Ukraine is a stumbling block in China’s sovereignty rhetoric

Ukraine is a stumbling block in China’s sovereignty rhetoric

CIUS weekly report on North American media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 24–30 September 2023

Eight publications (Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, The National Interest, Politico, The Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette, and The Economist) were selected to prepare this report on how the situation in Ukraine has been portrayed in the North American press during the past week. The sample was compiled based on their impact on public opinion as well as on their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. These eight publications represent centrist viewpoints on the political spectrum.

This report covers only the most-read and relevant articles about Ukraine, as ranked by the respective North American publications themselves in the past week. Its scope covers promoted articles on home pages and articles from special sections on Ukraine, with the hashtag #Ukraine, from the paper editions of the publications, and about Ukraine from opinion columns and editorials.

  • The world and Ukraine: Russia’s war against Ukraine undermines China’s rhetoric of respect for national sovereignty; approaches vary in understanding what constitutes Ukraine’s victory in the war; Ukraine’s accession to the EU will be challenging, but it will be beneficial for both Ukraine and Europe; incident in the Parliament of Canada renews scrutiny of the Waffen-SS “Galicia” Division.
  • Russia at war: Russia will apply its entire arsenal of “grey-zone” warfare tools in order to weaken support for Ukraine from its partner states; Russia’s war has come to Crimea.

Main arguments:

Ukraine is a stumbling block in China’s sovereignty rhetoric. Michael Shuman (The Atlantic) opines that Xi proposes to replace Washington’s “rules-based” world order with his own, where national sovereignty is the basis for the coexistence of states. Xi’s stance on sovereignty is attractive to autocrats seeking to suppress dissent, as well as to developing states where leaders “still contend with the persistent, detrimental legacy of Western colonialism.” According to Shuman, the deeper President Xi plunges into international affairs, the more his principles come into conflict with his actions and strategic goals. The Xi government regularly interferes with other countries’ sovereignty—including the recent flight of a Chinese spy balloon in US airspace and a scandal over China’s alleged interference in Canada’s national elections. However, the biggest challenge to Xi’s ideological framework is Russia’s war against Ukraine, which places him in a dilemma: “Stand with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Xi has called his ‘best’ friend, and sacrifice his supposed commitment to sovereignty, or stand for sovereignty by siding with Ukraine, thereby breaking a partnership that he perceives as crucial to his campaign against US hegemony.” In the author’s opinion, the answer to the key question of whether China’s disrespect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity will alienate allies attracted by Xi’s sovereign rhetoric is obvious: “Perhaps in global diplomacy, what leaders say can matter more than what they do.”

What does victory mean for Ukraine and the US? Kathleen J. Mclnnis (Foreign Policy) writes that there is currently no consensus on what Ukraine’s victory over Russian aggression means. Some argue that in order to achieve peace, Russia should be allowed to continue its occupation of Crimea and Ukraine should take a neutral stance towards NATO; others say that the shortest way to end the war is to collapse the Russian army; and still others insist that peace can be achieved by bringing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table. All wars end, but putting an end to organized state violence is much more difficult. According to Mclnnis, there are four  main mechanisms for ensuring peace: (1) freeze the conflict; (2) liberate every inch of Ukrainian territory; (3) overthrow the Russian regime, not just Putin; and (4) transform Ukraine into a thriving democracy. It is important to understand how the US envisions Ukraine’s victory, given its strong support for Ukraine, and whether it sees investing an additional $24 billion in Ukraine as being worthwhile. According to the author, it is—because “the world is watching.” In particular, Central and Eastern European countries which are NATO members feel threatened by Russia’s neo-imperial ambitions; and China is watching to see if the US will follow through on its assurances to Ukraine to gauge whether it will also do so with respect to Taiwan. However, it is much more important to understand what kind of world we want to live in—“a world wherein an authoritarian state can massacre its democratic neighbors? … Do we really want to look the other way? The line must be held, and the line is now in Ukraine. What does victory look like? It starts with a free Ukraine.”

