Canada, the United States and Britain should jointly and swiftly provide military support to Ukraine in its standoff with Russia, Ukraine’s Defence Minister says, warning that steps to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading were necessary now because “it will be too late after.”
Oleksii Reznikov said in an interview that he detected a split within the NATO military alliance over how far to go in supporting Ukraine. Canada, the U.S., and Britain were more willing to challenge Mr. Putin’s aggressive behaviour, he said, while countries such as Germany and France were hesitant because they were concerned about maintaining their economic relationships with Russia.
Mr. Reznikov, who was appointed Defence Minister last month by President Volodymyr Zelensky, called on “the Anglo-Saxon allies” to act outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, if necessary, in providing weapons and other support to Ukraine’s military.
He said Ukraine’s land forces were battle-ready, but that the country needed to immediately upgrade its air defence, naval, and electronic warfare capabilities in the face of the threat posed by the Russian military force amassed near Ukraine’s borders.
Ukraine, he said, needed a “quick response” from its allies that would help it address a lack of anti-aircraft missiles, modern warplanes and naval craft, as well as electronic jamming equipment. But just as important, he said, would be Canadian, U.S. and British soldiers visibly deployed to positions near the front line.
“You have a training program with us in Ukraine. I think we can expand it. Instead of having 50 [military] instructors, send 500 instructors,” he said, referring to the 200-soldier Canadian training mission already deployed to the country. Operation Unifier, as it’s known, is headquartered in Yavoriv, in the far west of Ukraine, more than 1,000 kilometres from the Russian border.
Those troops should be stationed in places where Russia can see them, Mr. Reznikov said. “It would be nice if the Canadian instructors … would be deployed in Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kramatorsk, Odessa, and Zminiy Island,” he said, naming locations in eastern and southern Ukraine that could become front-line positions in the event of a large-scale Russian assault.
“Together with United Kingdom guys, with United States guys, in bilateral platforms, without NATO. Three flags – the flag of Canada, the flag of United States and the flag of U.K. – should be flying around these territories. It would also be a good sign for the Russians – that you are here.”
The military support should be delivered in tandem with new economic sanctions targeting the personal assets of Mr. Putin and his inner circle, Mr. Reznikov said. On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden said he was putting together a package of unspecified measures that would “make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he’s going to do.” Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin are expected to discuss the Ukraine crisis in a Tuesday phone call.
Mr. Reznikov made his public request for Canada, the U.S. and Britain to support Ukraine outside of NATO two days after he had a one-on-one meeting with Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre, who visited Kyiv this week. Mr. Reznikov said he also had a call with Defence Minister Anita Anand on Friday, as well as recent conversations with British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin.
Speaking on Thursday ahead of his meeting with Mr. Reznikov, Gen. Eyre said he was worried that any new Canadian or Western military support for Ukraine might incite, rather than deter, Mr. Putin.
The Russian leader has repeatedly said that any expansion of NATO infrastructure in Ukraine would cross a “red line” and pose a threat to Russia’s security. In his call with Mr. Biden, Mr. Putin is expected to ask for a legally binding guarantee that Ukraine will never join the U.S.-led 30-country alliance.
NATO has repeatedly expanded eastwards since the end of the Cold War, absorbing states that once deferred to Moscow. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said Russia could never have a veto over which countries join the 30-member alliance.
Mr. Reznikov, however, said Berlin and Paris were the real blocks to Ukraine being invited to join. “Unfortunately, Germany and France are very pragmatic. They want to be close friends with the Russians. They’re doing business with them,” he said, making reference to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will carry Russian natural gas directly to a German port, eliminating Ukraine’s long-time role as a transit country. Construction of the US$11-billion pipeline has been completed, though the certification process was suspended last month by the German regulator.
“I think the Anglo-Saxon allies are more realistic and understand all the risks,” Mr. Reznikov said, adding that Poland and Lithuania were also strong supporters of Ukraine because of their own histories with Russia.
Sergey Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, told The Globe that in addition to the guarantee about NATO, Mr. Putin would seek an immediate end to U.S. and British work to upgrade Ukrainian naval bases at Ochakiv, on the Black Sea.
Mr. Markov said the overhaul would allow Ochakiv to accommodate American warships, effectively making it a NATO facility. Britain is also helping build a Ukrainian naval base in Berdyansk, on the Sea of Azov, a body of water that is now completely dominated by Russia’s navy.
Mr. Markov said Mr. Putin also wants to see changes to the constitution of Ukraine to protect the interests of the country’s Russian-speaking population. Mr. Markov acknowledged that neither Ukraine’s government, nor its allies in the West, were likely to agree to such demands, making conflict “a real possibility.”
“The choice facing Putin is that if he waits, the security situation for Russia will continue to change for the negative,” Mr. Markov said in a telephone interview. “Better war now. War later is worse.”
Mr. Reznikov said there were 94,300 Russian troops positioned within 200 kilometres of Ukraine’s frontiers, including in occupied Crimea – a number that rose to 105,000 if those within 300 kilometres are included. According to Ukrainian intelligence sources, those troops are backed by some 1,200 tanks, 330 military aircraft, and more than 80 warships and submarines.
Russia claims the buildup is necessary because it has intelligence suggesting Ukraine was preparing to retake the southeastern Donbas region – which has been under the control of a Moscow-backed militia since 2014 – by force. Mr. Reznikov dismissed Russia’s claim as propaganda, and said Ukraine was committed to peacefully reunifying the country, rather than launching attacks on cities where hundreds of thousands of its citizens live.
More than 13,000 people have been killed in seven years of fighting in Donbas, though the front lines have largely remained stagnant since a 2015 peace deal that both sides accuse the other of violating on a daily basis.
Mr. Reznikov said troops stationed in Donbas were under orders not to respond immediately to attacks across the front line, for fear of being drawn into a provocation that could be used justify a Russian invasion. Instead, they were to first call in monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe who could record that the “separatists” had started shooting before Ukrainian forces responded.
He said he believed that Mr. Putin had not yet decided whether to invade, but was instead watching to see how Ukraine and its allies respond to Russia’s buildup.
Ihor Michalchyshyn, executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress lobby group, said Canada and NATO were playing into Mr. Putin’s hands if they backed away from giving military assistance to Ukraine for fear of provoking the Russian Leader.
“Canada and our NATO allies need to strengthen deterrence against a further invasion of Ukraine by significantly increasing sanctions against Russia and expanding military assistance to Ukraine so that Ukraine is better able to defend itself,” Mr. Michalchyshyn said. “The time to do so is now.”
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