Ukraine challenges Russia’s Black Sea blockade

Ukraine challenges Russia’s Black Sea blockade

CIUS weekly report on North American media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 19–25 November 2023

Three publications (The National Interest, The Globe and Mail, The Wall Street Journal) were selected to prepare this report on how 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 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: Canada’s role in combating the abduction of Ukrainian children by Russia; the possibility of the Korean scenario in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
  • Russia at war: Putin praises “Asiatic despotism” as he looks for more support in Moscow’s war effort. 

Canada must do everything possible to combat Russia’s abduction of Ukrainian children. Payam Akhavan and Andriy Kostin (Globe and Mail) write that Russia’s war crimes against Ukraine continue to shock the international community. Mass murder of civilians, deliberate bombing of hospitals and maternity wards, systematic torture and sexual violence, and forced deportation of civilians—this is only a partial list of the war crimes. However, the problem is that they are continuing to be committed. That is why the international community must do everything possible to protect the most vulnerable part of Ukraine’s citizens—its children. According to the authors, “Recent reports have confirmed that Russia has transferred more than 19,000 Ukrainian children—and possibly significantly more—in a campaign of ‘Russification’ aimed at their forced assimilation and permanent separation from their nation.” The large-scale deportation of children constitutes a war crime and crime against humanity: “The International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Mr. Putin and Russian children’s rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, holding them personally responsible for forced deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children.” The Canadian government has imposed Magnitsky sanctions on 42 individuals and 21 legal entities implicated in the transfer and custody of Ukrainian children in Russia. However, this is not enough. In the authors’ opinion, Canada can play a more important role in protecting Ukrainian children and bringing those responsible to justice. In addition to implementing further targeted sanctions and expanding asset seizures, Canada could help in the following ways: (1)  lead the establishment of an international compensation mechanism that would repurpose Russian assets to fund justice mechanisms for Ukrainian people and victims; (2) help to address a significant gap in the existing mechanisms of international justice; (3) appoint a special envoy for international justice who could facilitate the return of abducted children; and (4) use Canada’s diplomatic influence and moral authority in the international community to protect the lives of young Ukrainians. The authors call to “unite for justice and do our utmost for the liberation and healing of these children.”

Is the Korean scenario viable for Ukraine? Matthew Blackburn (National Interest) emphasizes that freezing Russia’s war against Ukraine with a “fight-and-talk” approach may be more difficult than it seems at first glance. The pundit community is increasingly discussing the prospects of a ceasefire and freezing the conflict, similar to the negotiated end of the Korean War. However, the key question is how realistic this is. According to the author, in order to answer this question it is necessary to understand the preconditions for the Korean conflict freeze. First, it was a military stalemate in a positional war of attrition along the original pre-war borders between the North and South. Ceasefire negotiations continued in parallel with military offensives, in which neither side was able to exhaust the other. The second factor was the agreement of the great powers (China, USSR, and USA) that “ending the war was in their interests.” And North and South Korea received reliable security guarantees which encouraged them into believing that a frozen peace could be concluded. Third was the ideological factor: changes in the US domestic political rhetoric allowed it to find common ground with other major powers and ensure peace. Now, all three of these prerequisites have nothing to do with Ukraine: (1) it is a mistake to characterize a war as a stalemate based only on the observation that a small area is changing hands; (2) lack of agreement between the great powers—moreover, “Ukraine is no longer fighting a proxy of Russia, as it did between 2014 and 2022, but is facing Russia head-on”; and (3) abandoning ideology “to make a deal—also looks uncertain”. Therefore, in Blackburn’s opinion, “Given the lack of preconditions for a frozen peace and negotiations not having even started, a further cycle of military escalation is likely.”

Ukraine challenges Russia’s Black Sea blockade. Jillian Kay Melchior (Wall Street Journal) stresses that despite disappointment in the West over what it perceives as meagre land-based advances in Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive, Kyiv has pierced Russia’s Black Sea blockade and forced its navy into retreat. Ukraine’s maritime achievements need to be acknowledged, especially considering the differences between the two countries’ navies. “Russia is one of the world’s great naval powers,” Melchior writes. She cites former Defence Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk, who says that by contrast, in Ukraine “we literally have almost no navy”; therefore, recent gains prove that “the asymmetric approach and the new-technology approach can take away old doctrines and old ways of warfare.” Since August, over 130 vessels have departed Ukrainian ports, exporting more than five million tons of goods and challenging Vladimir Putin’s attempts to control the global food supply. Ukraine’s resilience in the face of abandonment of the Black Sea Grain Initiative has showcased its ability to re-establish a grain corridor even without UN or NATO naval escorts. In collaboration with British insurers, the Ukrainian government is implementing measures to cover exporters’ losses in case of an attack. The resumption of grain shipments marks a significant advancement, causing disruptions to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Ukrainian-developed sea drones have damaged Russian vessels, seized control of oil and gas platforms, and inflicted strategic blows on Russia’s naval capacity, compelling it to withdraw some vessels, relocate shipyards, and suffer significant losses. To date, Ukraine has destroyed 15 Russian vessels and damaged 12 in the Black Sea. Thus, although Ukraine hasn’t deprived Russia of long-range missiles, it has denied its army the ability to operate in the Black Sea with impunity and safeguarded passage along the grain corridor. The counteroffensive poses a dilemma for Putin, forcing him to choose between escalating the conflict by targeting civilian ships or allowing the grain corridor to operate. Melchior adds that despite Russia’s warning that it won’t ensure the safety of commercial vessels in the region, so far it has refrained from further escalation. 

