Kerch Bridge is the key to Ukraine’s victory

Kerch Bridge is the key to Ukraine’s victory

CIUS weekly report on North American media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 3–10 December 2023

Six publications (Foreign Affairs, The Washington Post, National Review, The Atlantic, The Globe and Mail, and 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: Kerch Bridge needs to be destroyed; Kyiv and its allies should prepare for a possible Trump return; why the West should be united in supporting Ukraine.
  • Russia at war: Western sanctions against Russia are working.

The Kerch Bridge is a tool for Kyiv’s victory in the Russo-Ukrainian war. Ben Hodges, Led Klosky, Robert Person, and Eric Williamson (Foreign Affairs) focus on the Kerch Bridge as the key to Ukraine’s victory in the war. Destruction of “the most potent symbol of Russia’s occupation of Ukraine” will undermine military logistics chains, reset existing narratives, and restore confidence in Kyiv’s ability to win against the Kremlin. For centuries, Crimea has played a key role in Russia’s geopolitical strategy, serving as a source of Moscow’s influence throughout the Black Sea region, the Mediterranean, and beyond. According to the authors, since the opening of the bridge in 2018 it “has become a political symbol of Moscow’s integration of Crimea into the Russian state—and a potent representation of the Kremlin’s neo-imperial aspirations. It is partly a vanity project for Putin, feeding his self-image as a modern-day Tsar Peter the Great, reclaiming Russia’s historical patrimony. It is also a physical manifestation of Moscow’s narrative that unbreakable fraternal bonds exist between Russia and Ukraine, an idea Putin has used to legitimize his invasion.” The Kerch bridge is not only symbolic, it is also a tool to compensate for the losses Moscow has suffered during the integration of Crimea into Russia, as well as a key logistical hub for the supply of weapons and troops to Ukraine. However, as evidenced by Ukraine’s two previous attempts, destroying the bridge is an extremely difficult task. For Kyiv to succeed in finally destroying the bridge, Western allies must provide much more powerful precision-guided missiles, such as ATACMS and Taurus. Hodges et al. declare, “If Kyiv succeeded in disabling the Crimean bridge, it would dramatically increase the likelihood of a total collapse of Russian defenses in southern Ukraine.”

Ukraine should be ready for Trump’s return. Josh Rogin (Washington Post) writes that Ukraine and its allies should be prepared for the possibility that Donald Trump could win the presidential election in 2024. If Trump wins, he may try to end or reduce military, humanitarian, and economic support for Ukraine. Such a step would not only prolong Ukraine’s suffering but would further destabilize Europe and undermine the credibility of the US around the world. That is why Ukraine and its allies must do everything possible to strengthen their positions ahead of the American presidential election. According to Rogin, “between now and next November the Biden administration, European countries, and the Ukrainian government can take several steps to bolster Ukraine’s position and insulate the assistance effort from Trump’s whims.” One of the key opportunities to strengthen Ukraine’s long-term prospects is the NATO Summit in Washington in July 2024. At this summit, allies should send a clear message that “NATO is moving its membership forward—such as by opening a NATO office in Kyiv.” The US should also accelerate the delivery of arms to Ukraine and deploy more weapons and ammunition to Eastern Europe. This will help to strengthen the security of European allies and minimize the risk of a weapons cut-off to Ukraine. The third step for the Biden administration and Ukraine’s supporters should be to develop a long-term security assistance plan for Kyiv, similar to Barack Obama’s plan for Israel. Fourthly, the leaders of both Republicans and Democrats should step up their efforts to convince US voters that the aid to Ukraine is worth the money. The Zelensky team should also expand its American presence beyond the D.C.: “After all, no long-term Ukraine assistance effort will be sustainable without the continued support of Americans.”

The West must be resolute in its support for Ukraine. Stanislaw Zaryn (National Review) observes that Moscow, sensing an opportunity to reset relations with the West, is forcing the scenario of so-called “negotiations” with Ukraine. Such a scenario is extremely dangerous, as “freezing” the war would mean a de facto recognition of Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territories and “a kind of acceptance of war as a legitimate tool of Russian policy.” This would also prompt Moscow and its allies to intensify their lobbying for resumption of business-as-usual relations with Russia. Last but not least, it would create a propaganda trap—namely, “if Ukraine launches a counteroffensive after the conflict is frozen, it would become the aggressor who violated the terms of the truce accepted by the world.” Freezing the war plays into Moscow’s hands, as it would allow it to raise the issue of lifting sanctions against Russia. The prospect of “ending the war” has a reassuring appeal for many in the West. However, intelligence on Moscow’s strategic plans leaves no room for doubt about the Kremlin’s true goals: “Russia has embarked on an imperial course intended to stretch over many years and is consistently seeking to expand its aggressive military capabilities.” Today, Moscow is already waging a hybrid war against NATO, using military provocations, propaganda, cyberattacks, migration, blackmail, diplomatic pressure, and election interference. Thus, Russia’s war against Ukraine is only the first step in a sustained assault on European security. According to Zaryn, “If the West abandoned Ukraine now, it would be further exposing NATO to Russian aggression in the years to come. Instead, in order to avert the danger from Russia, NATO and the EU must hold strong in their support for Ukraine and continuing developing their military capabilities. The Russian threat must be neutralized, and this is the only way to do it.”

