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Ukraine Crisis: Retaking the Soviet empire by force

Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to restore the old Soviet empire by force of arms.

Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has never concealed his great admiration for the Soviet Union, the now defunct Communist superpower that ruthlessly subjugated its citizens, enslaved Eastern Europe, and pursued the goal of total world domination.

Putin, a former KGB agent, famously stated that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. And it is clear that the Russian leader, who eliminates political rivals and domestic critics alike while amassing a personal fortune, has embarked on a campaign to retake parts of the old Soviet empire, including Ukraine, once a Soviet republic.

On Nov. 25th, the Russian Coast Guard attacked three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Strait of Kerch, ramming a tug boat and firing on the other two vessels. The Russians then seized the Ukrainian vessels and took 23 Ukrainian sailors prisoner, three of whom were wounded.

The Kerch Strait is the passage between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Under international maritime convention, the strait is considered an international waterway through which ships have the right to pass freely.

Russia is attempting to assert control over the Kerch Strait and all waters off the Russian-occupied Crimea Peninsula, which rightfully belongs to Ukraine. Crimea was taken by Russia in a 2014 stealth invasion and subsequently annexed by Moscow in contravention of international law.

Earlier this year, Putin tightened his grip on Crimea, opening a newly constructed bridge across the Kerch Strait, providing a physical link between Russia and Russian-occupied territory.

UN Security Council emergency session

Earlier this week, Russia inexplicably called for a special session of the United Nations Security Council to complain about Ukraine’s presence in the Kerch Strait. However, when the Security Council convened on Nov. 26th, the other members of the Council did not condemn the Ukrainians. Instead, the Security Council took Russia, one of the five permanent council members, to task for its repeated acts of aggression against Ukraine since 2014.

Russia called for a special session of the United Nations Security Council to complain about Ukraine’s presence in the Kerch Strait

In addition to the invasion and annexation of Crimea, Moscow launched another front in its war on Ukraine in 2014. Providing military support, weapons, and even soldiers to Russian-speaking rebels in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, the Putin regime has been using insurgents-- the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People's Republic--to destabilize and disassemble Ukraine.

According to an Oct. 2018 update on the conflict in eastern Ukraine posted on the International Crisis Group (ICG) website, “hostilities in eastern conflict zone worsened as back-to-school ceasefire deteriorated, while tensions increased with Russia over Azov Sea.” And the Brussels-based think tank, which is dedicated to international peace and security, reported that fighting in eastern Ukraine intensified in mid-Oct.

The International Crisis Group also reported in Oct. that Ukraine was concerned about the Russian presence in the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait. And the Ukrainian government reportedly published a decree setting out “immediate measures for the protection of national interests in southern and eastern Ukraine, the Black and Azov Seas and the Kerch Strait.” The measures included, notes the ICG report, “steps to demarcate Ukrainian waters, and deploy military and law enforcement divisions to monitor sea borders.”

The European Union also took issue with Russia’s activities in the waters off Ukraine. The ICG report states that the “European Parliament passed (a) nonbinding resolution (on) 25 Oct reiterating opposition to Russia’s construction of Kerch bridge and burdensome inspection regime for ships entering and exiting Ukraine’s Azov Sea ports; warned of ‘reinforced’ sanctions on Russia ‘if the conflict in the Azov Sea escalates further’”.

Russian escalation

Addressing the Ukrainian parliament, President Petro Poroshenko characterized the incident in the Kerch Strait as “a bold and frank participation of regular units of the Russian Federation" in a direct assault on Ukrainian Forces.

In addition, the Ukrainian leader declared that the Russian attack in the Kerch Strait represented “a qualitatively different threat” to his country.

President Petro Poroshenko called the Russian attack in the Kerch Strait “a qualitatively different threat” to Ukraine.

In response to the Russian provocation, President Poroshenko moved to impose martial law. After limiting the scope of the proposed measure to provinces bordering the Ukraine-Russia border and cutting the duration of martial law from two months to one, and pledging not to curb civil liberties, the measure was approved by Ukraine’s parliament 276 votes to 30.

On Nov. 27th, Poroshenko told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that “based on our intelligence information, including those we received from our NATO sources,” Russian forces are building up along the Russia-Ukraine border. “We have all the evidence of that,” he told the CNN correspondent.

Canadian diplomat offers insight

Chris Alexander is an astute international observer with a keen interest in issues of peace and security, possessing first-hand knowledge of Russian foreign policy and politics. A decade before serving as Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander was a diplomat who spent considerable time in Russia.

Chris Alexander meets with U.S. Vice-President-Elect Joe Biden in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2008.

