Analysis: Few options for Canada, allies as Russia-Ukraine conflict escalates

Three Ukrainian ships are seen as they are docked after being seized on Nov. 25, 2018, in Kerch, Crimea, Nov. 26, 2018.

OTTAWA — Without U.S. global leadership, just a few effective ways remain for Canada and its allies to respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest attack on Ukraine.

Short of dispatching a NATO-led naval show of force that could escalate to all-out war, the West could still hurt Putin by imposing more sanctions, travel restrictions and curbs on Russia’s foreign financial transactions, say diplomats and analysts.

After seizing three Ukrainian ships and capturing their two dozen sailors in the Kerch Strait between Crimea and the Russian mainland on the weekend, Russia announced Wednesday it would deploy another battery of anti-aircraft missiles to the Crimean Peninsula, bolstering its hold on the region it seized from Ukraine in 2014.

The Kremlin also said it would send nine Ukrainian sailors to court to face charges while the remaining 15 linger in prison indefinitely.

Canada and other Western countries have called loudly for the release of the sailors, but the rhetoric will continue to fall on deaf ears in Moscow unless they hit Putin in the pocketbook.

Michael Bociurkiw, a Canadian-born global-affairs analyst, says strong statements of support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russia — including from Canada — are appreciated in Kyiv, but they do not deter Putin.

“What he really understands are more targeted sanctions, travel restrictions on a wider circle, financial restrictions on overseas transactions, on commercial Russian banks,” said Bociurkiw, who until recently served in Kyiv with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

For countries such as Canada, the United States and Britain, that could mean using their “Magnitsky” legislation, which allows them to sanction particular people deemed to have violated human rights, he said.

That could prevent Putin’s rich oligarch friends from travelling and curtail their ability to buy foreign property and other assets, said Bociurkiw. (The law is named for an accountant who exposed corrupt Russian tax officials and died in prison.)

Andriy Shevchenko, the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada, said his country wants Canada to push Magnitsky sanctions especially with its G7 allies. Canada, he says, still holds the chairmanship of the G7 for another month, and should use that position to deal with the current crisis.

Canada could also use this week’s G20 meeting in Argentina to advance that line of response, said Shevchenko.

“We would like to see a joint consolidated response from the free world,” he said. “We hope that Canada will help us unify this position among our allies.”

The Ukrainian government has the names of individual prosecutors, judges, police officers, special-forces members and politicians who could be targeted, said Shevchenko.

Canadian government officials, who briefed journalists prior to this week’s G20, were non-committal about what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland might be prepared to do on behalf of Ukraine at this week’s summit.

Freeland on Twitter called the imprisonment of the sailors “completely unacceptable” and called for their release, adding that an “immediate de-escalation is necessary.” Freeland pushed the Ukraine crisis onto the G7 agenda earlier this year. She is headed to meeting of NATO foreign ministers next week.

But Bociurkiw says the 28-country military alliance doesn’t have the stomach to send an armada through the Kerch Strait to challenge the Russian attempt to gain control over the Sea of Azov, a strategic body of water off Ukraine’s south roughly the size of Switzerland.

Shevchenko said this weekend’s nautical clash represents a significant deepening of the Ukraine-Russia conflict because it marks the first time the Russian military has actively attacked Ukrainian forces. Until now, he said, Russia hid behind rebel separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

“This time they do not hide behind any ‘green men,’ or local mercenaries, or any rebels or whatever they call them. This time they do it openly,” said Shevchenko.

“This is a message not just to Ukraine, but to the West. They are trying to say, ‘we believe we can do whatever we choose to.’ ”

Bociurkiw said the timing of the latest Russian attack is vintage Putin — it comes with Europe mired in uncertainty over Brexit, coupled with the rise of far-right governments in some eastern European capitals, as well as the dominance of a U.S. president who has often appeared too accommodating of the Russian leader.

“We’re seeing the aftereffects of the U.S. abdicating its traditional role as the world’s policeman,” said Bociurkiw.

Earlier this week, U.S. President Donald Trump blamed Russia for its “aggression” and said he might cancel a meeting with Putin at the G20.

But a Kremlin spokesman quickly contradicted the U.S. president on Wednesday, saying Russian fully expects the meeting to take place.

Bociurkiw said he expects Trump’s anti-Putin bluster to evaporate by the time he reaches Buenos Aires, given the U.S. president’s performance next to the Russian leader at their infamous Helsinki meeting this summer. Trump accepted Putin’s denial of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, and faced massive criticism for not defending American interests.

“Trump is very, very intimidated by Putin,” Bociurkiw said. “They’re both alpha males, but this is one male Trump can’t stand up to.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press