Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hadja Lahbib Speaks on Ukraine at Fletcher

By Sarah Baugh, MALD 2024 Candidate, The Fletcher School

On March 15, 2023, the Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib gave prepared remarks on the Russia-Ukraine war and its implications on Kyiv, Brussels, and beyond at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Lahbib began by discussing the European Union’s achievements, growing from six countries to twenty-eight candidate countries. One of these candidate countries, Ukraine, has been at war for over a year now, she acknowledged.

“In 2013, Ukrainians went to the street advocating for Ukraine to sign an association agreement with the EU,” Lahbib said. The citizens succeeded in overthrowing Viktor Yanukovych, the Russia-supported candidate.

“The prospect of Ukraine joining the EU was unacceptable to Russia, Ukraine’s big neighbor and former empire. Russia started the invasion of Crimea and now eight years later, history repeated itself by invading Ukraine. The expressed desire of Ukraine to join the EU and NATO was the reason behind this invasion. Besides the suffering and consequences of the Ukrainian people, this war represents a tragedy to the EU, its allies, and all the values we care about,” the foreign minister stated. 

“The charter of the UN highlights the importance of respect and territorial integrity. It’s even more shocking because the invasion comes from a permanent member of the security council of the UN, the countries with a special responsibility towards maintaining peace in the world. This explains why the response has been so powerful and so swift from the rest of the world.”

Lahbib went into more detail about how Belgium and the rest of the EU were supporting the war effort through providing military supplies, training, and humanitarian support. Belgium was also one of the first countries to give money to Zelensky’s “Grain from Ukraine” initiative, donating 10 million euros.

Lahbib then spoke of her own experiences in the country, saying, “I was in Kyiv with Prime Minster [Alexander De Croo]. I was also in Bucha and I had the occasion to meet people, to recall the testimony of the inhabitants. Bucha is about half an hour from Kyiv and [the event there] was when Russians thought they’d be able to go through Kyiv without any resistance. I discovered the horror and the grief the inhabitants had to go through very quickly. I will show this gift I wear everywhere, this medal I received in Bucha that represents a cathedral, showing a bicycle lying in front of a tree. It’s in memory of a young boy who was distributing food in Bucha during the early days of the war who was targeted by Russian forces. It says ‘In memory of the tortured and murdered civilians in Bucha.’ It’s a strong testimony and symbol I keep with me to remind me of their struggle.”

“This was also a good way to fight against the Russian narrative, because even in Belgium this Russian narrative is spreading [due to] the inflation and the results of the sanctions. So far, and despite the economic crisis, there is total solidarity with Ukraine.”

Lahbib continued to discuss the legal situation of Ukranians with Belgium, the support they are receiving, and then the legal avenues Belgium is pursuing. “This is also a war about identity. They are fighting to kill the national identity of Ukraine and cultural heritage. So the protections of human rights and international human rights remain important. Transitional justice remains essential to pacify the country and appease the victims, both Ukrainian and also Russia. So at this stage monitoring conditions and gathering evidence remain incredibly important. The crime of aggression is at the origin of all the other crimes being committed in Ukraine, so this is the most supreme crime of all.”

Regarding the status of Russians in Belgium, she stated, “The conversations about banning people with Russian passports was a very heated issue, especially for those countries that shared a border with Russia. For Belgium, we decided to grant visas for humanitarian cases. But we also want to make sure that the civil society of Russia has some breathing space so it can make its voice heard.”

“Gary Kasparov, chess champion and active opponent of the Russian regime, was recently invited to the European Foreign Affairs Council. He told us how the Russian citizens were conditioned by nationalist propaganda developed for years by Putin, and it was also important for them to see another reality. There is no longer any free media in Russia, so all the media is biased. We must also make sure that the Russian people do not feel massively rejected. So we must not lose sight that in Russia, the mere idea of expressing another point of view or another opinion talking about the war is punishable by imprisonment.”

“These are the thoughts that animate me in the morning when I listen to the news. We are living in historic moments. There is one certainty. We must make words louder than violence. Diplomacy is about words, about talking, and even more about listening and understanding each other,” Lahbib concluded.

The moderator, Fletcher’s Professor John Shattuck, then asked, “What is your overall sense of this European unity and what is being done to continue it? How long can one continue to be strongly supportive of this war?”

Lahbib responded, “It’s not by chance. Europe will be the sum of the solution for all these crises. We are more united than ever, I have to say. Even British North Ireland has come back to us. It is amazing how we were able to find strong measures, even if they hurt us, to be sure that it hurts Russia. We have to calm down Lithuania. We try to be the center, the compromise, because we are in the center of Europe. We are right now the historical pillar of the EU, but if we enlarge and get more countries, then the center will move east. So we’ll have to discuss how that’ll work.”

In response to the last question about European security, Lahbib responded, “This war was a wake-up call. We understand that we are too dependent on military help from the United States. We decided on this new strategic compass to increase our defense weapons and military equipment.”

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