What is it important to know today?
Today I have less news for you on the fighting front, and more about some important tactical and strategic issues.
Below is an analysis of NATO’s position. What it details is the precautions being taken, and moves being made, to prevent Russia from encircling and cutting off, behind a new Iron Curtain, the vulnerable countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Please refer to the map below if you’re not sure of the geography. This is an excellent analysis, and worth reading for a wider understanding of the situation.
“Hours after Russian missiles first struck Ukrainian cities on Feb. 24, German naval commander Terje Schmitt-Eliassen received notice to sail five warships under his command to the former Soviet Republic of Latvia to help protect the most vulnerable part of NATO’s eastern flank.
The hasty dispatch was part of Germany’s scramble to send “everything that can swim out to sea,” as the navy’s top boss phrased it, to defend an area military strategists have long deemed the weakest point for the alliance. The vessels’ sudden departure demonstrated how NATO, and Germany, were propelled by Russia’s invasion into a new reality and face what officials, diplomats, intelligence officials and security sources agree is the most serious threat to the alliance’s collective security since the Cold War.
Schmitt-Eliassen, who is based in the German Baltic port of Kiel, spoke to Reuters on the flight deck of the supply ship Elbe. Moored next to it, within sight of the church towers of the Latvian capital Riga, were a Latvian and a Lithuanian ship, and vessels and sailors from nations including Denmark, Belgium and Estonia were due to join the group later. A total of 12 NATO warships with some 600 sailors on board are due to start a mine-clearing operation in the coming days.
On Feb. 16, when intelligence showed an invasion was imminent, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the current era a “new normal. It looks a lot like a return to the past. Founded in 1949 to defend against the Soviet threat, the NATO alliance is facing a return to mechanised warfare, a huge increase in defence spending, and potentially a new Iron Curtain falling across Europe. After struggling to find a new post-Cold War role, countering terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States in 2001 and a humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, NATO is back defending against its original nemesis.
But there’s a difference. China, which split with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, has refused to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a “special military operation.” And the old Cold War blueprints no longer work, as NATO has expanded east since the 1990s, bringing in former Soviet states – including the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 2004.
In early February, China and Russia issued a powerful joint statement rejecting NATO’s expansion in Europe and challenging the Western-led international order.
“We have reached a turning point,” said retired German general Hans-Lothar Domroese, who led one of the highest NATO commands in the Dutch town of Brunssum until 2016. “We have China and Russia acting in concert now, boldly challenging the United States for global leadership … In the past, we have been saying deterrence works. Now we have to ask ourselves: Is deterrence enough?”
This is underscored by Schmitt-Eliassen’s mission – a regular exercise that was brought forward by Russia’s invasion.
The issue is access. Before the Soviet Union was dissolved, NATO could have moved to contain the Soviet Union by blocking the western entrance of the Baltic Sea. That would seal in the Soviet Union’s Baltic Fleet to prevent it from reaching the North Sea where its warships could attack U.S. supply convoys. Today, NATO’s and Russia’s roles have been reversed: An emboldened Moscow could encircle NATO’s new Baltic members, and cut them off from the alliance. If a new Iron Curtain is to fall, NATO needs to ensure its members are not behind it.
The three tiny countries, with a combined population of some six million people, have a single overland link to the alliance’s main territory. A corridor of some 65 km (40 miles) – the Suwalki Gap – is squeezed between the heavily armed Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the west and Belarus on the east. So Schmitt-Eliassen’s goal is to keep the waterway open, as a supply line also for non-NATO states Finland and Sweden. Millions of tons of old mines, ammunition and chemical weapons are believed to lie on the bed of the shallow Baltic Sea, a legacy of two World Wars.
Mines – whether old and unexploded or freshly laid – can have an impact beyond destruction, Schmitt-Eliassen said. A mine sighting, or rumoured sighting, can close harbours for days while the area is swept. If that happens in the Baltic, there’s a risk “the supermarket shelves will remain empty.” Even commercial ships can become a military factor in the narrow western entrance to the Baltic, he said, referring to scenarios such as the March 2021 incident when the Ever Given container ship blocked traffic through the Suez Canal for days.
“You cannot blame anybody for this (kind of incident), it is not attributable,” the chief of the German navy, vice-admiral Jan Christian Kaack, told Reuters.
Crucial for the Baltics is the land link between Kaliningrad and Belarus. Called the Suwalki Gap, or Corridor, its seizure would cut the Baltic states off.
