This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.
By Chris Alexander, February 28, 2022
There were at least eight uprisings, battles and offensives around Kyiv in the 20th century. The most dramatic, by far, was the Battle of Kyiv in 1941, when German Nazi forces took the city in what is considered the largest troop encirclement in the history of warfare.
Now Kyiv is again at the centre of the world’s attention, as Russian forces attack.
But while Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals may have thought this would be a cakewalk, Ukraine’s resistance has packed more punch than Russia’s military planners expected.
Ukrainians are armed, defiant and highly motivated. On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky vowed to remain in Kyiv to defend the country. Former president Petro Poroshenko has also appeared with a unit of armed defenders, as has Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, a three-time heavyweight boxing world champion. They are determined to repel a military onslaught by Russia, which has started a war of unprovoked aggression.
Mr. Putin made clear, in a July essay and in recent speeches, that he is intent on wiping out Ukraine’s democratic institutions and independent political identity. By pursuing this goal, he joins the ranks of Kyiv’s previous aggressors, Adolf Hitler – who was motivated by hideous ideologies – as well as Joseph Stalin, Hitler’s ally in the dark years of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact from 1939 to 1941, when Europe was last torn apart.
But how could this have happened again?
Part of the answer lies in the failure of the international system, the rules-based multilateral institutions that Canada has long considered a linchpin of our security.
Despite a brilliant speech by the Kenyan ambassador, the United Nations has been an utter disappointment. In a scene worthy of Orwell, Russia was chairing a meeting of the UN Security Council about the Ukraine situation when Mr. Putin announced his invasion, in severe breach of the principles of the UN Charter.
Ukraine’s ambassador had strong words for his Russian counterpart – “There is no purgatory for war criminals. They go straight to hell, ambassador.” But that was all that the UN was really able to do. Even the UN Human Rights Council has failed to deplore Russia’s violence.
To its credit, the Council of Europe has suspended Russia’s representation. But they have to know that even their rebukes are likely to glance off Mr. Putin.
As a result, even as Kyiv faces destruction, as the lives of 44 million Ukrainians are put at risk, and as Mr. Putin makes clear his genocidal intent toward the country, the response of our usually valued international institutions – including those that seek to prevent war crimes or champion the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) – has been underwhelming, to put it mildly.
Mr. Putin is bent on using force to subjugate a country larger than France. At this point, the only hope of stopping him lies with Ukraine’s brave defenders, who themselves know they will not succeed alone. How is this fair?
At least 10 per cent of Ukraine’s current army was trained to some degree by Canada. We and a dozen other NATO members, notably the U.S. and U.K., have provided ammunition, light arms and other weapons systems.
But since Mr. Putin launched his war, NATO has been focused on its own security, reinforcing its Eastern flank – a necessary step, but one that does nothing to help the Ukrainians now preparing to defend the country.
The statement after the latest meeting of NATO heads of state only contained an anodyne message of support for a country defending our shared values: “We will continue to provide political and practical support to Ukraine as it continues to defend itself and call on others to do the same.”
This is disgracefully insufficient. Ukraine needs and deserves much more. They have asked for a no-fly zone, which should be provided. They need enhanced arms and weapons systems, as well as full intelligence-sharing. Mr. Putin’s hints at nuclear retaliation can be safely dismissed as a fear-mongering bluff: NATO’s members include nuclear powers, with far greater economic weight and institutional depth.
As when Belgium was invaded in 1914 and Poland in 1939, Ukraine’s fight is our fight. Today’s horrific siege of Kyiv is part of a war in Europe, started by a demented dictator – the exact kind of crisis for which these multilateral institutions were created. Now, they need to give Ukrainians the tools to prevail.
Chris Alexander is a former diplomat and Canadian cabinet minister who is currently a distinguished fellow of the Canadian International Council and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. He has previously served as deputy head of mission of the Canadian embassy in Moscow.