In 1991, Alexander joined what was then known as Department of External Affairs. Just weeks later, an attempted coup in Russia almost overthrew Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and Alexander was tasked with keeping the embassy in Russia up to date on developments. And he was later assigned to the Russia desk in the department’s European division.

The following year, Alexander became one of the first desk officers for Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. And in 1993, he took up his first posting to Russia as the third secretary and the vice consul. After a three year stint in Russia, the young diplomat returned to Ottawa and worked with Canada’s G8 Sherpa before being tapped to run the Russia desk as deputy director in 1997.

Alexander later returned to Russia as “the number two” in the Canadian embassy at Moscow. He spent more than a decade working on Canada-Russia relations, Russian integration into global institutions, and supporting democratic reform in Russia.

After his diplomatic career, Alexander went on to become a Member of Parliament and served in Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet as minister of immigration.

It is important to note that during Alexander’s time in Russia in the 1990s, Canada was one of the key architects of the newly independent Ukraine’s engagement with the rest of the world.

“Ukraine for Canada is a very big deal,” Alexander said in a telephone interview of Canada-Ukraine bilateral relations. “We are not just partners with history. We are the main home of the largest Ukrainian diaspora outside of post-Soviet space, outside of Russia.”

Alexander also said that it is part of Canada’s foreign policy “to stand up for” Ukraine, which has a special bond with this country. “And we should focus on that right now,” he added, noting that Canada’s efforts to train the Ukrainian military and promote Canada-Ukraine trade are having a positive impact on Ukraine.

Hybrid conflict

Does the Kerch Strait incident and subsequent seizure of three Ukrainian vessels signal a significant escalation of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine? “Yes, I think it does for three reasons,” replied Alexander.

“For the first time, Russia was openly using, in this hybrid conflict, regular forces,” namely the Russian Coast Guard. “And that’s not something they have done in Crimea or Donbas, up until now in their effort to camouflage the reality which is Russian occupation and illegal Russia annexation.”

Second, the incident represented an escalation of Russia aggression, because it was a maritime interdiction, Alexander continued. And he said this raises issues about freedom of movement on international waterways and in waters governed by bilateral agreements between Ukraine and Russia.

Chris Alexander says that Vladimir Putin is using the war on Ukraine to whip up "patriotic fervour" in Russia.

Third, Alexander contends that Vladimir Putin is using the incident to distract Russians from domestic problems. He alleges that Putin is using “patriotic fervor” to keep his approval ratings high and prevent domestic protest.

From a strategic point of view, why is Russia attempting to assert control over the Kerch Strait? “There is no land connection between Crimea, which Russia now claims as its own, and metropolitan Russia, if you will,” Alexander explained.

“The only connection is this bridge they built…which they built very quickly, unfortunately with the help of European contractors,” Alexander said of the Kerch bridge that Putin inaugurated earlier this year, and which he says violates international law.

Given that the bridge goes right over the Kerch Strait, Alexander said that it is in the Russians’ interests to assert control over the international waterway.

Donbas conflict

Should the conflict over the Kerch Strait be viewed through the lens of the conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine? “Absolutely,” replied Alexander.

“The occupation of Crimea came first,” he pointed out. And he stated that the annexation of Crimea by Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is unprecedented in international relations.

“At the same time,” continued Alexander, “the fighting in Donbas has claimed more lives” than the invasion of Crimea. And he said that there is fighting every day in the region on a broader front “as the Russians seek to destabilize, harm and kill the Ukrainian forces facing them.”

According to Alexander, both the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in Donbas are serious. “The legal implications in Crimea are very grave; the human cost in Donbas has been greater.”

Some have described the war in eastern Ukraine as “low intensity”. President Poroskenko has described the ongoing Russian attacks on Ukraine as “hybrid war.” Is this an outright war? “It’s a war,” Alexander acknowledged. “But it’s a war in a corridor around the edges of Russian occupied” Ukrainian territory, he said, choosing his words very carefully. And he also pointed out that 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

According to the UNHCR, 1.5 million people have been displaced since the outbreak of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

According to the website of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ukraine, the former Soviet republic “is the ninth largest country in the world in terms of the number of Internally Displaced Persons.” And the UNHCR reports that 1.5 million people have been displaced since the outbreak of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has “led to the largest internal displacement of refugees in Europe since the Second World War—not counting the refugee flows from Syria and Africa,” Alexander said. “I am talking about a flow generated by a conflict inside of Europe. And that is very serious in and of itself.”

The former diplomat characterizes the conflict in Ukraine “as a huge threat to all of us, because it throws into doubt the rules of the game set in 1945 with the establishment of the United Nations under the UN charter about non-interference, about the inviolability of borders, about sovereignty.”

