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The event was hosted and introduced by Dr Andrew Foxall of the HJS Russia Studies Centre. The first guest speaker was Edward Lucas, Senior Editor at The Economist and Senior Vice-President at the Centre for European Policy Analysis. Lucas began by criticising such widespread surprise at Russia’s recent political and military aggression. Having lived in the Baltics during the 1990s, Lucas recounted how these and other Eastern-European states had repeatedly warned the West of Russia’s imperial intentions and political corruption since the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, such warnings were dismissed as paranoid and exaggerated by the West who complacently assumed that all Cold War tensions had now ceased and that Russia had now become a modern democracy.
The second speaker was Asta Skaisgiryte Liauskiene, Lithuanian Ambassador to the Court of St. James, who drew attention to the immense resources and efforts that Russia was investing into its military size and efficiency (at the expense of other sectors). As well as highlighting recent examples of Russian military aggression against its neighbours (e.g. Georgia 2008 and Ukraine 2013), the Ambassador drew attention to NATO’s comparative lack of military readiness in the event of further encroachment. While echoing to some degree Lucas’ point of Western complacency, Liauskiene did praise the UK government in particular for consistently refusing to acknowledge Soviet occupation of Baltic territory. However, the question is whether the UK and the West will react to such displays of Russian aggression in the modern day and, if so, what is the best approach.
The third speaker was Dr. Allan Sikk, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Dr. Sikk began by underlining the significant role of populism and liberalism in aiding the Baltic transition into democratic states and their integration into Europe, EU and NATO. Unfortunately, such unity and cooperation are currently at risk of being undermined (first with Brexit and now with the recent election of Trump), all of which could further facilitate Russian expansion. It is therefore essential that integration within Europe and stability in the West are maintained.
With the floor now open for questions, Dr. Foxall began by asking what the speakers believed to be the main warning of which the West should be wary. Edward Lucas noted the alarming contrast in military readiness between NATO (who think and act in terms of days/weeks) and Russia (in terms of minutes/hours). Ambassador Liauskiene responded by reiterating her earlier point on how the West, following the Cold War, had abandoned the need to understand Russian culture and way of thinking. For example, MI6 ceased recruiting Russian speakers (or potential speakers) although they have since renewed this practice.
The next questioner asked about Russian ethnic minorities in the Baltic States and whether they pose any risk to stability. Ambassador Liauskiene replied that the danger lies rather with Russian propaganda and the effect that it may have in aggravating Russian minorities living in the Baltic States who in turn may provoke regional instability.
The last questioner enquired about the true nature of Putin’s actions and his ultimate aims. Lucas referred to previous Putin speeches on the Kremlin website, expressing the president’s resentment towards the current world order and how it is an insult to the dignity of Russia. Putin thus wishes to rectify this by restoring Russian global influence and by undermining the stability of the West, as demonstrated by Russian influence in the recent elections in Moldova, Bulgaria and the US.