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Confronting Russia

Putin’s war in Ukraine is the culmination of a century of failures to hold Russia to account for irredentism and war

By: /
9 March, 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin, surrounded by top military officers and officials, tours a military flight test centre in Akhtubinsk on May 14, 2019. (Photo by Alexey NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK / AFP)

Russian troops are assaulting Ukraine’s cities. They have attacked hundreds of schools, while deliberately targeting hospitals, following a pattern of Russian behaviour also observed in Syria. As of March 5, the World Health Organization had confirmed six attacks on health facilities; according to Ukraine’s health ministry, 34 hospitals have been hit. War crimes are being investigated by the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, as Russia continues to use indiscriminate force to sow panic, break Ukraine’s fighting spirit and dodge accountability.

But Russia is losing. In only two weeks, almost as many Russian soldiers have been killed as the Soviet Union lost over a decade in Afghanistan. Ukraine’s army is decimating Russian convoys. Tanks and armoured vehicles have been destroyed by the hundreds. Over 100 Russian aircraft – fighters, bombers, helicopters and drones – have been downed. While advancing unevenly towards Kharkhiv, Kyiv and other cities, Russian forces ‘control’ only thin ribbons of highway. As they try to flatten smaller Black Sea cities like Melitopol, Mariupol and Kherson, Russia’s combat-capable units are facing heavy attrition.

Ukraine is united, fighting for its survival with bravery and brilliance under committed leaders, now joined by tens of thousands of volunteers from abroad. The whole free world has rallied to their side, while Russia faces a deep economic crisis and isolation.

How does this end? A workable strategy needs to grasp three realities behind Putin’s war of conquest against Ukraine, the largest country by territory located entirely in Europe.

* * *

For over a century, Russia has acted outside the mainstream of international law. Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Russia withdrew from the First World War, effectively abandoning allies (including Canada) and prolonging the conflict for them. As a result, the Bolshevik regime was not recognised by allied governments, nor were Bolshevik leaders invited to peace negotiations at Paris that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles. Instead, Bolsheviks worked to establish the May Fourth Movement (1919) and the Chinese Communist Party (1921), among other international projects. 

The Russian Civil War (1917-22) saw Russia’s neighbours (including Ukraine) lose their independence to the Red Army, despite small-scale allied military intervention in Russia. The United Kingdom recognized the Soviet Union as an independent state only in 1924, establishing diplomatic relations that were broken off in 1927 amid accusations of Soviet espionage. The U.K. re-established relations in 1929, with the United States following suit in 1933. Stalin covertly partnered with Hitler to re-arm Nazi Germany, then in 1939 signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which made the two dictators allies. After this carve-up, Stalin invaded five countries. The USSR, which became a member of the League of Nations only in 1934, was expelled from it on December 14, 1939, following its invasion of Finland.

After Hitler invaded the USSR in June 1941, Stalin fought Nazi Germany for four years – with large-scale assistance from the US, UK and others. After 1945, Stalin resumed his ruthless efforts to uproot democracy in seven states later strong-armed into the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Stalin made a central contribution to the creation of the North Korean army and air force that waged a war from 1950-53 to conquer the entire peninsula. Over the next three decades, the Soviet Union used military force on a large scale to subdue several Warsaw Pact states, as well as in Vietnam and Afghanistan. They also cultivated authoritarian client regimes in the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

* * *

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991, this legacy of aggression, irredentism and subversion continued. Starting in 1992, Russia was occupying enclaves in Moldova, Georgia and (after 2014) Ukraine. From the start, the Putin regime relied on violence and war – beginning with the 1999 false-flag Russian apartment bombings, that gave Putin’s political career its first impetus, and the punitive Second Chechen War (1999-2009), right down to the 2008 invasion of Georgia, as well as genocidal wars in Syria (2011 to present) and Ukraine (2014 to present). Along the way Putin’s Russia has propped up authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and elsewhere, sponsored armed groups in Libya’s civil war (2011 to present) and, as the largest arms exporter to Africa, bank-rolled coups in six African states (2020-22).

