Putin fighting to rebuild the Soviet Union
“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.
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.”
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.