In a recent article, I was rather critical of Calvin Robinson’s GB News Ukraine monologue on May 13th, and have since been not-angry-just-disappointed to see his responses on Twitter, beginning with this:
Who’d have thought the Free Speech Union would be arguing in favour of compelled speech?
“It’s not the Ukraine, it’s Ukraine”
“It’s not Kiev, it’s Kyiv”
All I said was this war has to stop.
When the FSU becomes the language police, you know things have gone too far. 🤡 🌎
Perhaps Calvin should have taken more time to digest both his Chicken Kiev and the substance of my article before responding. I didn’t demand anyone say “Kyiv” instead of “Kiev”, or “Ukraine” instead of “the Ukraine”. I merely pointed out that the use of those dated terms – as well as being the kind of patriotic mispronunciation of foreign place-names that many of us enjoy – has mainly served as an in-group signifier for those who take a broadly anti-Ukraine/Kremlin-curious position. This is often done under cover of calls for “peace” – which usually means appeasement, or pacifism of the sort Orwell critiqued. But if Calvin is so piqued by the notion of the name “Kiev” going out of fashion, he’ll presumably be equally upset about the loss of “Leningrad” or “Karl-Marx-Stadt”, and will persist with Soviet nomenclature. Good luck to him.
It was also disappointing that Calvin took my article to be a position statement emanating from the Free Speech Union simply because I’m associated with that excellent organisation (and deeply proud of the fact). It would be rather odd if the FSU did have a position on Ukraine, but of course it doesn’t, and I was merely expressing my personal views – although it shouldn’t be necessary to have to point that out, or for Calvin to have to dissociate his political views from the official position of the Free Church of England.
As to Calvin’s claim that “[a]ll I said was this war has to stop”, that’s simply not true. It was a two-minute monologue which broached a range of topics that I covered in my article.
There were some other rebarbative tweets which I’ll pass over in relative silence, merely noting Calvin’s mockery of Zelenskyy and a possible attempt at exorcism, but notable in all this was the absence of any attempt to engage with the substantive points I made regarding his claims of neo-Nazism, persecution of Christians and so on inside Ukraine. In fact, Calvin said that he doesn’t “write rebuttals to hit pieces” – frustrating, because he missed the obvious punchline: “I reserve that for puff pieces.”
Of course, I can understand Calvin’s irritation with the tone of my article, which was at times ad hominem. “Why so over the top?” I’ve heard people say.
To answer that, it might be helpful to understand that while I’ve been writing at home, safe in the English countryside, I’ve also been psychologically inhabiting a Ukrainian trench since last February. Through news outlets and social media, I’ve read reports and seen videos of the war that will stay with me – despite having previously worked on documenting crimes against humanity, which I thought had made me immune. Much of it I try not to think about, but I’m profoundly sorrowful not just for the Ukrainians and all they’ve suffered, but also for the brainwashed Russian troops who have been ordered to attack a peaceful nation and then commit suicide rather than surrender, and who have done so with rifles and grenades – and for that Russian soldier seen praying in his last moments.
I’ve also seen lies and half-truths spread from Moscow, as they have since the 1920s. Information being crucial in this war, those engaged in the information war are fighting in the battlefield of the mind for one side or the other, whether they know it or not. Perhaps Calvin didn’t realise this, but in saying the things he said on national TV, he marked himself out as an enemy combatant. I saw red and leapt out of my trench to attack him with everything I could muster. And if I did get a bit carried away then that’s regrettable, since what I really want is for Calvin to seriously consider and reflect on the substantive points I raised – without any of the collateral damage.
On this point about collateral damage, Toby has been an excellent Editor-in-Chief throughout all this: the kind that any writer would want, a blue-blooded aristocrat of free speech. He didn’t even mention to me the kind of flack he’s been receiving for my article until I asked him about it – and he would of course publish any rebuttal of my articles (within reason), and rightly expect me to suck it up too. Give that man a peerage, I say!