Ukraine should join the EU, but it will not be easy. Carl Bildt (Foreign Affairs) writes that the accession of Ukraine and Moldova to the European Union will be a challenge for both the supranational union and the two candidate countries, but it is crucial for strengthening Europe and ensuring the region’s security. Over the past six decades, EU enlargement has transformed the continent into one of the most prosperous regions in the world. Russia’s war against Ukraine has changed everything, and as a result the EU is poised to embark on a new wave of enlargement, with major consequences for the future of Europe. Russia’s war against Ukraine became a catalyst for internal transformational changes in the EU, which strengthened European cohesion and gave impetus to further changes. For its part, Ukraine faces the task of adopting all the EU rules and regulations contained in the 36 chapters of treaties that make up the supranational union. Meanwhile, the European Union needs to remove the obstacles and problems that stand in the way of Ukraine’s accession to the EU: challenges with Western Balkan countries, revising the institutional structure of the union, the budget and spending programs, agricultural subsidies, etc. According to Bildt, “Doing so will help bring about prosperity and stability in both Ukraine and all of Europe.”

Russia’s “grey-zone” warfare threatens Ukraine’s partner states. Daniel Byman and Seth G. Jones (National Interest) emphasize that Moscow may be economically weak and its conventional military may be war-weary, but Russia is far from defeated. Regardless of the economic sanctions, destruction of Russia’s most combat-ready units and latest equipment, and Prigozhin’s mutiny, which exposed the system’s weaknesses, it is too early to talk about weakness of the Putin regime. According to the authors, “As long as Putin is in power, he will undermine any future Ukrainian government and attempt to deter and punish Western countries that support Kyiv.” Given their weakened economies and conventional capabilities, Putin will use its entire arsenal of “grey-zone” warfare—covert operations, disinformation, political subterfuge, sabotage, cyber operations, etc.—against the European states. They could suffer from covert attacks on oil and gas pipelines and undersea fibre-optic cables, and countries bordering Russia could face floods of illegal immigrants. Furthermore, leaders in Central Asia and Africa who are vulnerable domestically could face rebels that have been trained and armed by Russia as well as targeted attacks against individuals and infrastructure. According to Byman and Jones, despite Russia’s considerable experience in conducting grey-zone warfare, Moscow’s efforts are hampered by a number of significant shortcomings: lack of coordination in grey-zone activities, weak technical capabilities compared to the US and Europe, limited loyalty of Russia’s frontline groups and local allies, weakened private military companies after the Prigozhin uprising, weakness of cyber-attacks against effective defence systems, and, most important, Russia’s own vulnerability to opposing grey-zone activity.

Uncomfortable spotlight focused on Canada’s ovation for WW II Nazi-German unit veteran during Zelensky visit to Ottawa. Kyle Duggan (Politico) summarizes an incident that occurred during Ukrainian President Zelensky’s visit to Canada, when a joint session in the House of Commons honoured a 98-year-old veteran of the “First Ukrainian National Division, who fought against Russia for Ukrainian independence.” Introduced as a “Canadian hero” by Speaker Anthony Rota, Yaroslav Hunka received a standing ovation from those present in the chamber, including Zelensky and his wife. Initially positive media publicity was followed by criticism by Jewish advocacy groups who realized that the division had been a Waffen-SS unit under Nazi German command. Rota apologized for the decision, taking full responsibility for inviting Hunka as his guest in the parliamentary gallery. Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre called it an “appalling error of judgment” and demanded that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologize, although parliamentary protocol does not require the Prime Minister’s Office to oversee the Speaker’s activity. “The story was quickly picked up by Russian state-controlled media websites RT and Sputnik,” Duggan notes, adding that the Russian embassy in Canada posted on social media that it was an “insult to the memory of Canada’s sons and daughters who fought Nazism in WWII.” 

