Leader of the United National Party (UNP) and former Prime Minister MP Ranil Wickremesinghe held a discussion with the Sri Lankan youth regarding the armed struggle in Ukraine and its impact on the Asian region.
The discussion was moderated Ishini Kaveesha based on various queries raised by the youth community through Social Media.
Before the war between Ukraine and Russia began, there was much negotiation. In your opinion could it have been avoided?
This war could have been avoided; it was avoidable. If we go back Ukraine is basically a part of the old Soviet Union. Russians think of Ukraine like we think of Kandy. The breakaway took place and at that time a fair number of the Soviet nuclear missiles were in Ukraine. The U.S. asked Ukraine to give it up, and in return they (Ukraine) got a guarantee of their sovereignty. Russia also joined that, that was done in Berlin, I think it was the Berlin Agreement. Thereafter, there were problems between Russia and Ukraine because NATO wanted to bring in missiles, and that is part of the old Soviet Union territory, which they should not have done. This went on for some time, and then there is the famous case of Russians taking over Crimea, which originally belonged to them and then they got into Donbas and other areas. Lets leave that aside. So when it came here, it was a question of are you going to join NATO and put missiles here. Russians said no. Now President Obama and President Trump got through it, they did not concede the Russians claims. On the other hand, they did not make Ukraine an issue. So there was room for negotiations to settle it later. Especially President Trump reached out and had a good rapport with President Putin. Now after President Biden came in, his foreign policy seems to be to take on both Russia and China. He wants to be the defender of the Western Order.
Recently Russia and China signed an agreement which is called the “no-limit friendship”, which is a friendship without limits and boundaries or prohibitions. Thereafter Russia was emboldened further to ask that nuclear missiles not be put in Ukraine and Ukraine should not become a member of NATO. The U.S. and U.K. not the other NATO members, tried to play their own game and corner Russia and make Russia back down by getting Ukraine to say they want to be part of NATO and not give in to your demands. They expected Putin to climb down. Putin thought was ready, or thought he was ready, and he invaded Ukraine. So the real issue is about the security of Russia and what are they going to do. They took the West and the Americans by surprise.
Russians have intervened as the Soviet Union in East Germany, in Poland and in Hungary when Hungary tried to join NATO, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. What is happening there? I think the Russians have got in there and what will happen to Kyiv? The last time in 1941 during the battle of Kyiv the Germans surrounded Kyiv, they never took it over. So Russians maybe trying to do this and they are surrounding cities but how much they come into the cities I don’t know. But this seems to the policy they are following. This is what the war is and it could have been avoided but it was not. Because America tried to test its strength, and now Putin is responding to it with his strength. Fact is America is more powerful, but Putin has the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world and the dangers lies there.
Now that sanctions have been put in place from the West, do you think the war from Russia’s side will stop?
I do not think so. The sanctions were the only remedy that the West could use, because when they were caught with the Russian invasion what could they do? They were not prepared to fight, Europe was not going to fight and America was not going to fight. Their mood is not for a fight. So the only action President Biden had was sanctions. They were talking of sanctions, but they have gone beyond the normal sanctions, bringing in SWIFT and others. They are not trying to use the sanctions on Russia in the hope that the Russian President will be brought down by the Russian people, that it will turn bad for them (Russia) and that Putin will lose his position. But there is another side of politics to it, because Boris Johnson was about to lose his position as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, now he is upping it so he will go up in the polls. He has already climbed about 6 or 7% and he is taking a tough line. For President Biden also he is in a problematic area. (Former) President Trump says there was no war in my time and I knew how to deal with Putin and handle Ukraine. So he had to show he can bring results, and he needs to bring results quickly because he is going to lose in the midterm elections. So he is pushing hard on the sanctions thinking Russia will come down and he can save himself. Basically many of the issues will be domestic issues, and the Republicans won’t be unhappy if the Russians stay on in Ukraine a bit longer because they can get the advantage of it. The third man with elections if President Macron of France. But he is playing a different role, he is showing that he can talk to Russia, he can talk to the West and he can talk to China. So he is telling the Frenchmen that if you remove me you will not have a leader who is recognised globally. So he is playing a different game to the other two. The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is also having elections and he is also upping his stakes to show he can be tough on China. But all this means is that we do not know where this will end. They are playing for their politics, and this will bring the total global economy. The question of whether SWIFT should be utilised for political purposes is coming up.
Anyway this will be a hit on the Western economy also, and whether economies can recover and whether their COVID recovery will get knocked back is another issue. So sanctions itself is becoming more complicated and the issue is why are countries not involved with this also prevented from doing transactions with Russia. That is a big issue for countries not involved, so all that is coming up. It may also lead to the questions of how the West is using its economic power and how do you respond to it. Already other countries are raising this issue.
Why has China and India refused to support sanctions against Russia?
China has the “no-limit friendship” with Russia and they say that there are reasons why Russia acted, but they are not defending it and that they should stop the fighting. So is India. Also, remember India is very close to Russia and so is China. They are members of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation together with Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian republics. So Russia is getting help from there, they are not turning against them. So what has happened is the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation is holding. The issue is for the Quad, India is a member but they have not taken the same line as the US. It is not in India’s interest to go along here.
There is a bigger issue than India and China, the fact is Asia is silent. They haven’t condemned Russia the way America expected them to. They have raised the invasion. In the Security Council India, China and UAE are all silent. They were non-committal. Indonesia, the leader of the G20 is non-committal. Pakistan is also going around Russia. So it looks like most of Asia is going along with Russia. Now that is what is important, because Asia counts today. Everyone is neglecting this, nobody wants to report it.