“Putin could quickly seize the Suwalki Gap,” said Domroese, the retired German general, adding this will not happen today or tomorrow, “but it could happen in a few years.”
Putin’s recent actions have not all been predictable. He put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert on Feb. 28, with rhetoric that Stoltenberg told Reuters is “dangerous, it’s reckless.” Putin says Russia’s concerns expressed over three decades about NATO’s expansion were dismissed by the West, and post-Soviet Russia was humiliated after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. He says NATO, as an instrument of the United States, was building up its military on Ukraine’s territory in a way that threatened Russia. On March 11, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin the West was beefing up military forces close to Russia’s Western borders. Putin asked Shoigu to prepare a report on how to respond. We may be about to see his response.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelinskiy has also warned that the Baltic states will be Russia’s next target. The Baltic Sea is a large and busy shipping market for containers and other cargo, connecting Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Russia with the rest of the world.
For almost 25 years, the West believed Russia could be tamed by diplomacy and trade to maintain stability and security in Europe. In 1997, NATO and Russia signed a “founding act” that was designed to build trust and limit both sides’ force presence in eastern Europe. The alliance also sought to build a partnership with Russia, which took part in NATO exercises in the Baltic as recently as 2012, according to retired U.S. Admiral James Foggo, who commanded U.S. and NATO fleets in Europe for almost a decade until 2020.
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, NATO created small, multinational combat units in Poland and the three Baltic states, which serve as a forward presence to deter Moscow. But the force numbers are designed not to violate the “founding act,” which has hindered NATO’s ability to move troops into the Baltics and Poland on a permanent basis.
“We all thought that there wouldn’t be an enemy anymore,” Admiral Rob Bauer, the chairman of NATO’s military committee, told Reuters. “We now are confronted with a nation that is showing that it is aggressive, that it has forces that we thought were not going to be used anymore.”
While the numbers are changing all the time, the number of troops under the command of NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR) Tod Wolters has more than doubled since Russia’s invasion, to around 40,000, according to NATO diplomats and officials. NATO allies have also moved five aircraft carriers into European waters, in Norway and the Mediterranean, increased the number of warplanes in the air in NATO airspace and more than doubled the size of the combat units in the Baltics and Poland. Host nation forces number some 290,000 in the region, but mainly under national control.
The biggest shift in NATO’s “new normal,” diplomats, former officials and experts say, is Germany’s reversal of a decades-long policy of low defence spending. Held back by guilt over its wartime past and resulting pacifism among its population, Germany resisted pressure from the United States to increase this to a NATO target of 2% of economic output. France and Britain both meet the goal, but Germany’s defence spending was only 1.5% in 2021. With ageing equipment and personnel shortages, Berlin had been seen for decades as a weak partner because of its reluctance to send troops to combat operations. But on Feb. 27, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Berlin would now meet the 2% target – and promised a 100 billion euros ($110 billion) injection into the military. Soon after Russia’s invasion, Berlin announced it would buy 35 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets from the United States to replace its ageing Tornado fleet.
Germany has been concerned by Moscow’s presence in the Baltic Sea for a while. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Berlin forged an alliance of the western navies on the Baltic Sea. “We simply had to take note of the fact that – whether we like it or not – we are the 900 pound gorilla in the ring,” said navy chief Kaack. “The way we look up to the United States as a smaller partner, that’s how our partners here look at us.”
The United States is also moving more military equipment into Europe, including vehicles and weapons to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland that could be used immediately by newly arriving U.S. troops, rather than waiting weeks for tanks and trucks to be shipped from U.S. bases. Douglas Lute, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told Reuters that NATO’s “new normal” should be a step up from what the alliance agreed after Crimea. It is likely to be set down in writing in NATO’s official master strategy document, known as its “Strategic Concept,” which will be agreed at the next NATO summit in Madrid in June.
“You’ll see a push forward of combat capability to both reassure eastern allies and to make an even more prominent deterrence message to Russia,” Lute said, adding that NATO’s existing multinational combat units in the Baltics and Poland – originally some 5,000 troops in total – should be significantly increased in size. He said he expected “more sophisticated air defence systems postured forward,” including Patriot and other systems in the Baltics and Poland. He also expects more U.S. weapons and military equipment to be pre-positioned in Europe. More NATO troops could be stationed in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary.
