Putin fight­ing to re­build the Soviet Union

The Sun Times (Owen Sound) - - FORUM - GEOFFREY P. JOHSTON

“We need to be un­der no il­lu­sions about Vladimir Putin,” warns for­mer Cana­dian diplo­mat Chris Alexan­der. “He wants to put back to­gether as much of the Soviet Union as he can get away with.”

The Rus­sian strong­man, who is direct­ing a pro­tracted war against Ukraine, is “a bully ” and “a per­son who rep­re­sents the great­est threat to peace and se­cu­rity in Europe of our time,” Alexan­der stated in a tele­phone in­ter­view.

On Nov. 25, the Rus­sian Coast Guard at­tacked three Ukrainian naval ves­sels in the Kerch Strait, 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 pris­on­ers of war were pa­raded be­fore the cam­eras and made to read “con­fes­sions.” Such mis­treat­ment con­sti­tutes war crimes un­der the Geneva Con­ven­tion.

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 to­tal control over the Kerch Strait and all wa­ters off the Rus­sianoc­cu­pied 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.

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 Don­bas 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.

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 an as­sault on Ukrainian forces. And the Ukrainian leader de­clared that the Rus­sian at­tack in the strait rep­re­sented “a qual­i­ta­tively dif­fer­ent threat” to his coun­try.

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, who took up his post as Canada’s am­bas­sador to Afghanistan in 2003 af­ter work­ing on the Rus­sia file for more than a decade.

“For the first time, Rus­sia was openly us­ing, in this hy­brid con­flict, reg­u­lar forces,” Alexan­der ob­served, echo­ing Poroshenko. “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 of some­thing else.”

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

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

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,” 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 bridge that Putin in­au­gu­rated ear­lier this year.

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

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

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

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.”

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 pointed out that 10,000 peo­ple have been killed in the con­flict.

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.”

Ac­cord­ing to the web­site of the United Nations High Com­mis­sion for Refugees (UNHCR), Ukraine, a 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.

Alexan­der 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.”

Big ques­tion

The big ques­tion, for Chris Alexan­der, is what will the world do to de­ter Putin from fur­ther com­pro­mis­ing 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 said 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.”

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 end game? “In his wildest dreams, it prob­a­bly is,” Alexan­der warned.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin speaks to the me­dia af­ter the G20 sum­mit in Buenos Aires, Ar­gentina. AP

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