Acknowledging the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Alexander contends that Russian aggression in Ukraine is different. “It is unprecedented for a permanent member of the Security Council to annex the sovereign territory of a neighbouring country by force and retaining it, claiming it to be part of Russia,” he explained.

“What we all need to remember is that Ukraine is Ukraine. Crimea is Ukraine. This is Ukrainian territory, and we all recognize it as such and will not accept any other result.”

However, the big question for Alexander is what the world will do to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty. Having observed Putin for decades, the former Canadian ambassador concludes that the Russian leader will not be deterred by anything except military force.

“Ukraine has to have the ability to make those moves,” Alexander says of the country’s military resistance to the Russian invasion. “They have surprised people with their determination to protect their sovereignty. But they need the support of NATO countries and they need, in fact, the support of all peoples around the world who believe in the freedom and the rights that are protected under the UN charter.”

President Poroskenko and the Ukrainian parliament have invoked martial law. Was this the right move for Ukraine, given that elections are slated for March 31, 2019? “I have a lot of respect for Poroskenko,” replied Alexander. “He needed to do something that showed Ukraine was not just rolling with the punches with regard to this action by Russia.

“In historical terms, using a country’s vessels in this way, ramming one of them, parading prisoners on television with what appears to be forced confessions—these are acts of war. These are war crimes to treat prisoners captured in an act of war in this way.”

NATO countries need to understand that Ukraine is at war, Alexander said again for emphasis. “And this incident makes it clear that it’s just not hybrid war, it’s not just these deniable little green men that were initially talked about in 2014—it is the Russian state, the Coast Guard, Navy, and Air Force.”

Alexander describes the conflict as “a state-to-state war” for control of parts of Ukraine. “And we have only one interest in this, which is seeing Ukraine continue on the path of democracy, integration with other democratic and free societies, and deterring further aggression by Vladimir Putin.”


Is the annexation of the entire territory of Ukraine Putin’s endgame? “In his wildest dreams, it probably is,” Alexander said. “Because Putin is really informed by the nightmare he went through in Berlin as a young KGB officer on the eve of the dissolution when there were crowds outside the door chanting for the Soviets to leave, when they had to burn all the papers, and his career and institutions seemed to be going literally up in smoke.”

Alexander believes that Putin is determined to rebuild “this Soviet space that he thinks is Russia’s birthright.” And the Canadian notes that Putin has stated the he admires Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. “And everything he has done flows from those statements.”

In addition, Alexander observed that in 2014, the Russians wanted to go much farther into Ukraine, but met with stiff public opposition.

“We need to be under no illusions about Vladimir Putin. He wants to put back together as much of the Soviet Union as he can get away with,” Alexander said. And he described Putin as “a bully” and “a person who represents the greatest threat to peace and security in Europe of our time.”

NATO has not demonstrated a coherent policy on Ukraine, says Chris Alexander.

Ukraine is not part of NATO. Had Ukraine been fast-tracked for NATO membership as President George W. Bush recommended back in the 2000s, would Ukraine be safe from Russian aggression today? “I think if NATO had a coherent policy of engagement in Ukraine, a more self-confident policy, we might not be facing this situation now,” Alexander replied diplomatically.

“I think an even bigger demonstration of weakness was in 2011 when the United States did not intervene in Syria to prevent genocide and a vast flow of refugees which have disrupted now the politics of many countries,” he added.

According to Alexander, the West’s inaction on the Syria file was seen by Vladimir Putin as “an assurance” that neither NATO nor the United States would force a confrontation if Moscow intervened first in Syria and later in Ukraine.

“I think both Republican and Democratic presidents as well as other NATO leaders were incoherent in their policies toward Ukraine,” Alexander said. And he contends that the West’s isolationism and inability to act with regards to Syria emboldened Putin.

America responds

In the emergency UN Security Council session of Nov. 26th, Nikki Haley, the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, stated that Russia’s attempts to impede “Ukraine’s lawful transit through the Kerch Strait is a violation under international law.” And she had a lot more to say, taking Russia to the woodshed.

“It is an arrogant act that the international community must condemn and will never accept,” Haley said of Russia’s attempt to control international waterways.

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has taken a strong stand against Russian aggression.

“As President Trump said many times, the United States would welcome a normal relationship with Russia, but outlaw actions like this one continue to make that impossible,” Haley added.

However, Trump, himself, offered a weak response to Russian aggression in the Kerch Strait. Speaking to American reporters, the President said that the situation was “not good” and that “we do not like what’s happening either way.” Trump could not even bring himself to mention Russia or Putin by name in his tepid statement. However, he did, after much indecision, finally cancel a scheduled bilateral meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires.

