Marco Levytsky, Western Bureau Chief.
On November 25, in a purposeful and unprovoked military operation, Russian warships attacked and opened fire on Ukrainian naval vessels in neutral waters in the Sea of Azov.
Twenty-four Ukrainian sailors were captured, their fate subject to that farcical absurdity known as the Russian judicial system. This was a premeditated and deliberate act of escalation of aggression against Ukraine by Russia, which has been waging war on Ukraine for over four years.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has requested that NATO send warships into the Azov Sea. Ukrainian Navy Admiral Ihor Voronchenko, the commander in chief of the Ukrainian Navy, meanwhile, said Kyiv would ask NATO member Turkey to close the Bosphorus Strait between the Black Sea and the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, “so that the Russians pay the price for violating the norms of international law.”
Voronchenko, incidentally, has a very solid foundation for his request. In a vastly under-reported, but nonetheless valid news report dated March 18, 2014, right after the invasion of Crimea by Russia’s “little green men”, then-Prime Minister, now President of Turkey, Recep Erdogan, pledged that Turkey will close the Bosphorus to Russian ships, if there is violence against the Crimean Tatars, who are ethnically linked to the Turks.
To say that Russians have committed violence against the Crimean Tatars is a gross understatement. According to the highly reputable Human Rights Watch organization, Russian authorities in Crimea have intensified persecution of Crimean Tatars, under various pretexts and with the apparent goal of completely silencing dissent on the peninsula. ”Russian authorities in Crimea have relentlessly persecuted Crimean Tatars for their vocal opposition to Russia’s occupation since it began in 2014,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch in releasing an extensively-researched report on Russian suppression of Crimean Tatars. “They have portrayed politically active Crimean Tatars as extremists and terrorists, forced many into exile, and ensured that those who choose to stay never feel safe to speak their mind.”
Since Russia’s occupation began, Russian authorities and their proxies have subjected members of the Crimean Tatar community and their supporters, including journalists, bloggers, activists, and others to harassment, intimidation, threats, intrusive and unlawful searches of their homes, physical attacks, and enforced disappearances. Complaints lodged with authorities are not investigated effectively, if at all. Russia has banned Crimean Tatar media and organizations that criticized Russia’s actions in Crimea, including disbanding and proscribing the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar self-governing highest executive body.
In October 2017, Human Rights Watch researchers in Crimea documented criminal prosecutions for separatism against Crimean Tatars who had criticized Russia’s actions in Crimea, as well as new and ongoing baseless terrorism-related prosecutions. Researchers also documented detention and fines for Crimean Tatars who peacefully staged single-person pickets to protest the arrest and prosecution of other Tatars.
That alone would justify closing off the Bosphorus to Russian shipping were Turkey to put its proverbial money where its mouth is. Russia’s violation of international waters adds even more justification for such a move, but EU and NATO leaders have reacted in a most timid manner. A NATO spokeswoman said on November 29 that the military alliance already has a strong presence in the Black Sea region where the incident occurred, and it has no plans to send warships into the Sea of Azov. German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuffed Poroshenko’s call for increasing military pressure on Russia, saying “we can only resolve this in talks with one another because there is no military solution to all of these conflicts.”
Even when it came to Poroshenko’s demand that the European Union impose more sanctions on Russia or increase enforcement of existing sanctions against Russia and businesses and individuals in Russia-annexed Crimea, Merkel took a non-committal approach like that adopted by the EU on November 28 when it said it would “act appropriately” as it continues to monitor the situation.
“We do not impose sanctions for the sake of sanctions, but we use sanctions to make it simply clear that countries must have the right to develop on their own, even when they are territorially close to Russia,” Merkel said in what ominously sounds like a retreat from the current position.
Contrary to Merkel’s reticence, the international community must instead react forcefully to this disgraceful act of aggression by Russia. The
Ukrainian Canadian Congress has called on Canada, the US, the EU and all civilized nations to immediately take decisive measures to counter Russian aggression and:
• Demand that Russia immediately release all Ukrainian sailors illegally seized in the attack; all Ukrainian prisoners of war as well as over 70 Ukrainian political prisoners illegally jailed in Russian custody;
• Significantly strengthen sanctions against Russia for this latest brazen act of aggression against Ukraine’s sovereignty, including banning Russia from the SWIFT international payments system; and
• Provide Ukraine with naval ships, missiles and other materiel as may be needed to defend itself against Russia’s naval aggression;
We clearly understand that military options are limited in a nuclear age, but that makes the need for strong economic measures even more necessary. Failure to initiate a forceful response to blatant aggression constitutes appeasement. Appeasement didn’t work with Hitler, and it won’t work with Putin.