The U.S. delegation to NATO’s envoy, Julianne Smith, said on March 15 the alliance was making commitments to “have more force posture in Central and Eastern Europe and develop new policy tools.” But – just as in the Cold War – NATO will need to keep communicating with Russia to avoid risking accidents with potentially devastating consequences.
“NATO has some responsibility to do more than just trying to keep Russia out,” said Adam Thomson, a former British ambassador to NATO and now director of the European Leadership Network think tank in London. “It’s about the management of an unavoidable strategic instability.””
This is an important article from Reuters. The Suwalki Gap is of crucial strategic importance: taking it would give Russia access, via its client state, Belarus, to Russia’s heavily fortified naval enclave of Kaliningrad, and would encircle the three Baltic republics, which as NATO members, would have to be defended. When we consider the war against Ukraine, we must inevitably consider it as an opening gambit in a longer campaign, one that may be planned over a period of several years. Putin won’t simply announce his plans to swallow all the countries of the former USSR immediately: he’ll bite them off a piece at a time. This could be a very long war, and one that could spread beyond the boundaries of Ukraine. At the moment, all the indications are that Russia is not doing well in Ukraine. But even if the talks do come good, and it proves possible to reach a mediated settlement between Russia and Ukraine, it may not be the end. The Baltic Republics are also in Russia’s sights. And ownership to the Suwalki Gap would allow them easy access into Poland, reducing NATO’s fief to western, rather than central and northern Europe.
That threat of nuclear war: Reuters reports:
“Russia’s security policy dictates that the country would only use nuclear weapons if its very existence were threatened, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN in an interview on Tuesday. The comment, nearly four weeks after Russia sent its forces into Ukraine, came amid Western concern that the conflict there could escalate into a nuclear war. Peskov made the comment in an English-language interview with CNN when asked whether he was confident President Vladimir Putin would not use nuclear weapons.
“We have a concept of domestic security and it’s public, you can read all the reasons for nuclear arms to be used. So if it is an existential threat for our country, then it (the nuclear arsenal) can be used in accordance with our concept,” he said. “There are no other reasons that were mentioned in that text,” he said in a further reference to the country’s security concept. Putin last month ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to be put on high alert. In line with the order, Russia’s defence ministry said on Feb. 28 that its nuclear missile forces and Northern and Pacific fleets had been placed on enhanced combat duty, the Interfax news agency reported.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on March 14: “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility.””
This is frightening, but we have to understand it is only a “possibility”. It is not a “probability” or, worse, a “certainty” and it is unlikely to become either of those.The issue here is the question of what constitutes “existential threat.” For Putin, it appears that NATO itself is an existential threat, and it is this which produces the “possibility.” However, in mitigation of the threat of a nuclear strike, there is evidence from reputable sources (US defence ministry public briefings) that, as well as the “avoid miscommunications” hotline between the US and Russia being tested effectively every day to ensure that it’s working, there is a tacit understanding that order from the Kremlin to initiate a nuclear deployment would not be obeyed: no-one particularly fancies the idea of mutually assured destruction. Given that the line has been set up to avoid any mistakes about Russia thinking the US has initiated – in which case it would strike back – and the fact that the US has no intention of initiating a nuclear strike, it seems unlikely that Putin’s posturing will come to more than just that – posturing. He can threaten, but it is not his finger that ultimately unleashes Armageddon: something for which we can all be very thankful.
In relation to that nuclear threat: weather data sharing:
Reuters reports that a major supplier of meteorological data from Western and other governments suspended cooperation with Russia on Tuesday, becoming the latest weather-related agency to restrict information sharing in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Weapons experts said the data – which includes near instantaneous measurements of wind speed and direction, sunlight, precipitation and other factors – could prove crucial in planning a biological or chemical weapons attack in Ukraine.
The European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), an intergovernmental organisation based in Germany, told Reuters that a special council of member states met Tuesday morning and decided with immediate effect to suspend the licences of Russian users and suspend a bilateral cooperation agreement with Russia’s top meteorological agency, including all exchange of data and training activities. EUMETSAT operates technical infrastructure that allows the data from numerous satellite feeds to be distributed, in some cases nearly instantly, to recipients.
Prior to Tuesday’s decision, EUMETSAT said it had stopped sending data from EU satellites to Russia and Belarus on instructions from the European Commission, but had continued to relay information from other European satellites to those two countries as well as meteorological observations from governments around the world. Because Russia contributed data to the program, it had been able to access the EUMETSAT’s feeds in return. That allowed Russia to receive data from European countries, including Britain, as well as from America, Canada and elsewhere. Reuters was unable to determine to what degree these countries collect Ukraine-specific data, but experts said international weather information would be useful for forecasting conditions in Ukraine. EUMETSAT said 21 users had been receiving data in Russia. It declined to name the organisations.