Moving back to the topic of Ukraine, Calvin did say that he’d be “debating the topic properly on television”. He then appeared in such a debate with Brooks Newmark on May 15th, which began with a question about whether the U.K. should continue to fund the Ukrainian war effort, to which Calvin replied:
So my problem isn’t necessarily with the funding – I think we should support our allies, absolutely. My problem is that everyone’s looking at this as a winning vs. losing situation, and I’m saying: who’s asking the question about raising peace?
But war is about winning and losing – existentially, for Ukraine. There are no “participation trophies”. And it is always, fundamentally, about achieving an eventual peace – with the winner getting to set the terms. It is both deeply naïve and otiose to talk about “peace” in the abstract without reference to “facts on the ground”. One way to bring about an immediate peace (or at least the cessation of violence, prior to an eventual treaty) would be for the aggressor to withdraw, but it seems Calvin is suggesting something different – that Ukraine should be prepared to cede territory to the aggressor, without considering the consequences for the people of Ukraine and those left in the occupied territories (the rapes, torture, murder, deportations and “re-education”), much less the consequences for the rest of the world in enabling an aggressor in this way. “Peace” is not synonymous with “occupation”, and a real, enduring peace cannot be achieved through appeasement.
Calvin goes on to say:
The only person, the only world leader I’ve seen [talk about peace] so far is President Donald Trump, who when CNN tried to back him into a corner, [asking] “Will you back Ukraine or will you back Russia?” he said “Actually, I’m backing the people. It’s the people that are dying”, and world leaders all around the West are pushing for more and more war […]
There’s a lot to unpack here, but firstly Donald Trump is not, at present, a world leader. Secondly, world leaders have been talking about peace – quite a lot, in fact. We could discuss, for instance, Ukraine’s own detailed Peace Formula, first introduced on November 15th. We could discuss President Macron’s visit to China in April, in which he encouraged Xi Jinping to be more active in pursuit of peace. We could discuss China’s own changing position, and Xi Jinping’s more recent decision to talk to Zelenskyy and to send a peace envoy to the region, who was recently in Kyiv and is shortly to visit Moscow. We could talk about President Biden’s offer to meet Putin to talk peace last December, which was rebuffed because Putin won’t negotiate unless the West accepts his illegal annexations of territory. The list goes on, but it seems Calvin has skipped the lectio and moved straight on to the disputatio.
Since Calvin made his remarks, on May 17th the 46 Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe (supported by the EU, Canada, Japan and the U.S.) issued the Reykjavík Declaration, adopting Ukraine’s Peace Formula:
We express our full support to Ukraine and its people. We will stand with Ukraine, for as long as it takes. Without accountability, there can be no lasting peace and we support the principles for a just and lasting peace as outlined in President Zelenskyy’s Peace Formula. We therefore reaffirm the need for an unequivocal international legal response for all victims, as well as for the State of Ukraine.
So world leaders really are talking about peace, and in some detail. But Trump, being Trump, has declared he can somehow bring about peace in 24 hours, refusing to say how. And in case anyone imagines Trump is some kind of magician when it comes to diplomacy, his attempt to stop Erdoğan attacking Kurdish forces in Syria following the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2019 should undeceive them. Trump wrote to Erdoğan on Oct 9th 2019 as follows:
Dear Mr. President:
Let’s work out a good deal! You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy – and I will. I’ve already given you a little sample with respect to Pastor Brunson.
I have worked hard to solve some of your problems. Don’t let the world down. You can make a great deal. General Mazloum is willing to negotiate with you, and he is willing to make concessions that they would never have made in the past. I am confidentially enclosing a copy of his letter to me, just received.
History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!
I will call you later.
It’s hard to read that without wincing. Erdoğan, for his part, threw the letter in the bin and ordered the attack that same day. And it would be fair to say that Trump’s interventions on Ukraine are probably the least helpful of any public figure outside Russia or its allies to date, merely emboldening Russia – which has returned the favour by pointedly sanctioning some of Trump’s enemies. (Incidentally, it’s high time for Russia to update its list of sanctioned U.K. journalists. Hint hint, Пыня.)
