The Spectator

By Peter Coleman

The debate on Ukraine was one of the high points of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in the Sydney Opera House. Tom Switzer, the former editor of this magazine, took the cautious ‘Realist’ line and Masha Gessen of LGBT fame and author of the acclaimed Putin: The Man without a Face took the revolutionary and libertarian line. Switzer’s case is that Russia is a declining power (with a stockpile of nuclear weapons). If the West succeeds in humiliating Putin and insists on Ukraine (‘Russia’s backyard’) joining NATO and the EU, Russia will react like a cornered and wounded animal. It will wreck Ukraine. It may bring on war. The better course is the Kissinger-Mearsheimer-Switzer line (which is also Malcolm Fraser’s): make Ukraine a neutral buffer state. Then everybody wins.

Masha Gessen will have none of this. She regards it, she said, as ‘interesting, distasteful, defeatist and immoral.’ As she reads Putin, he regards the West as weak. It is ‘Gayropa’, and Kiev is the centre of homofascism. Russia is a separate civilization, the world’s leader of traditional values. (She speaks, she says, as ‘a humourless lesbian’.) The Ukrainian people have made it clear, sometimes heroically, that it is, and wants to be, part of Europe. This is not a matter for realpolitik but for morality. Ukraine is an independent country. It is not Russia’s backyard. It should have Western support. The opposing positions of Switzer and Gessen came to a head over the issue of whether or not to allow Putin to come to Brisbane in November for the G20 summit. Gessen insists it would be immoral to host him in Australia. Switzer says that to ban him would be a dangerous and provocative move that would backfire. The audience in the Drama Theatre was split, applauding both speakers thunderously. For my part, my heart is with Gessen but it is impossible to ignore Switzer’s clear-eyed awareness of the realities of international power politics.

This article was originally published at The Spectator