Washington and its allies have warned that Moscow could be planning to use chemical or biological weapons. But weather data from some of those same countries – including the United States and Britain – had continued to make its way to Russian agencies via EUMETSAT feeds. At least three other bodies in Europe had stopped sharing data with Russia in the wake of its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
On Monday, EUMETSAT’s communications head Paul Counet, said: “The EUMETSAT position is that the global and free exchange of meteorological data has been hugely important in supporting global weather forecasting and this is how we have operated so far.”
He added that the organisation would continue to provide essential data including “satellite, modelling and observation data that are necessary to produce and improve global forecasts in support of the protection of life and property” to users around the globe, in line with WMO regulations. He declined to specify whether that meant EUMETSAT would continue sharing this with Russian users either directly or indirectly.
Some Western weapons experts have, however, said there was a risk the meteorological data that EUMETSAT had provided could be used for military purposes, including to plan chemical and biological attacks, which are prohibited under international law.
“If, hypothetically, you’re planning an attack where you are spraying out a cloud of chemicals or pathogens you will need to take meteorological data into account,” wrote Filippa Lentzos, a biological threats expert and senior lecturer at King’s College London, in an email to Reuters. “You wouldn’t want this stuff blowing back on your own forces!”
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert and visiting fellow at Britain’s Cambridge University, said weather data “is absolutely crucial” during chemical and biological weapons use, to ensure gas and pathogens don’t not blow back on users. “Knowing the wind direction and speed at various heights is key to predicting where the hazard will go,” he said.
Some other Western weather data providers have restricted the information they supply to Russia. Among them is the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), which runs data from EUMETSAT and other providers through supercomputers to produce weather predictions considered industry gold standard. ECMWF said last week that it had stopped the flow of atmospheric and climate data to Russia with immediate effect.
ECMWF took that decision to “align our position to the spirit of the current sanctions imposed by Member States and the European Union,” said Nuria Lopez, spokesperson for the agency, in an email to Reuters. The EU and Western allies have imposed a panoply of sanctions against Russia since Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, including freezing the Russian central bank’s assets. Lopez said the decision wasn’t related to Russia’s use of the data.
Britain’s Met Office, the national weather service that exchanges meteorological observations and predictions with international agencies including EUMETSAT, said it had stopped providing aviation weather information to Russian users, as directed by the UK government, “to ensure that no data we provide can be used to further the Russian campaign of aggression against Ukraine by any means.” UK lightning data is still being shared with EUMETSAT, according to the Met Office.
For decades, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), a UN body, has encouraged wider use of public sector data and urged its partners to make scientific information more accessible globally on matters related to safety and environmental protection. Many datasets are publicly available online, so it would be hard to completely shut Russia off, say weather and climate experts. But those datasets are not real-time feeds. The WMO makes available certain data from countries around the world that it deems essential. Ukraine had written to the WMO to voice concern over the agency’s data sharing with Russia, said a WMO spokesperson, who declined to provide more information about the letter. The spokesperson said there had been “no formal decisions by the WMO Congress on limiting data exchange to the Russian Federation.”
The data that EUMETSAT was supplying to Russia included observations from American satellites. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), America’s top weather-data agency, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Russia’s ministry of defence didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on EUMETSAT’s decision. Moscow’s top meteorological agency, the Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, a government agency that had partnered with EUMETSAT, also didn’t immediately respond.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada, which shares near real-time data from polar-orbiting satellites with EUMETSAT, said on Friday the department had not had conversations with the organisation about limiting access to broadcast and satellite feeds to Russian users.
Will Belarus enter the war?
The US and NATO believe that Belarus could “soon” join Russia in its war against Ukraine, US and NATO officials tell CNN, and that the country is already taking steps to do so. It is increasingly “likely” that Belarus will enter the conflict, a NATO military official said on Monday. “Putin needs support. Anything would help.”
A Belarusian opposition source said that Belarusian combat units are ready to go into Ukraine as soon as the next few days, with thousands of forces prepared to deploy. In this source’s view, this will have less of an impact militarily than it will geopolitically, given the implications of another country joining the war. A senior NATO intelligence official said separately the alliance assesses that the Belarusian government “is preparing the environment to justify a Belarusian offensive against Ukraine.”