U.S. President Donald Trump offered a muted response to Russian aggression in the Kerch Strait.

The difference in both substance and tone of Trump’s muted response to the Kerch Strait incident and Haley’s strong statement was noted by Russian media, which mocked the outgoing American Ambassador to the UN.

In addition, Haley took to Twitter on Nov. 26th to restate her remarks that she made earlier in the day to the UN Security Council. “This is no way for a law-abiding civilized nation to act,” she wrote of Russia’s aggressive actions. “Impeding Ukraine’s lawful transit through the Kerch Strait is a violation under international law. It is an arrogant act that the international community must condemn and will never accept.”

Haley immediately followed up with another tweet, declaring: “In the name of international peace and security, Russia must immediately cease its unlawful conduct and respect the navigational rights and freedoms of all parties.”

Later that same day, she sent another clear message to the Putin regime, via Twitter: “The United States will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine against this Russian aggression.”

Has the Trump’s administration’s response to Russian aggression towards Ukraine been adequate? “I don’t know what to say,” Alexander replied frankly. “Because in many respects, the United States, the country as a whole, has reacted strongly to Russian aggression in Ukraine,” he said, citing sanctions imposed by the U.S. Congress on the Putin regime. And the Americans have also led the way in speaking out in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and providing military cooperation and training for Ukrainian forces.

“At the same time, I don’t trust Donald Trump or his closest associates one bit when it comes to being tough on Vladimir Putin,” he said. “There’s a dimension to their relations that means Trump will never be a reliable representative of U.S. interests when it comes to Russia.”

Canadian response

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland used Twitter on Nov. 26th to chide Russia. “Canada condemns Russian aggression towards Ukraine in the Kerch Strait,” Freeland wrote. “We call on Russia to immediately de-escalate, release the captured vessels, and allow for freedom of passage.”

Freeland also declared Canada’s “unwavering” support for “Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

In addition, Global Affairs Canada issued a statement on Nov. 26th, noting that Freeland had spoken with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, assuring him of Canada’s support. The Global Affairs statement also repeated Canada’s “condemnation of Russia’s illegal invasion of Crimea” and pledged to continue “to work with our allies to hold Russia to account for its unacceptable behaviour.”

On the evening of Nov. 27th, Freeland posted another statement on Twitter regarding Russia’s aggression. “Russia’s aggressive actions and the imprisonment of Ukrainian sailors are completely unacceptable,” she stated. “These sailors must be released. An immediate de-escalation is necessary. Canada is unwavering in its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

Chris Alexander says that Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland made a strong statement in support of Ukraine.

Has Canada been strong enough in response to the incident in the Kerch Strait? “Chrystia Freeland’s statement was strong,” Alexander stated without hesitation.

However, he said that NATO has yet to demonstrate that it is prepared to take steps to prevent Russian escalation. And he warns that if Putin “tries to extend his control and occupation over parts of Ukraine,” Ukraine’s friends and allies must respond.

Is it too late for Ukraine? Is there no one left to save Ukraine from Russia? “No, on the contrary, I think that NATO has always had issues, but I think Vladimir Putin has done more than anyone to bring NATO together to show the determination to defend its Euro-Atlantic area of responsibility,” Alexander said.

“There are robust (NATO) forces in all of the Baltic States. And there are unprecedented efforts underway to strengthen the Ukrainian army.” And he pointed out that Canada and the United States and other allies took part in massive NATO exercises in Norway in Nov. 2018. “It was the biggest NATO exercise in NATO history,” he noted. “These are the right kind of responses.”

However, Alexander said that NATO member states need to spend more on the right kinds of military capabilities to deter Putin’s aggression, intervene in places like Syria, to curb China’s violations of international law, and to protect the international system.

“An ounce of prevention is worth many pounds of conflict or crisis down the road,” Alexander said of the necessity of building up NATO’s capabilities.

Alexander stated that since Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine in 2014, the country has come together, held democratic elections, started to address government corruption, witnessed booms in the agricultural and tourism sectors, and is enjoying increased trade with the European Union.

“Ukrainian national identity has blossomed in a way that no one thought possible, because Russia is now associated with an invading force, a malign force, authoritarianism—and the vast majority of Ukrainians want nothing to do with it.”

Despite Ukraine’s determination to protect its territory and reclaim Crimea, it is not clear how long Ukraine can continue to hold off the determined empire-builder Vladimir Putin.

Geoffrey P. Johnston is an independent Canadian journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston

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