student James Lawson, and Aniket Chakravorty of New College – who recently placed first in the World Debating Championships.

Opposing the motion were former Chief of the Defence Staff of the British Armed Forces Lord Houghton of Richmond and Ross Skowronski, founder of Mission Kharkiv – an organisation which has facilitated the transportation of over 70 tons of life-saving pharmaceuticals to Ross’ native Kharkiv since the war began. First-year History and Politics student Rachel Haddad of Balliol College also spoke against the motion.

Opening the case for the proposition, Finley Armstrong described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “the largest attack on a European country since World War Two.” He told the audience that everyone was in agreement that the war must end at some point. “The question is when and how.”

Armstrong touched on the lack of success Ukraine has had in its counteroffensive which it launched against Russia in June 2023 before discussing the current lack of artillery among Ukrainian troops – while Russia has mobilised arms production to be able to fire 10,000 rounds per day, Ukraine is only capable of firing 2,000. He emphasised that, although the “international community has demonstrated an unprecedented level of solidarity with Ukraine,” aid is not an inexhaustible resource and is subject to political contingencies. He asked the audience “How long should we allow this brutal war to continue before accepting that Ukrainian victory – whatever that may look like – is unlikely?” Armstrong urged the audience to vote for the proposition: “By voting for opposition you are voting for … continued violence and bloodshed as the answer.”

Rachel Haddad began the case for opposition on a personal note, telling the audience “Almost two years ago today, Russia invaded my country Ukraine.” She stated further that Russia is currently waging an offensive in her grandmother’s town and that her family is forced to “endure the horrors of this conflict every single day.”

After introducing the proposition speakers, Haddad outlined her central thesis by declaring “I do not believe Ukraine should be negotiating with a terrorist state, which does not recognise, let alone respect, the sovereignty [of Ukraine].” She ran through the historical record and Russia’s previous abrogation of non-aggression treaties with Ukraine. In particular, she spoke of the Budapest Memorandum signed by Ukraine in 1994 which exchanged its nuclear arsenal for security guarantees – guarantees she stated that Russia subsequently violated. According to Haddad, peace talks with Russia are impossible since “negotiating with Russia is like negotiating with Hitler himself.” She concluded her speech by citing the words of a Ukrainian poet who urged Ukrainians to “keep fighting.”

Speaking second for the proposition, James Lawson began his speech by taking issue with Haddad’s categorical stance against negotiations with terrorists. He asked audience members what they would do if a terrorist had captured a loved one at gunpoint and the only way to save them was through negotiations. He argued that the only sensible path in such a situation would be to at least consider entering negotiations.

Lawson’s central argument revolved around Ukraine’s reliance on the West – both now and in the future – and how avoiding negotiations with Russia would hinder the post-war recovery effort. He argued that the West would have to provide substantial economic aid to Ukraine but that continuing the war creates costs that hinder the West’s assistance in a future “Marshall Plan-like” recovery program. In addition to discussing economic problems which arise from avoiding negotiations, Lawson touched on political problems. While the West initially rallied behind Ukraine at the start of the war, according to Lawson “that cooperation is crumbling… newspapers are growing tired of the war.” He concluded by reiterating his call for reasonable negotiations.

Ross Skowronski continued the case for the opposition, describing the war in Ukraine “as one of the cruellest wars ever.” His argument centred on Russian motives in waging war against Ukraine – according to Skowronski, since negotiations are only possible when each party offers something of value to the other and Russia is only motivated by “the land and the people” of Ukraine, negotiations are doomed to fail. Skowronsky stated further that negotiations were unwarranted since they are unlikely to be respected if Russian elites’ sources of income are left undisturbed.

Closing the case for the proposition, Aniket Chakravorty began his argument by stating that self-determination is the most important objective for Ukranians. According to Chakravorty, this self-determination can only be achieved through a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine, which, in turn, can only be achieved through an opening of negotiations.

Chakravorty argued further that the greatest hindrance to the Ukrainian war effort is the lack of continuous training for Ukrainian troops and the dearth of missiles and other weaponry in the army. Given the opposition of Congressional Republicans to Ukrainian aid, Chakravorty argued that the dynamics of the war are unlikely to change any time soon. He predicted, however, that American policy could change following a Ukrainian commitment to negotiations, since “Western support is likely to increase to Ukraine when there is a clear endgame in mind.”

Lord Houghton of Richmond closed the case for the opposition. He began by stating that, “despite advances in the human condition that we have made… I do fear that our world remains a most imperfect place.” Lord Houghton argued that, although Europeans have not seen such fighting since the Second World War, seeking a premature peace “despite many of its attractions” would not be in the long-term interests of Ukraine and the West. 

Lord Houghton then enumerated three assumptions under which Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine: his assessment of the strength of Russian troops, his assessment of the weakness of Ukrainian troops, and his belief that NATO would not intervene sufficiently on Ukraine’s behalf. According to Houghton, Putin was wrong on all three counts, and Russia has failed in its war effort. To continue deterring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Houghton argued “we should be ever more confident in supplying Ukraine with the military resources it needs.” At the end of his speech, Lord Houghton addressed the audience directly: “The way you vote tonight sends a message. It sends a message to Putin, and it sends a message to the people of Ukraine. Please do not send the wrong one.” 

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