Belarusians voted last month to allow the country to host both Russian forces and nuclear weapons permanently, though US officials have emphasized to CNN that they have not yet seen any evidence of Russia moving nuclear weapons or preparing to. The sources emphasized that there have been no indications to date that Belarus is currently participating in the fighting in Ukraine, and a senior US defence official said the Pentagon had not seen “any indications that the Belarusians are preparing to move … into Ukraine or that they have made any agreements to do that.” The NATO military official said that a final decision for Belarus’ involvement in the war still has to be made in Moscow, and as of yet, there has been no indication that Belarusian forces are participating in the fighting in Ukraine.
“It is not about what [Alexander] Lukashenko wants,” the official explained, referring to the Belarusian president. “The question is: Does Putin want another unstable country in the region? Involvement would destabilize Belarus,” the official said.”
The official wouldn’t elaborate on how Belarus could intervene in the war, but said it made sense for Russia to try and cut off NATO military aid coming into Ukraine from its Western border. Russia has been using Belarus as a springboard for many of its air operations in Ukraine, according to intelligence collected by NATO surveillance planes flying over the Polish-Ukrainian border and radar seen by CNN.
What is going on at the UN?
According to Reuters, Russia is seeking to blunt Western-led efforts at the United Nations to further isolate Moscow for invading Ukraine, with the Security Council and General Assembly gearing up to vote this week on competing measures on Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis. A diplomatic tit-for-tat has been escalating at the world body since Russia launched what it calls a “special military operation” on Feb. 24 to destroy Ukraine’s military infrastructure.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday blasted Russia’s “absurd war,” warning that “continuing the war in Ukraine is morally unacceptable, politically indefensible and militarily nonsensical.”
However, the 193-member U.N. General Assembly is faced with rival draft resolutions – both demanding aid access and the protection of civilians, medical personnel, and aid workers in Ukraine. But only one text, written by Ukraine and its allies and due to be voted on this week, criticizes Russia’s role in creating the crisis.
The second draft from South Africa makes no mention of Russia and it was not immediately clear when it could face a vote. In remarks accompanying its proposal, seen by Reuters, South Africa argued: “It remains crucial to find consensus on humanitarian matters. Diverting the focus on other matters will lead to divisions and a failure to get agreement on outcomes.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said last week he would resist calls to condemn Russia, blaming NATO for stirring the conflict. Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward told reporters on Tuesday that discussions were underway with South Africa on how “we can come to a text that would command widespread support across the General Assembly without having to have two votes.”
Ukraine and its allies are looking to improve on the 141 yes votes cast to adopt a March 2 General Assembly resolution that deplored Russia’s “aggression” against Ukraine and demanded it withdraw. Russia, Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria voted no, while 35 states – including China – abstained. read more
“We’re still hoping to get the same numbers that isolated Russia the last time around,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told reporters on Tuesday. Amid the competing draft resolutions, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric stressed on Tuesday that what would be most useful would be unity: “This organization is at its strongest when it speaks with one voice.”
General Assembly resolutions are nonbinding, but they carry political weight. The March 2 vote illustrated Russia’s international isolation over its invasion of Ukraine. While Russia is a veto power in the 15-member Security Council, no one country can block a General Assembly resolution. South Africa’s move at the General Assembly is similar to a text proposed by Russia in the Security Council last week. South Africa’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Xolisa Mfundiso Mabhongo said the draft General Assembly resolution was “a purely South African initiative. It is not inspired by Russia.”
Russia has asked the Security Council to vote on its draft proposal on Wednesday, but diplomats say it is set to fail, with most of the body likely to abstain because it makes no reference to Russia’s role.
Russia’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy on Tuesday described Moscow’s draft as aiming to help humanitarian aid groups “without any politicization.”
“It is absolutely unconscionable for Russia to think that they can put forward a humanitarian resolution,” said Thomas-Greenfield, describing it as “like the arsonist calling for the neighbors to help him put out the fire that he started.”
Moscow scrapped a planned Security Council vote last Friday after accusing Western countries of an “unprecedented pressure” campaign against the measure. The United States rejected Russia’s allegation.
Biden, and meetings this week
U.S. President Joe Biden will join allies in applying additional sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and tightening existing ones during his trip to Europe this week, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday. Biden will travel with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Brussels, where NATO and the European Union are based, on Wednesday for meetings on Thursday with fellow leaders. Then he plans to travel to Warsaw in a show of support for an ally that shares a border with Ukraine. Sullivan said Biden would work with allies on longer-term adjustments to NATO force posture during his visit and announce “joint action” on enhancing energy security in Europe, which is highly reliant on Russian gas.
