Statement by David Cameron, Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, at the United Nations General Assembly Debate on the situation in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine.

If we do not stand up to Putin, he will be back for more: Foreign Secretary at the UN General Assembly

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23 February 2024

Thank you, Mr President. Today, I want to cover 3 points.

First, the history. Two years ago, Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

But let’s go back a little further. In 2008, I visited Tbilisi in Georgia shortly after Russian forces invaded South Ossetia. I said then that if we did not stand up to Putin, he would be back for more.

In 2014, I was Prime Minister as his ‘little green men’ seized control of Crimea. I said again that if we did not stand up to Putin, he would be back for more.

Now, having tried and failed to conquer all of Ukraine, the lesson of this history is clear. If we do not stand up to Putin, he will be back for more.

Compared to 2008 and 2014, I do believe the world has started properly to wake up to Putin’s menace. Yet here is the tragedy of it all.

Prior to 2014, did Ukraine pose a threat to Russia? No.

Did Russia object to the formation of the Ukrainian state in 1991? No.

Did it in 1994, when signing the Budapest Memorandum? No – in fact Russia pledged never to use force against Ukraine.

If the Ukrainian state was such a threat to Russian-speaking residents, why did every region of Ukraine vote for independence, Crimea and the Donbas included?

Cut through ludicrous accusations of Nazism against a state with a Jewish President, and what are you left with? Nothing but the ahistorical claim that Ukraine’s very existence is ‘anti-Russian’. A claim which runs contrary to the principle of self-determination, one of the foundations of the United Nations.

Putin tries to claim that Russia is fighting not against Ukraine, but against the whole of the West. He claims we are somehow out to dismember Russia. That is the central lie of this war.

The truth is we – myself included – spent years trying to build a new relationship with Moscow after the end of the Cold War. We did that because we profoundly believe that a secure, stable Russia, at peace with its neighbours, is in our interests and the world’s.

It is a tragedy that Putin prefers to hark back to the ninth century to justify aggression, rather than taking up this offer of a different path.

And turning to the consequences of all this. The scenes in territories liberated from Russia defy belief.

Take Bucha. As has just been said, mutilated bodies of civilians with hands bound, shot at close range. A children’s centre turned into a torture chamber. The rape of teenage girls. Disturbing radio intercepts of Russian soldiers referring to this as ‘cleansing’.

Or consider places still held by Russia. Business gone. Independent media quashed. The rights of minorities, such as the Crimean Tartars, denied. Sinister ‘re-education centres’. Forcible deportations, with children torn from their parents to be raised as ‘Russians’. Ukrainians forced to accept Russian passports, or drafted to fight for Putin. Citizens forced to vote in sham referendums and now, outrageously, Russian Presidential elections held on Ukrainian territory.

Crimea in particular now far more dependent on Moscow for budgetary support than it ever was to Kyiv. Invasion has brought these regions neither peace nor prosperity.

And nor has Putin’s gambit benefited Russians. No Russian soldier had died fighting Ukraine before 2014 – now they have suffered over 300,000 casualties. Moreover, since the invasion, Russia has suffered its first attempted coup in over 3 decades, and its first debt default for over a century.

Nor has the rest of the world been spared the consequences of this war. Rising energy and food costs have fuelled inflation. This has had consequences, especially for the world’s poorest.

And this leads to my final point, why we must stay strong.

Two years on, I recognise some want to rethink. There is a sense of fatigue, there are other problems, a compromise might seem attractive. But this is wrong.

We must recognise the cost of giving up. Putin has said there will be no peace until Russia’s goals are achieved. And in his recent interview, he studiously avoided confirming he was satisfied with the land seized from Ukraine at present.

This is not a man seeking compromise. Rather, this is a neo-imperialist bully who believes might is right. An unjust peace now merely invites a return to fighting in Ukraine when it suits him.

But ultimately we must stay strong not only for the sake of Ukraine. Yes, Ukraine has been wronged. Yes, we admire their decision to pursue a democratic path, and fight for their right to do so. But crucially, we also know that this matters to all of us.

If Putin were to eke out some kind of win, the rest of the world would suffer too. What starts in Ukraine would not end there. Putin could easily apply his distortions of history elsewhere, such as Moldova or the Baltic States.

And others will be emboldened to turn to fighting when it suits them. No country with a large, aggressive neighbour would be safe.

And that leads to the other great lie. Russia poses as a friend of those who feel cut out by the international system, but it has shown no interest in changes to make it fairer, such as Security Council reform. It does virtually nothing to support the key funds to back the poorest of our world such as GAVI or the Global Fund or the IDA under the World Bank. And its actions in Ukraine are so brazen so as to threaten the system itself.

So yes, we should stand by Ukraine. But not just for Ukraine. Not just for Europe. But for the world and a simple principle.

The security of borders. The sanctity of nations. The principle of self-determination.

Ukraine’s fight is our fight. The world’s fight. And the world must stay strong.

Thank you.

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