This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.
By Chris Alexander, October 23, 2023
In just three years, the world order has taken three big hits.
In 2021, Kabul fell to the Taliban, leaving Afghanistan occupied and oppressed. In 2022, fascist Russia invaded Ukraine and tried to seize power in Kyiv. And earlier this month, Hamas terrorists murdered more than 1,400 Israelis and have taken around 200 hostages.
Unlike the brutal wars in Iraq and Syria, which followed an ill-fated U.S.-led invasion and withdrawal, these were not reactions to Washington’s use of military force. Nor were they civil wars, like those that have killed millions in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sudan. The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan was supported by the group’s long-time allies in Pakistan; in Ukraine, a dictatorship is using force to subjugate a liberal democracy in Europe for the first time since 1945. And now, Hamas has brought mass terrorism to streets, kibbutzim and a music festival in Israel, in an operation credibly reported to have been green-lit by Iran, a regime pledged to the Jewish state’s destruction and the main financial backer of the military wing of Hamas.
These acts of aggression are shocking. But they are also linked – part of a widening international conflict by which dictatorships aim to undermine the legitimacy of democracy and the credibility of international law and the rule of law more generally.
Moscow, for its part, has spent decades nurturing international terrorism. Before he was assassinated, Russian Federal Security Service officer Alexander Litvinenko alleged that the agency trained Ayman al-Zawahiri in 1997; he went on to become Osama bin Laden’s lieutenant in al-Qaeda as the terror group turned its sights on the U.S. While Washington and its allies spent two decades focused on al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Iraq and the Islamic State, the Kremlin scaled up its global campaign of disinformation and subversion from Mali to Mar-a-Lago.
When the time came, Moscow endorsed the U.S.’s calamitous 2020 agreement to sell out Afghanistan to the Taliban, engineered by its hero Donald Trump, which pulled the rug out from under Afghanistan’s legitimate government and thrust 40 million Afghans into a hypermilitarized real-life Republic of Gilead whose hallmarks are famine, misogyny and oppression. After the U.S.’s tail-between-legs retreat from Kabul, which left NATO’s credibility in tatters, Moscow could feel confident that new aggression would go unpunished – and they were right, at least at first. When the first U.S. intelligence reports outlining Russia’s war plans landed in the White House one month after Kabul’s fall, the Biden administration initially left deterrence on the shelf, preparing instead for Ukrainian collapse and a partisan war.
But Moscow would also be proven spectacularly wrong. When Ukrainian forces were able to push the invaders back from Kyiv, out of central Ukraine and Kharkiv, and into the east and southeast plus Crimea, where the fight continues, the Kremlin was shocked and humiliated.
In this ferocious David-versus-Goliath struggle, Ukraine has knocked the genocidal giant down many pegs. In mid-September, Ukraine landed direct hits on a dry dock in Sevastopol that disabled a submarine and warship, sending most of Moscow’s Black Sea fleet scuttling back to Russia; grain shipments from Odesa have since been partly restored. In July, Ukraine’s arsenal of available tanks surpassed Moscow’s. In recent weeks, the number of artillery shells fired daily by Ukraine has exceeded Russia’s rate, erasing a huge early-2022 deficit of one Ukrainian shell for every eight from Russia. Just this week, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Ukraine’s army used U.S. ATACMS long-range tactical ballistic missiles for the first time.
As morale plummets in Russia’s army and navy, the Kremlin has become desperate to undermine allied support for Ukraine. Russia-backed propaganda has again spiked, while paralysis in the U.S. Congress has disrupted Washington’s military support of Ukraine – though European allies have so far picked up most of the slack. With Moscow so eager to find a distraction, it should come as no surprise that there is growing evidence Russia had a hand in Hamas’s massacre. According to Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Hamas’s drone tactics seemed similar to Russia’s; a faked video, amplified by Russian social-media users, claimed Ukraine funded the Palestinian terror group; the Wall Street Journal reported that funding for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an ally of Hamas, came from a sanctioned Russian crypto-exchange. The Kremlin has recently had high-level contacts with top Iranian and Hamas leaders, and after the Oct. 7 attack, senior Hamas official Ali Baraka told the state-run Russia Today that Moscow “sympathizes” with the group: “Russia is happy that America is getting embroiled in the Palestinian war. It eases the pressure on the Russians in Ukraine. One war eases the pressure in another war. So, we’re not alone on the battlefield,” he said.
Tehran, meanwhile, has been keen both to derail a potential normalization of Israel’s relations with Saudi Arabia and take advantage of the Jewish state’s recent political disarray. Iran has an interest in Russia’s success, too: Alongside China, it is now the main supplier of military weaponry to wartime Russia, particularly of drones. With Moscow and Tehran benefitting from this new theatre of war, Israel’s challenge now is not only to destroy Hamas, but to deter and disable Iran’s other proxies in the region, particularly Hezbollah.
To help Israel do so, liberal democracies need to understand this broadening conflict and move beyond the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. After all, both Iran and Russia have targeted civilians, downing aircraft over Russian-occupied Donbas and Iran, and pursued genocidal campaigns in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere. Our response should be to sanction, isolate and prosecute those responsible – including by sanctioning Iran for its state sponsorship of terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, removing Russia from the UN Security Council, banning Russian and Belarusian athletes at the Olympics and elsewhere, and engaging in NATO action to protect ports, pipelines and cables in the Baltic and Black Seas – while stepping up support for Israel, which has become a new front in the war for the future of liberal democracy.
The central battlefield in that fight remains Ukraine. Beyond further tightening the Group of Seven countries’ oil price cap and enacting secondary sanctions against those who circumvent it, allies need to scale up all forms of military support and finally move major training, defence production and logistic support missions inside Ukraine. NATO should run full-scope combat, training and air operations there, just as it did for two decades in Afghanistan, given that the benefits of doing so stand to be even greater.
We should invest fully in Ukrainian victory and restore credible deterrence. Delays only prolong the war and extend the shelf life of Mr. Putin’s fascist regime. Ending both requires defeating Russia’s genocidal forces as quickly as possible and ejecting them from all of Ukraine, including Crimea. Supporting Ukraine’s victory is an investment in making every liberal democracy, from Estonia to Taiwan, safer from the threat of invasion.
Safeguarding liberal democracy requires decisive action. For 20 years under Mr. Putin, and with countries such as Iran and Pakistan as understudies, Moscow waged wars with impunity. It’s time to defeat Russia’s war machine. Our commitment to Ukraine’s victory must be total, even as we support Israel’s move to destroy and dismantle Hamas while protecting civilians.
Chris Alexander is a former deputy head of mission of the Canadian embassy in Moscow and Canadian cabinet minister. He is currently a distinguished fellow of the Canadian International Council and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.