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

On February 22nd, the Oxford Union debated the motion, “This House believes Ukraine should negotiate with Russia to end the war now.” 

The debate comes as the next weekend will mark the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. On February 17th, Russia took the town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine, marking its biggest gain since capturing Bakhmut in May. Though support for Ukraine among Europeans remains broad, only 1 in 10 think Ukraine can win, according to a survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), with most seeing a “compromise settlement” as necessary to end the conflict.

Opening the debate for the proposition, Finley Armstrong, current Treasurer of the Oxford Union, asserted that Ukrainian survival is entirely dependent on foreign aid and the support of the international community. Armstrong touched on the stalemate Ukraine faced on the frontline after 150 billion worth of aid while Russia, without support from other countries, is still able to fight this war. 

Armstrong stated that “aid is not an exhaustible resource” citing domestic priorities and economic constraints of donor countries. He concluded that negotiations with Russia were the “new path of peace” and that we should be champions of the “preservation of life and peace” instead of voting for “continued violence and bloodshed” 

Speaking first for the opposition, Rachel Haddad, on the Secretary’s Committee, began her case with a personal touch, telling the audience that she has lost communication with her grandmother and uncles since Russia’s invasion. Haddad believes peace talks with Russia are “useless, baseless, and absurd” because Russia “neither respects nor acknowledges the sovereignty of Ukraine.” 

She listed Russia’s history as an “unreliable negotiating partner” that long violates non-aggression treaties with Ukraine. In particular, she spoke about the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine exchanged its nuclear arsenal for security guarantees. According to Haddad, negotiating with Russia is like negotiating with Adolf Hitler. Haddad concluded her speech with a message of hope, citing Ukrainian poet Tara Shevchenko, “Keep fighting — you are sure to win!”

James Lawson, Membership Officer at the Oxford Union, advocated strongly for Western interests. He said avoiding negotiations with Russia would hinder the “a 21th-century Marshall Plan” of post-war recovery effort that is necessary for both Ukrainian and Western long-term stability. On top of economic costs, he touched on the threatening political disunity, stating “that cooperation is crumbling… and newspapers are growing tired of the war.” Lastly, Lawson stressed the long-time horizon of a conservation of Western military capacity, so there would be no chance of aggressions in the Middle East or a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the future. 

Ross Skowronski spoke next for the opposition. Skowronski is the founder of Mission Kharkiv, which has facilitated the transportation of over 70 tons of life-saving pharmaceuticals to his native Kharkiv since the war began. Skowronski argued that negotiations are set to fail since negotiations present a trade, but Russia is only motivated by “the land and the people” of Ukraine. He stated further that future negotiations were unlikely to be respected if Russian elites’ sources of income remain intact.

Closing the case for the proposition, Aniket Chakravorty began his argument by stating that self-determination and a free life without fear are the most important objectives for Ukranians. Chakravorty argued that Ukraine lacks continuous training for Ukrainian troops and the ample armaments, yet given the opposition of Republicans to Ukrainian aid in the United States, he said that the “window of winning is diminishing.” 

However, he was optimistic if Ukraine committed to negotiations, given that the “Western support is likely to increase to Ukraine when there is a clear endgame in mind.” According to Chakravorty, the prospect of Ukraine joining the NATO and EU as “a thriving state on Russian doorstep” would be the strongest refute to Putin. 

Lord Houghton of Richmond, former Chief of the Defence Staff of the British Armed Forces, closed the debate for the opposition. Lord Houghton argued that, although there is enduring peace in Europe, a negotiation for a premature peace would not be in the long-term interests of Ukraine and the West. To him, Russia has failed in its war effort, and thus he believes “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 floor:  “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.”

The motion did not pass, with 71 members voting in favour and 171 members voting against.

Image Credit: NATO

Image Description: Oxford Union chamber