* * * 

Not content with pursuing an agenda of armed aggression against neighbours, humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and destabilization across Africa, Putin’s regime has undermined democracy in Europe, North America and beyond. In Germany and other EU member states, the Kremlin recruited prominent politicians to promote energy dependence on Russian gas and oil, while blunting European responses to Russian violence. In the U.S. and U.K., Russia-directed agents and entities were prominent in Brexit, Trump’s presidency and the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Russia has flooded social media platforms with inauthentic actors, serving up disinformation, propaganda and active measures, while cultivating ‘grey zone’ allies that promote polarization, racism, cults and violent extremism.

If Putin’s aggression, impunity and malign influence are decisively confronted now, Ukraine can defeat Russia militarily. Strong support for Ukraine can open the door to a new phase of European integration and democratic renewal. Left unchecked, Putin’s war machine will threaten countries beyond Ukraine.

These aggressive forms of subversion, often supported by China, have caused setbacks for democracies worldwide. Every EU member state has one or more prominent parties seriously compromised by Russian political corruption. US Republican and Democratic parties and British Tory and Labour parties have wings still vulnerable to malign Russian influence. In Canada, Russian information warfare has targeted every election since 2015 and enabled moves to diminish Canada’s role as an energy exporter, while backing populist People’s Party, ‘Wexit’ and antivax movements to weaken the political center.

U.S. missteps, aggravated by Russian active measures, prevented earlier integration of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine into Euro-Atlantic collective defence structures. Bush, distracted by Iraq, failed to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, a move France and Germany opposed anyway. Obama ‘reset’ relations with Russia only to be faced with Putin’s initial invasion of Ukraine; Trump and Biden failed to deter the second, much larger war in Ukraine.

* * * 

By early 2022, Putin’s eight-year war in Ukraine had caused nearly 15,000 deaths. On February 24, Putin launched a full-scale war of conquest – his long-held ambition. The humiliating summer 2021 U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan left him confident western responses would be weak. To ensure no effective strategy emerges, Russia regularly brandishes the threat of nuclear escalation, attacks civilian nuclear facilities in Ukraine or pursues intimidation by other means. His agenda is to disrupt and overturn post-1989 EU and Euro-Atlantic integration, while forcibly subjugating Belarus and Ukraine within a larger Russia.

* * * 

Putin’s war in Ukraine is the culmination of a century of failures to hold Russia to account for irredentism and war. If Putin’s aggression, impunity and malign influence are decisively confronted now, Ukraine can defeat Russia militarily. Strong support for Ukraine can open the door to a new phase of European integration and democratic renewal. Left unchecked, Putin’s war machine will threaten countries beyond Ukraine, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov have warned. To stop Putin and begin holding Russia to account, five moves are urgently required.

First, we must augment Ukrainian army and air force capabilities, including with Soviet-designed aircraft, while constituting a coalition of the willing under articles 42 and/or 51 of the UN Charter to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine operating on the principle of collective self-defence to restore international peace and security.

Second, we must implement a complete commercial, financial and technological embargo against Russia to include metals, natural gas, crude oil and other petroleum products, as well as a full blockade and boycott of Russian aviation and shipping.

Third, we must complete Ukraine’s accession to the EU and deliver even more massive support for Ukrainian humanitarian, infrastructure, social and other wartime needs. 

Fourth, we must put an end to political corruption, disinformation, propaganda and other active measures by stripping out, expelling and/or prosecuting Russian intelligence officers and their assets; organized crime and corrupt business/political interests; and state-sponsored, ‘gray zone’ and social media assets sponsored or directed by Russia.

Finally, we must stipulate that economic sanctions, blockades and embargoes against Russia, including UN-authorized enforcement actions, will be relaxed only when Russia has withdrawn from occupied areas of Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, while pursuing accountability at the International Criminal Court for all those in the Russian military chain of command and government responsible for committing or enabling war crimes.

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