What can the West now do effectively about the three Ukrainian naval vessels and their 23 sailors recently fired upon and seized by the Russian coastguard?
The seizure of the Ukrainian boats while transiting from Ukraine’s key export port of Odessa across the Black Sea and around Crimea is only the latest instance of Russian aggression towards its neighbor.
Under a 2003 treaty between the two countries, the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov are shared territorial waters, but Russia recently began inspecting all vessels sailing to or from Ukraine’s regional ports. The Kremlin has also blockaded 144 Ukrainian ships, which are too tall to pass from the Azov Sea under a bridge Moscow completed earlier this year across the Kerch Strait.
When Russia uses violence on a neighbour, Vladimir Putin invariably says, “We didn’t start it.” This occurred after the Russia-Georgia War of 2008 and his special forces invasion of Crimea in 2014.
For Ukrainians, there is little doubt that Putin is seeking to punish them for various reasons, including recently taking steps to restore the ecclesiastical independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church; irrefutably establishing that the 1932-1933 famine—the Holodomor—was an act of genocide; and formally declaring Russia an aggressor state.
Another goal was no doubt to seek to influence Ukraine’s upcoming election by making its incumbent president look powerless in the face of Russian aggression.
Putin wants to assist Rinat Akhmetov, a leading oligarch from Donbas whose wealth rests largely on businesses he owns there, and other members of the “realist” camp forming the opposition bloc in Ukraine’s parliament, to push for a resolution of the conflict with Russia by surrendering Crimea to the Kremlin and making other concessions to Moscow in exchange for peace.
The Kremlin’s prevarications about the vessels seizure match, as the head of Ukrainian studies at the University of Alberta, Jars Balan, observes, “its earlier insistence that it was not a Russian missile that shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 over Ukrainian territory…or the killing of a growing list of critics of the Putin regime; that the ongoing war in Ukraine’s Donbas region is not being financed, supplied, partly staffed, and led from Moscow; and that Crimeans freely voted to accept the stealth takeover and the annexation of their peninsula.”
Putin wants to halt Ukrainian efforts to adopt governance practices similar to those of other European democracies. Many international election observers observed his attempt to swing the final re-run ballot election on Dec 26, 2004 in favour of the massively kleptocratic Viktor Yanukovych.
Putin wants the Kremlin to be able to dictate to Ukraine its domestic policies in fields such as the economy, culture, language, and education, and, most importantly, to determine its foreign policy, especially to prevent it from joining NATO.
Anders Rasmussen, a former prime minister of Denmark and NATO secretary general until 2014, says: “Russia’s aggression in the Sea of Azov must stop immediately…Moscow’s illegal actions must be met with a robust international response. Putin responds only to power…Ukraine needs to show restraint in the zone of conflict and resist overreacting to further Russian provocation.
“At the same time. Kyiv should press its American and EU partners not just to condemn Russia’s aggression, but to impose real costs on Russia.” This would presumably include suspending one or more of the Russian banks supporting its defense sector from the international payments systems.
Many Canadians today question Ottawa’s ongoing collaboration with Russia on space exploration. Andy Semotiuk, a leader of the Ukrainian-Canadian community, notes: “This is the Russia that just helped destroy Syria…whose invasion of Ukraine in Crimea broke international accords…killing some 10,000 people…while displacing 1.7 million Ukrainians…I am not against the Russian people. I only oppose working with the Russian government.”
A lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 might also prove applicable in the future. Aware from aerial photos that ballistic missiles were being installed in Cuba by Russia, President John Kennedy established a naval blockade to prevent the arrival of additional Russian warships carrying nuclear warheads and missiles.
After a television address, Kennedy did not know what Khrushchev would do, but he remained firm as Russian ships moved towards the red line in the Atlantic Ocean he had set. At almost the last hour, Khrushchev agreed to walk the crisis back and later removed all missiles from Cuba.
Putin’s approval level among Russians today is in the low 60s for various reasons, including his raising of the retirement age for men by five years and using pension funds to finance the seizure of Crimea.
The West’s response should avoid enabling him to increase his popularity by sabre-rattling against the West. Ratcheting up sanctions on 150 or so oligarchs would seem the most effective first step. Other measures could be added if Ukraine is not quickly provided with unfettered access to its Azov and Black Sea ports.
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chrétien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Latin America and Africa) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.