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Derek H. Burney: America must act now on the Ukraine crisis


Stern rhetoric is no longer sufficient. Biden must counter Putin’s aggression with concrete measures

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Vladimir Putin’s cat-and-mouse tactics against Ukraine pose serious challenges for the Biden administration and the NATO alliance. Because there were no negative consequences for Putin when Russia seized Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014, there is growing concern that he sees little risk in doing more of the same again. Especially given the significant number of Canadians with Ukrainian ancestry, this is not a dispute on which Canada can be AWOL.

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Tensions increased markedly last Friday after diplomatic talks reached a stalemate. At the same time, Ukraine was hit by massive cyber attacks that knocked out several government departments. The attacks were accompanied by a menacing warning to all Ukrainians: “All information about you has been made public. Be afraid and expect the worst. This for your past, present and future.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki warned on Friday that Russia has already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a “false flag” operation in Eastern Ukraine, designed to look like an attack on Russian-speaking people in that region and to provide a pretext for military invasion.

This is not a dispute on which Canada can be AWOL

Invoking memories of Munich in 1938, historian Niall Ferguson has dismissed the diplomatic talks over Ukraine as “phoney diplomacy that aggressors engage in before they attack.” False flag actions also draw ominously from a Hitlerian playbook.

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Putin’s strategic objective is to reinstate a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe similar to that of the former Soviet Union. He has consistently portrayed NATO’s eastern expansion as an “existential threat” to Russia. In a lengthy essay last summer, the Russian president contended that “Ukrainian independence was an unsustainable historical anomaly.” No subtlety there. During a marathon December press conference he contended that for the US to have offensive weapons at Russia’s doorstep was “like Russia having such weapons in Canada or Mexico.”

Putin has persistently stated that he will not accept Ukraine membership in NATO, which is why, despite public assurances that sovereign countries like Ukraine and Georgia have every right to make their own decisions on such matters, the alliance has been slow to accept repeated requests from Kyiv. Germany and France have dragged their feet on any formal invitation to Ukraine, which is why U.S. President Joe Biden has been assiduously courting key European leaders in order to muster a more united front.

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Biden has warned of “serious consequences” and has threatened “unprecedented economic sanctions” if Russia were to invade Ukraine again but has carefully excluded mention of any military engagement by the U.S. and has been cautious about further military assistance to Ukraine lest he trip over a “red line” enumerated by Putin. Some ambiguity about the likelihood of U.S. action might have been a better deterrent to Russian escalation.

Putin has long held the view that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.” He also knows that the U.S. and the West are more concerned about the economic and military threats from China than those from Russia, whose economy is smaller than Canada’s. But his nuclear arsenal is potent and growing, which is why the risk of matters getting out of hand in Ukraine are considerable.

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Stern rhetoric is no longer sufficient. The lessons of history on appeasement to aggression are crystal clear. The U.S. must react now to the latest provocations with concrete measures:

• A selective cyber attack on portions of Russian infrastructure near Ukraine would be a good start.

• Ukraine should be promptly equipped to resist an invasion.

• The White House should lift constraints placed on Democratic Senators who, along with many Republicans, want to impose sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany.

• Biden should encourage NATO allies to expedite NATO membership for Ukraine, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should vigorously support such action.

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, contends that Putin will not launch a full invasion of Ukraine because his objective is to divide the Europeans from the Americans. An invasion would have the opposite effect. He sees the piecemeal escalation we are now witnessing as more likely. Putin currently has some leverage to disrupt the unity of the Western alliance given Europe’s increasing dependence on Russia for almost 50 per cent of its gas and one quarter of its oil. But the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has stated publicly that an invasion of Ukraine would lead to the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, intended to bring Russian gas to Germany while bypassing Ukraine and Poland.

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In an opinion piece for Bloomberg , Niall Ferguson has argued that Putin’s objective is not to divide NATO but rather to undermine Ukraine as a sovereign, democratic state.

Putin may feel the need to burnish his nationalist credentials at Ukraine’s expense. He would obviously prefer that Ukraine be more like Belarus and Kazakhstan — authoritarian and obedient to Moscow.

The lessons on appeasement to aggression are crystal clear

Though badly outnumbered on troops and military equipment for a full-scale war, the Ukrainians will fight back fiercely in what could become a bloodbath that would compel the U.S. and the West to respond with more than a new round of sanctions. (The Ukrainians must wish they had never given up their nuclear arsenal in 1994 to achieve a settlement that Russia continues to violate.)

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Putin undoubtedly sees Biden as an extension of former U.S. president Barack Obama, who did little in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014. Perceptions of weakness, reinforced by America’s embarrassing “cut and run” from Afghanistan, will hamper U.S. credibility in any showdown with Russia.

If Putin escalates attacks on Ukraine and Biden reacts in the same flaccid style as Obama, America’s global leadership aspirations and Ukraine’s democracy will falter. If Biden counters Putin’s aggression with concrete actions, his presidential prospects and the fate of Ukraine should benefit. A great deal hangs in the balance.

National Post

Derek H. Burney is a former 30-year career diplomat who served as Ambassador to the United States of America from 1989 to 1993.

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