There is another issue that has come up, and we in Asia need to think about. This is the third conflict in Europe. Where will it end? The first was World War 1. They could not sort out how to carry out the investigation into the assassination of the heir to the Astro-Hungarian throne. As a result the first world war broke out. Serbia and Russia on one side, Austria and Germany on the other and then France and the U.K. joined. They could not control it.
The Second World War also started in Europe and by 1940 the Germans controlled all of Europe, and Britain was actually isolated. Britain could not have survived until 1942 when Russia and America came into the war without the help of the Asians. South-Asia alone gave about 2 ½ million soldiers, and many of the resources came from Asia along with Africa, Australia and Canada. But without this Britain could not have survived without its empire. When the war was on remember about 5 million Chinese, between the Nationalists and the Communists tied down the Japanese. So the land war was basically 5 million Chinese tying down the Japanese in the continent and the British 14th Army with the Indians tying it down in Burma. This allowed the Americans to go up, the U.S was able to destroy the Japanese army. But without it the war would not have been won. The French lost their territory and started a Government in exile, the Free French. They only have a building in London. Then they asked all the French colonies to support the Free French. All the Frenchmen who were Governors said no, there was on African governor, Felix Oboue of Chad, he declared for Free France and that’s how the French came up. Europe was under the Germans, it was here who gave the manpower to help get Europe liberated and the Europeans and Russians made the next world order. That ended in ’89, but nevertheless the West and Russia has been running this. Now we are finding that they are bungling and they are going for a third conflict. If it is not a world war, at the moment nuclear weapons are not being used, certainly there will economic havoc. This means that within a century Europe is unable to control their conflicts and they are trying to come out. In this case Asia is coming up. Many of us feel Asia must step up and say this is no longer your issue, this is our issue and we do not want to go to war. We are not allowing the West to run it the way they want, we must all get involved.
Asia staying silent is an issue cause the African Union has also not taken part, Brazil and Argentina have supported US but the Mexicans have stayed out. I do not think it is about the Russians, because everyone has accepted the fact that Russia has invaded Ukraine. We know they have had a problem, but the problem is not that, if you ask everyone they will accept Russia has invaded Ukraine. The problem is that they do not approve of what the West is doing, so everyone is staying silent. The Asians are saying look we are the most powerful countries now, our economies are growing we cannot get affected by this we cannot have a world war. We have our disputes but they have not gone to this extent. China and India have had problems in the Himalayas but somehow they have managed to sort it out. But on this main issue they want to start a world war to win their elections. Therefore, the Asian view is that we cannot only allow the West to decide the rules of the world. Asia must come in, and that is a view I have and many others have. The Government of Sri Lanka has been non-committal like all the others, such as Bangladesh. Some of them who have commented have not said who has invaded whom, the invasions are bad and the war must stop. This is what the media is not highlighting, cause the West cannot accept that Asia today is also calling the shots.
Sri Lanka is highly reliant on Russia and Ukraine in regards tea and tourism, how will this war affect our economy?
We will get affected, though it is not as big as our exports elsewhere. Especially the tea, the low country and mid-grown tea goes to countries such as Russia, and we cant send it there. This means that a lot of the low-grown and mid-grown smallholders’ families will be having problems. So will the factory holders, that is the big one.
Secondly they will have an impact on the global economy. We still do not know how it will work cause the Western economies will also get affected, inflation will be high there. It is not only a Sri Lankan issue, there are specific Sri Lankan issues but there are others as well.
How can our economy not be affected by this war?
Everyone will be affected by this, it is how we go out. But there are a lot of potentials for Asia to think on its own. Firstly, no one wants SWIFT and others to be used as a political weapon. If US and UK want to place sanctions against Russia, that is there business. But we should not be stopped from trading with Russia and others. It is a globalised economy where we agreed they would run the system, but if it is going to be used for these purposes where we lose then I think Asia has to look at another system. China is starting a China-centric one, some of the others may not want a China-centric one, but will want one that is acceptable to all. I think Africa may also join it. That is where the power is. The West is losing that power it had. The globalisation that they put together they are now taking apart. The West is controlling the instruments of globalisation and finance, if you look at Dubai, they can develop because they have not got involved. People are already saying Dubai’s international financial centre is safer, that Dubai does not play any politics at all. Now if you look at London as a financial centre, many of the businesses used to send their money there, and from London they would deal with Russia and others. Now when London stops all those transactions, London will lose out as a financial centre. They already lost out on BREXIT, and they will lose out some more and Dubai will really develop.
I really feel we must look at alternate systems, in ten years I feel Asia will be capable of putting it into order. This is a big risk that the Americans had not looked at. Their dominance of the instruments of Globalisation, if you look at their I.T. it is no longer relevant. If you look at Western media it is not being accepted in Asia, it is Al-Jazeera and here we watch the Indian TV. The Western Power is being reduced, in my view I think that it will be an ideal time when this confrontation comes to an end that Indonesia, who is the chair of the G20 and is also where the first Asian conference was held, should get together with China, India and UAE to summon a conference of all Asian nations and re-invent Asia. They were the ones who hosted Bandung Conference, and so they should take the lead and call for such a conference.
Thank You Mr. Wickremesinghe for your point of view.
Thank you for asking the questions.