“He will have the opportunity to coordinate on the next phase of military assistance to Ukraine. He will join our partners in imposing further sanctions on Russia and tightening the existing sanctions to crack down on evasion and to ensure robust enforcement,” Sullivan told reporters.
Biden will also announce further U.S. contributions to ease humanitarian conditions for refugees and civilians inside Ukraine, many of whom are trapped in besieged cities. After Brussels, Biden will travel to Poland and “engage with U.S. troops who are now helping to defend NATO territory” and meet with experts involved in the humanitarian response to the war. The president will also meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will take part virtually in a NATO summit on Thursday to discuss the war with Russia, but exact details are still being worked out, Interfax Ukraine cited Zelenskiy’s press spokesman as saying on Tuesday.The spokesman, Sergii Nykyforov, said that at a minimum, Zelenskiy would make a video address to the meeting and might take part in the full discussion, Interfax said.
Biden will meet EU leaders and G7 members as well when he travels to Europe this week. Johnson, while a member of NATO and the G7, has not been invited to attend the EU meetings, as has Biden. Johnson has incurred universal obloquy in Europe this week for his remarks linking Brexit and Ukraine.
Ukraine’s former president Petro Poroshenko has asked Boris Johnson to “please” not compare the UK’s Brexit vote to his country’s fight against Russia – after the Prime Minister appeared to do so over the weekend. Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s predecessor told ITV News that “zero” people died because of Brexit but “thousands” of Ukrainians had died defending their home from Vladimir Putin’s military.
“Only today we have 150 Ukrainian children who were killed by Russian soldiers and Russian artillery,” he said when asked about Prime Minister Johnson’s comments. “Can I ask you how many houses were destroyed because of Brexit? We have whole cities that have been completely destroyed,” he said, adding: “With this situation, please, no comparison.”
Mr Poroshenko – speaking in military uniform from the Ukrainian capital – urged Mr Johnson to visit Kyiv, along with other Western leaders, to show Putin how united they are in opposition to the invasion.
“[Putin] thinks he that he’s almost encircled Kyiv because this is extremely deadly, dangerous to stay now in Kyiv, but exactly because of that I make a public appeal to the Western leaders, including President Biden, including Prime Minister Johnson, including President Charles Michel, including leaders of the European Union, please come to Kyiv. Be together with us, be symbolic, demonstrate that we together want to defend Kyiv and Ukrainians.” He added: “We never give up. We are ready for negotiations about security.”
Although European leaders (and, obviously, Poroshenko) have condemned Johnson’s crass remarks, Zelensky has not: it’s probable that he can’t afford to offend any potential allies. It’s useful, therefore, that Poroshenko has done it for him.
Latest from Zelensky
Reuters reports that Zelenskiy on Monday said any compromises agreed with Russia to end the war would need to be voted on by Ukrainians in a referendum.
“The people will have to speak up and respond to this or that form of compromise. And what they (the compromises) will be is the subject of our talks and understanding between Ukraine and Russia,” he said in an interview published by Ukrainian public broadcasting company Suspilne.
Issues that could be raised in any referendum could concern territories occupied by Russian forces, including Crimea, or security guarantees offered to Ukraine by countries in lieu of NATO membership, he said.
This is a neat move by Zelensky. It would avoid any suspicion after that war that his is a regime imposed by force, it gives legitimacy to any demands he makes in the peace talks and could counter any of Russia’s proposals, with irrefutable evidence that they are not the will of the people of Ukraine. Overall, a very shrewd decision by a shrewd operator: Russia has claimed that Ukraine wants to belong to Russia again, and Zelensky has the perfect method of ensuring that Ukraine – through its people, can have a genuine say on that.
This is not a cheerful briefing, but it is a necessary one. We need to understand fully what is at stake here – the security of Europe – and we need to understand that this could be a conflict that could a) last, b) intensify, and c) spread. Despite this it is important that we don’t allow ourselves to become despondent. The courage of the Ukrainian people has been exemplary: ours should be no less. We are not fighting in the way they are, we are not suffering as they are, and our future is orders of magnitude more hopeful than theirs. It ill behoves us, therefore, to succumb to fruitless anxiety: we are much better doing our possible to help, to support and to ensure that we can take a part in the reconstruction of democracy.