Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 06.03.2019
It has been 100 days since Russian forces attacked the Ukrainian Navy. On 25 November 2018, three Ukrainian naval vessels were making a peaceful and announced transit from Odesa, Ukraine to Mariupol, Ukraine. They were attacked without warning by Russian forces near the Kerch Strait. The Russians rammed one of the Ukrainian boats, shot at the others from the sea and air, pursued them into international waters of the Black Sea, boarded them, and took the crews captive. By any measure the Russian Federation committed an act of open aggression against Ukraine – an act of war.
The response Ukraine was to declare a war state in Ukrainian regions adjacent to the Russian aggressors and to prepare to defend against a large military offensive. This one month war state probably forestalled Putin’s plans to expand his invasion of Ukraine for the time being.
The response of Western democracies other than Ukraine was to do practically nothing. Many countries and the EU condemned the Russian attack and called upon the Russian Federation to release the 24 Ukrainian Navy sailors, release the three Ukrainian Navy vessels, and lift the maritime blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov that is in place because of Russian restriction of shipping at the Kerch Strait.
The Russians have done none of these things. The Ukrainian sailors remain Putin’s hostages in Moscow. The Russians refuse to treat the men properly, in accordance with the Third Geneva Convention, as prisoners of war. The three Ukrainian Navy boats have not been released. The Ukrainian ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol have dramatically reduced activity because the effective maritime blockade by the Russians has not been lifted.
The Russians will never back down from their aggression against Ukraine until they are given an ultimatum. It is a failure of Western diplomacy that it is incapable of declaring that a state of war exists where a state of war exists. It is a failure of Western diplomacy to never back up its strong urgings with an “or else”: with an ultimatum.
Ukraine is putting up a strong defence to Russian aggression and this supports its effective global diplomacy to guild a coalition against the invader, such as the broad support for sanctions against Russian individual and entities. But other Western democracies put up no defence to Russian aggression and engage in feeble and ineffective diplomacy as a result.
Putin’s response to Western weakness is always more aggression. After the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine in its Crimean peninsula, the other Budapest Memorandum signers – the U.S. and the U.K. – failed to keep their guarantee of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Putin’s response was to expand his invasion to Donbas. When Putin wanted to consolidate his territorial gains in eastern Ukraine, it was the weak powers Germany and France which became the toothless guarantors of the Minsk Agreements that allowed him to do that.
The U.S.S. Donald Cook, a guided missile destroyer, made a port visit to Odesa, Ukraine from February 25 to 27. The ship did not go to Mariupol, Ukraine even though the Americans were invited and had every right to make a port visit there. Transiting the Kerch Strait would be a Freedom of Navigation exercise, no different than transiting the Bosporus. It would also send a peaceful and clear message to the Russian Federation that the Black Sea is international waters and in no way a “Russian lake.”
Western countries have demanded that the Russian Federation immediately and unconditionally release the 24 Ukrainian Navy sailors it is holding captive. The Russians have contemptuously refused to do so. It is time to hear an “or else” coming from Western capitals. Now is the time for an ultimatum. Now is the time for meaningful diplomacy, which is the kind backed up by believable force.
Russian imperialist aggression will only stop when it is stopped.