by Steven O’Brien
This interview originally appeared on The Huffington Post.
Mohammad Zahoor is a Ukraine-based British businessman and publisher of the Kyiv post. He is dedicated to preserving the newspaper’s independence and has been keen to champion non-partisan investigative journalism in Ukraine throughout the current crisis. Mr Zahoor’s views on the conflict have been covered by the Financial Times. He is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.
Steven O’Brien is editor of The London Magazine. In this interview he discusses Britain’s recent and ongoing engagement with the Ukrainian conflict with Mr Zahoor.
Mr. Zahoor, over the last few months, the Cameron administration been the subject of growing criticism with regard to its perspective on Ukraine. Many commentators believe that it has not been active enough in the theatre of foreign policy, and rather supine in the face of Russian machinations. Furthermore there is a belief that the Cameron administration has been far too slow to adapt to new realities regarding Ukraine. Would you agree with these criticisms?
MZ: To be fair, when it comes to recent developments in Ukraine, nobody foresaw the Euromaidan phenomenon, where the popular uprising in Kiev demanded closer and swift integration with Europe. No one predicted its astonishing success, nor the extreme reaction of the Putin administration. No government, no intelligence service, no think tank, no politician, no activist was prepared for the events that overtook Ukraine. There was no playbook and the situation remained very much fluid until the second Minsk agreement.
That being said, I believe it to be an accurate observation that in the last eighteen months, the UK government has not been engaged with foreign affairs generally. This is chiefly because the internal political calendar in Britain has been dominated by the EU elections, the rise of UKIP, the Scottish referendum and an unpredictable parliamentary election.
Within the compass of all these variables, the Cameron administration, post Iraq and Afghanistan, had little to gain and much to lose by becoming active in another geo-political crisis which has no clear outcome. Despite the fact that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict represents a fundamental paradigm-shift in European security policy.
The Prime Minister has defended his foreign policy by referring to Britain’s key role in establishing sanctions and maintaining EU unity. Do you agree with this summary?
MZ: It is clear that neither the US, Germany or France require the assistance of the United Kingdom when it comes to Ukraine and the implementation of sanctions against Russia. Under the auspices of the EU-framework, Mrs. Merkel and her team have become key players in developing general guidelines for Western policy pertaining to Ukrainian matters and have been doing so for quite some time.
As early as 2011, long before anyone else paid attention to Ukrainian affairs, Mrs. Merkel attacked the Yanukovych administration in Ukraine, and actively wielded her political capital to push for the release of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Mrs. Tymoshenko. She grew up in East Germany under the old Soviet dispensation. She speaks fluent Russian and is the only Western leader that still has regular communications with Vladimir Putin. No other Western leader is better qualified for this challenge. However, in these times, conflict resolution is a team effort. There is no need to grade or rank the contributions of various partners. That is a juvenile exercise.
Britain, is a G7-nation, a powerful Nato member, a key member of the EU, with a seat of the UN Security Council. In this light Britain’s potential to be a key player, to have a key role if you like, with respect to Ukraine seems self evident. Yet the question remains – should David Cameron also lead the charge or support it from the background?
Last week, president Poroshenko invited former Prime Minister Tony Blair to join his international advisory council. While Mr. Blair has yet to announce his decision, how do you think that his acceptance of the offer would affect the current British-Ukrainian relationship?
MZ: It should generally be acknowledged that both countries have never worked closer together than they do now. Yet most people realise that British-Ukrainian relations are in their infancy. Moreover they are still a very long way from realising their true potential. Unfortunately, Mr. Blair will not advance the common affairs of both nations.
Isn’t that a rather harsh assessment?
MZ: One must ask how could Mr. Blair possibly advance the British-Ukrainian cause? First, the whole set-up is unfortunate because it was President Poroshenko who announced the invitation and yet Mr. Blair did not respond for more than a week. Moreover Mr. Blair has no significant experiences in Ukrainian affairs and is anyway far too controversial to be an effective mediator.
The legacy of Mr. Blair divides his own political party as well as the British people and therefore this limits any impact he could have. The fact that he attended the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum (generally considered a Putin vanity event, completely ignored by Western political leadership) only hours after he received the Ukrainian offer makes it clear that Mr. Blair is trying to play both sides of the fence. This serves his own agenda, not that of Ukraine, nor even the United Kingdom.
Who would have been a better liaison?
MZ: The current Ukrainian administration no longer requires additional advisors or advice, but it would send a strong signal if David Cameron could make the first British state visit to Ukraine since John Major in 1997. In Ukraine it is high time for the implementation of existing policies and here the United Kingdom can assist by proactively shaping bilateral relations.
The Prime Minister and members of his cabinet have on countless occasions condemned Russian interventionism and have actively supported Ukraine. There has been provision of non-lethal military assistance as well as humanitarian aid. Isn’t the British government already shaping bilateral relations?
MZ: Since 1991 British-Ukrainian relations have been primarily defined through the perspective of national security. From this point of view, British policy towards Ukraine has been linked, as a matter of expedience, to British-Russian relations and was never developed autonomously. Current events show that this approach is no longer working. Punishing Russia through sanctions does not help Ukraine to succeed in its pro-Western aspirations. While the focus is generally placed on the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the danger of an economic collapse and the creation of a failed state is not being addressed in any meaningful way. The Cameron administration has to engage the Ukrainian government independently of its conventional Russian policy.
The British government has committed GBP 15 million for humanitarian aid and GBP 850.000 last year for non-lethal military assistance. These amounts cannot be equated to the financial aid of G7 nations like Germany (€700 million) or Japan (US$1.5 billion). We know that the British government is continuing its policy of fiscal austerity and so there are very limited financial resources available to assist the Ukrainian people.In specific terms what more could the UK do?
MZ: It is not only about money. What the Ukrainian people need more than anything are assurances that they are not alone in their conflict. Here, David Cameron could easily and quickly create positive momentum by strengthening his advisory team and increasing the number of British visits of high-level officials to Ukraine. A short trip by the Prime Minister to Kiev would be a good start, as the United Kingdom is the only G7-nation that has not yet managed a state visit to Ukraine. If both the Japanese and Australian premiers can manage a visit so can the British. It might sound simplistic, but these first steps will help to overcome various abandonment issues within the Ukrainian population and intelligentsia.
It is quite understandable that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is discussed in a rather heated manner across Europe, and unfortunately, the general narrative of this conflict is immersed in cold-war rhetoric and Second World War analogies. Within this particular narrative, Mr. Cameron currently does not come across as the heir to great British statesmen like Churchill. In this year of great anniversaries more hot-tempered individuals might be tempted to draw parallels between the current situation and the phoney war, rather than triumphs of Wellington.
Also, a visit by Cameron would show the international community that the United Kingdom is living up to the moral obligations that have arisen out of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which the UK also gave security assurance to Ukraine, together with the U.S. and Russia. It would be a most promising starting point for the next phase of British-Ukrainian relations.