Putin’s praise of “Asiatic despotism” signals his expanded search for support. Michael Khodarkovsky (Wall Street Journal) declares that President Putin surprised many by praising the Mongol rulers of the Golden Horde in his speech on November 3—which signalled a departure from Russia’s historical view of Mongol rule as a period of national humiliation. Putin’s pivot toward glorifying autocratic rule and distancing Russia from Western values involves adopting various historical personas throughout his 24-year rule, with Alexander Nevskii being his latest hero. The Kremlin now frames Putin’s alignment with China as a necessary move to shield Russia from Western influences, portraying it as an inevitable duty. A leaked report commissioned by Putin’s administration suggests that mistakes were made in Russia’s previous foreign policies and proposes genocidal measures for Ukraine, including annexation, ideological campaigns, and destruction of industrial infrastructure. The report advocates turning away from Western values and reorienting toward China and Asia; this marks a significant departure from Russia’s historical identity struggles and its prior attempts at integration with the West. “At the time when Moscow sought to project its imperial ambitions in both Europe and Asia, the idea of Russia’s Eurasianism conveniently served the Kremlin and its expansionist ideology. Now, in a major shift, Mr. Putin has jettisoned Europe for the sake of Asia,” according to Khodarkovsky. Putin’s current aim to refocus on Asia echoes a return to the concept of “Asiatic despotisms,” aligning Russia with authoritarian regimes like China, Turkey, and Iran. Despite these attempts to present historical collaborations as acts of patriotism, Putin’s actions reveal a pragmatic and increasingly desperate search for support from other authoritarian leaders.

Challenges mount for Ukraine as US support encounters hurdles. Konrad Yakabuski (Globe and Mail) argues that the global focus on the Israeli-Hamas war has diverted attention from the ongoing war in Ukraine, benefiting Russia. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled to Ukraine this week, aiming to convey that the United States remains committed to Ukraine’s fight against Russia. Despite his efforts to reassure President Zelensky that America stands by Ukraine, a crucial military aid package for the country is encountering significant obstacles in the US Congress. Moreover, a growing sense of “Ukraine fatigue” in the West further diminishes the reliability of the US defence chief’s assurances. Meanwhile, Zelensky’s leadership is facing internal questioning, while waning Western patience, coupled with the possibility of Donald Trump’s return, is prompting some foreign policy experts to advocate for Ukraine to negotiate a ceasefire with Russia. Yakabuski also mentions an opinion piece by Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan (reviewed in last week’s MMS digest) in which the authors stress that “the United States should begin consultations with Ukraine and its European partners on a strategy centered on Ukraine’s readiness to negotiate a ceasefire with Russia and to simultaneously switch its military emphasis from offense to defense.” The author says that “this is not the first time Mr. Haass and Mr. Kupchan have tried to nudge Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table” and that their argument “appears to be in line with what many Western officials acknowledge in private, even if they do not say so in public.” “The stakes in Ukraine are still as high as they were on the day of the Russian invasion 21 months ago. But with signs of a stalemate becoming harder and harder to ignore and the countdown to the 2024 US presidential election now under way, Mr. Zelensky is suddenly looking very alone,” Yakabuski concludes. 

The West needs to realize the grave threat of scenarios if dictators prevail. Andrew Koyne (Globe and Mail) emphasizes the threat concerns posed by militant autocracies such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea (referred to as CRINK) that were discussed during the Halifax International Security Forum. While the forum aimed to convey confidence in democracies’ capacity to recognize and address the threats, there was skepticism about whether leaders would take necessary actions: “Panellists, drawn from a mix of military, political, and think tank circles, were quite clear about what the leaders of the democracies should do to head off the threat. They were less sure that they would do any of these things,” Koyne adds. Despite the awareness of the threat, there appears to be a lack of readiness among Western leaders to take the necessary steps to confront it, according to the author. While US President Biden is credited for maintaining NATO unity against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, criticism is directed at the consistent inadequacy and delayed delivery of weaponry. The assistance provided to Ukraine is seen as sufficient to avoid immediate defeat, according to several speakers, but it falls short of what is necessary for a decisive victory. Koyne offers a sobering prediction that “the West does not want Ukraine to win, at least not so far as it means Russia has to lose; that at some point it will impose a ceasefire that will leave Russia not only in possession of Ukrainian territory but poised to do more once it has rebuilt its forces.” Without comprehending not just the severity of the threat before the collective West but also its shared nature—and acknowledging that the West is engaged in a singular, multifaceted conflict rather than separate battles—the nations will lack the determination to confront it. Koyne adds, “The situation is deadly serious; we, as yet, are not.” 

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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