Marsha Lederman (Globe and Mail) writes in an op-ed that honouring a veteran of the Waffen-SS “Galicia” Division in the Canadian parliament was a mistake committed without malice; however, that didn’t stop it from being weaponized by Russia. “Everyone who stood and clapped in the House, maybe with tears in their eyes, will forever be shadowed with this fact: you gave a standing ovation to a guy who was in the Nazi SS, even though the applauders obviously did it in good faith, trusting that the elderly man had been vetted and really was a Ukrainian war hero.” Lederman notes that this “embarrassment…with international implications” could easily have been avoided by learning a bit of history. In Ontario, she writes, Holocaust education has become mandatory for grade six students. “I think there are some older folks who could use a history lesson as well,” Lederman concludes. 

Tasha Kheiriddin (Montreal Gazette) argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda about ‘denazifying Ukraine’ received a significant boost from Canada. “At a time when tensions are running higher than they have since the Cold War, when Europe is once again engulfed in conflict and when Russia and China are seeking to impose an autocratic world order, along comes Canada and lends them a helping hand,” Kheiriddin writes. The author criticizes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his handling of the incident with the veteran of the Nazi-German military unit and believes that Trudeau should have demanded House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota’s resignation immediately “to save face” and show support for Ukraine during a time of war. Instead, Trudeau delegated the responsibility to Government House Leader Karina Gould, who claimed that the government played no role and knew nothing about the incident, leading to further embarrassment. Kheiriddin also points out that this incident could negatively impact Canada’s relationship with Poland, a crucial ally of Ukraine, and suggests that Canada should acquiesce to Poland’s request to extradite the veteran. 

Eighteen months in, Russia’s war has come to Crimea. The editorial board of The Economist analyzes how Ukraine has been increasing its attacks on Crimea over the summer, targeting Russia’s military infrastructure in the peninsula. Ukraine has struck military bases, air bases, and command-and-control centres using drones and cruise missiles. The operations are part of Ukraine’s broader strategy to undermine Russia’s control over Crimea and cut off its supply lines to troops in Zaporizhia oblast. Additionally, Ukraine seeks to challenge Russia’s dominance in the Black Sea by disrupting its naval operations and shipping routes. “At the start of the war Russian warships were positioned menacingly close to Odessa. Today, they rarely enter the north-western Black Sea — a remarkable achievement for a Ukrainian navy without a single operational warship,” the authors argue. This strategy involves destroying Russian warships and pushing them away from key areas. While Russia has adjusted its tactics in response, Ukraine continues to chip away at Russia’s firepower in occupied Crimea. “Yet although Ukraine continues to score successes against its more powerful adversary, it is unclear if a tipping-point will ever come,” the authors add. The Economist notes that Ukraine has significantly degraded Russia’s “naval power ratio,” an operational measure it uses to take account of drones, radar, shore-based artillery, and so forth, as well as warships, “though it is still a long way from parity. At the start of the war its navy put that ratio at 12:1. Today it stands at 4:1.” 

Worth your attention:

The WW II-era Nazi-German 14th Waffen-SS Grenadier (1st Galician) Division is the topic of the day. CIUS has connected with expert scholars to provide background to the complex historical context in which the Galizia Division was created and functioned and to how different discourses have interpreted and instrumentalized the history of the Division.  

Myroslav Shkandrij | What is the Waffen-SS Galicia Division?

Lubomyr Luciuk | What was “Operation Payback”?

David Marples | About the Waffen-SS Galicia Division and the incident in the Parliament of Canada

Media Monitoring Service

Media Monitoring Service (MMS) critically assess dominant narratives, including a special focus on disinformation, in selected key Canadian and US publications regarding contemporary Ukraine. The purpose of MMS is to inform experts and the general public about how Ukraine and Ukraine-related events are covered and reported on and to alert them to contentious ideas and claims that may be perpetuated in the media to Ukraine’s detriment. Read more

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