Will Western unity be enough to stop the carnage in Ukraine?
In March 1999, as a correspondent for The Globe and Mail, I witnessed first-hand Kosovar refugees crossing the border into northern Albania, fleeing the maniacal government of Slobodan Milošević.
At the time, it was the largest refugee movement in Europe since the end of World War II. Over the next two months, around 850,000 people fled Kosovo, arriving in tractors and on foot in an impoverished corner of Albania. (Fortunately, most were soon able to return home after the end of hostilities with NATO.)
In contrast, one million Ukrainians fled their country in a single week following Russia’s brutal invasion of their country. Authorities estimate that the total number of refugees could reach four million or more.
As a journalist, I also experienced the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, watching American fighter-bombers attack the Taliban front lines in northern Afghanistan, and I was in Baghdad in the weeks following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
These were events of enormous geopolitical significance, involving major military clashes, death, destruction and population displacement. Yet I never felt like I was witnessing what could be the start of another world war, as I do today.
Milošević may have been a madman and the breakup of Yugoslavia a huge tragedy, but Yugoslavia did not have much strategic interest. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were examples of American hubris, and tragic in themselves, but they were far enough away that the public in Western democracies could protest and mourn their losses, never feeling their own security and their way of life was really at stake.
Ukraine is different. It’s a big place: 44 million people in a country with a land mass larger than France. It is also in Europe, on its eastern flank, but in Europe all the same. And Ukrainians, like Irish and Italians, have a massive diaspora, and not just in Canada.
Watch reports from Polish border towns and you will hear of Ukrainians on the run seeking refuge with relatives and friends in the Netherlands, Germany and the UK.
I understand NATO’s reluctance to declare a no-fly zone and turn this invasion into a direct confrontation with Russia. But, in some ways, we are already at the beginning of a 21st century world war, where the tools we use against Russian artillery, tanks and cluster bombs are not just anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles provided to the Ukrainians, but massive economic sanctions intended to destroy the Russian economy.
Already, Russian President Vladimir Putin has accomplished a lot, not just to convince the world that he is a madman like Hitler and Stalin. It also made the inconceivable real by cementing Western solidarity.
NATO, whose raison d’être was questioned in the heady years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, is now seen as a primary defense of our democratic system. I am convinced now, more than ever before, that if Putin sets foot in Estonia, Poland or Hungary, the full combined power of NATO will be unleashed against him.
European Union solidarity has been impressive, including even former friends of Putin like the Hungarian Viktor Orbán, who is acutely aware that the last thing his public wants is to be dragged back into a reconstituted Warsaw Pact.
Germany’s reversal of its approach to Putin has been incredible. The freezing of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, now exposed as the dangerous madness it always was, and the decision to send lethal weapons to Ukraine, mean that Germany realizes that it must take responsibility, not only as Europe’s economic leader, but as a military one as well.
Germany has finally shed the last cloak of Nazi-era shame and realized that if it wants to be respected as a bastion of democratic values, it must act accordingly.
And, far from weakening NATO, the attack on Ukraine could cause Sweden and Finland to recognize their “non-aligned” status as an outdated anachronism, and that they would be safer in inside NATO.
This war is also forcing governments to tighten the lax rules that for too long have allowed Putin’s oligarch cronies to take their looted wealth from Russia and stash it in London real estate and dodgy tax havens. The UK and other governments are promising tougher beneficial ownership rules and a crackdown on kleptocrats and their cronies that will lead to seizures and property sales. Even Switzerland is in the game. It was time.
Here in Canada, we aligned ourselves with our NATO allies by finally agreeing to send lethal weapons to Ukraine. In addition to welcoming thousands of refugees, we could finally recognize that it is time to properly equip our armed forces. We cannot expect to control our vast airspace with 40-year-old CF-18s.
The invasion of Ukraine has also created a welcome unity among Canadian political parties, even if they do not recognize it. In fact, the Conservatives are urging the Liberal government to do more by expelling the Russian ambassador and recalling ours from Moscow.
What’s interesting is that the Tories – who have recently embarked on a dangerous Trumpian tangent of embracing grievance politics, conspiracy theories and misguided nonsense spewed out of the truck convoy – have abandoned this twisted view of the world as far as Russia is concerned.
While Trump and his cronies can praise Putin to the skies, Canada’s conservatives won’t go there, and we can thank Canada’s Ukrainian community for that. No conservative would dare run for office on the Prairies if they repeated Trump’s praise of Putin, calling him “savvy” and a “genius.”
All of this new determination by NATO members and other democracies to unite in the face of tyranny and barbarism will serve the world well in the medium to long term. And experience tells us that Putin will face a costly war of attrition when an insurgency takes hold in every part of Ukraine he tries to occupy, a war that will cost Russia dearly in blood and treasure.
But it’s the short term that worries me. Ukraine’s defenders may be brave and determined, but they remain seriously outgunned, and their supply lines are vulnerable to Russian phalanxes of men and armor. We know that Putin will stop at nothing. Kiev and Kharkiv could be the new Grozny.
It would be good to think that, like the Kosovars who fled their homeland in 1999, these Ukrainian women and children could return home in a few months. I’m not so sure.
MORE FREE MAN: What it really means to defend freedom, in Ukraine or in Ottawa
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