Calvin goes on to say:
[…] The idea that there could only be one solution, and that solution is Russia being defeated, it terrifies me because Russia is, like I say, a nuclear power. And that means that if that’s the only option, then we’re looking at a world war […] But the biggest problem I’m seeing here is just raising that conversation, raising that point, has people going “Ha! Putin apologist! Ha!” and it’s like we have lost all sense of nuance.
Calvin complaining about being called a “Putin apologist” is clearly a reference to my previous article, in which I called him precisely that – because he raised, in an uncritical manner, some of the Kremlin’s favourite fake justifications for their invasion. But Calvin didn’t raise the nuclear issue in his monologue, and I didn’t base my characterisation of him on that, so Calvin is once again misrepresenting things. He then talks about “nuance”. Lawdy!
As to the nuclear issue, I’ve previously written about it (specifically in relation to “tactical” or low-yield nuclear weapons), so I’ll try not to repeat myself, and will refer anyone who may be interested in understanding why Putin won’t escalate to that article. However, I’ll note that the public’s understanding of the matter is generally very wrong, and Russia has been taking advantage of these false perceptions – with Dmitry Medvedev, in particular, repeatedly threatening nuclear escalation in response to this, that or the other. But nuclear powers have lost wars before. Putin will lose this war, and will just have to accept it.
More importantly, to give in to nuclear blackmail is to create a very much more dangerous world, in which nuclear proliferation (and therefore nuclear war) becomes much more likely. Besides being common sense, this is a very well-established and non-controversial view in the field of nuclear deterrence, arms control and proliferation, and we have a deep moral and existential responsibility not to make mistakes – based on emotion and ignorance – that could seriously endanger us or our children in future. I therefore view Calvin’s rhetoric on this topic as deeply unwise.
Asked whether continued support for the war should be a question for the people of Ukraine, Calvin said:
I would love to hear from the people of the Ukraine, actually, because I’m sick of hearing from Western leaders who have no input in the Ukraine. I’d love to hear from the citizens, the people that are actually on the ground – and both the Russian citizens too – because it’s the people on the ground that are dying […]
This is a rather strange remark, since there’s no indication that Western leaders have misjudged attitudes in Ukraine, or that Calvin has made an effort to find out the views of Ukrainians.
It’s not difficult to find respectable polling showing a 91% approval rating for Zelenskyy, with 97% of Ukrainians believing they will win the war and roughly 98% support for their armed forces. Nobody is seriously suggesting Ukraine isn’t united in this. However, given the extent to which Calvin seems to have swallowed Russian propaganda, I can’t give him the benefit of the doubt that he doesn’t believe the Kremlin line – that Zelenskyy is a corrupt, deviant, authoritarian, neo-Nazi drug-addict who is hated by his people. That might explain why he’s so dismissive of the statements made by his opponent in this debate, Brooks Newmark, who’s spent the past year talking to Ukrainians, and who reports roughly 90% of Ukrainian people want to continue fighting. Calvin calls these reports “anecdotes”.
But there’s more to it than that. What I’ve personally heard from Ukrainians, and what I’ve heard reported many times, is that they greatly appreciate Western support, but fear that the West might someday abandon them. This came up when Boris Johnson was ousted, with a great deal of anxiety being expressed on Ukrainian social media about whether the new Prime Minister would still support Ukraine. Those fears have been put to rest (and all credit to Liz Truss and especially to Rishi Sunak for carrying the torch), but it’s plain as day from statements made by Ukrainian officials that they believe the long-awaited spring counter-offensive needs to be successful in order to maintain levels of Western support. So if there’s any concern in Ukraine about the war, it’s only that they might not prevail quickly enough to satisfy their international allies.
In this light, Calvin’s question about what the Ukrainians think about the war is no different from his other seemingly-innocent “questions” about things that he seems unwilling or unable to learn about himself, and which he poses – like Pilate – without waiting for an answer. In this particular case, it’s highly disingenuous to claim to care about the views of the Ukrainian people, while cynically maintaining the slanders in his May 13th monologue that, in all likelihood, he picked up from Westerners spouting Kremlin talking-points. I’d like to think it’s simple naïveté, but it isn’t “nuance”.
Ian Rons is the President of the Free Speech Union, but this article reflects his views alone and not those of the Free Speech Union.