The sanctions against Russia are starting to work. Leon Aron (Atlantic) writes that after almost two years of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Western sanctions—combined with the astronomical and growing human and monetary costs of the conflict—are finally beginning to have a tangible impact on Russians. At the beginning of 2022, despite expectations that the Russian economy would collapse after the imposition of sanctions, this did not happen. On the contrary, the Russian economy demonstrated positive dynamics: (1) “the average Russian income is up, and the country’s GDP has grown by 2 percent”; (2) “Unemployment is at a record low”; (3) the budget deficit remains manageable at 2% of the GDP; (4) Russia’s foreign trade balance, although worsened compared to last year, is still positive; (5) uninsured “grey fleet” tankers are circumventing Western sanctions, etc. Nevertheless, Russia did begin to suffer from sanctions imposed by the world’s richest and most developed economies: “The West’s sanctions are like a heavy boot on two hoses that sustained the Russian state and Russian society before 2022. One carries the oil and gas revenue, which constitutes close to half of the government’s budget, and the other brings imported goods that consumers, businesses, and military planners desperately need.” Moscow cannot offer Russian society substitutes for essential goods, either through domestic production or imports. According to Aron, “Made-in-Russia ‘replacements’ have been falling short, and shortages and breakdowns are multiplying across the economy, involving products as varied as tires, printing paper, airplane parts, and cellular towers. Among the more painful privations is the disappearance of up to 65 percent of crucially important medicines in some large cities.” In addition, Russia’s war against Ukraine directly affects the state budget: after the freezing of Russian assets in the West, “the Kremlin has been forced to withdraw $38 billion from the rainy-day National Wealth Fund. That’s one-fifth of the fund and 2 percent of the country’s GDP.” Last but not least is the shortage of people, which is forcing Moscow to send more and more prisoners to the front: “Incarcerated women too have been forced into military service. The prison population is down by an estimated 54,000 inmates. Rapists and murderers, some serving life sentences, are pardoned by Putin after six months in Ukraine.” In the author’s opinion, President Putin had tamed domestic opposition to the war through a combination of repression, shrewd politics, and monetary largess, but the latter two factors are now in difficult circumstances, which could lead to a change in the situation inside Russia.

Ukrainian government redirecting blame for internal problems towards foreign media. Mark MacKinnon (Globe and Mail) exposes a public dispute between President Volodymyr Zelensky and the country’s top general over assessments of the front-line situation, which has escalated into a broader political conflict; after a period of national unity amid Russia’s full-scale invasion, Zelensky’s political opponents are now seizing opportunities to criticize him. Further highlighting the Ukraine government’s growing desire to control the narrative, its Centre for Countering Disinformation has turned its attention to foreign reporters, accusing unnamed English-language journalists of planning what they called “a disinformation campaign” against Ukraine’s military and political leadership. Against this backdrop, Zelensky’s abrupt cancellation of a scheduled video appearance before the US Congress raised concerns—especially as Ukraine is seeking continued military support amidst delays of a $60-billion military aid package, which was held up by Republicans in Congress. The cancellation coincided with warnings from Zelensky’s chief of staff about the “high risk” of Ukraine’s army being defeated without ongoing US support. Additionally, criticisms from Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko about the country drifting toward authoritarianism and concerns about potential curtailing of US aid have intensified the political disarray in Ukraine—further complicated by the upcoming elections and a sense of fading optimism about a quick end to the war. “If U.S. aid is indeed about to dry up, it will only increase the tension in Kyiv,” MacKinnon writes, adding that more signs are emerging of “a growing desire to control the message.” 

Canada, other Ukraine allies must ensure that Putin is held accountable. Allan Rock and Jennifer Trahan (Globe and Mail) report that a group of core countries, including Canada and other G7 members, is grappling with how to legally respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine. As a sitting head of state, Putin is immune from the jurisdiction of domestic courts in other states. To address this, the core group is considering establishing an international tribunal to prosecute Putin for the alleged crime of aggression in Ukraine. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is one example, but technical limitations prevent it from prosecuting the crime of aggression in this context. “Although the ICC has jurisdiction, granted by Ukraine, to prosecute other international crimes that may have been committed by Russia in its territory, the ICC does not, for technical reasons, have the authority to prosecute the crime of aggression there,” state the authors, adding that this “anomaly must eventually be corrected by amending the Rome Statute.” Rock and Trahan indicate that the surest way to create an international tribunal is by a resolution of the UN Security Council under Chapter 7 of its Charter, which stipulates the Council’s powers to maintain the peace. However, with Russia being a permanent member, such a resolution would undoubtedly be vetoed. Thus, the core group is currently divided on an alternative approach, with some supporting a resolution  of the General Assembly directing the Secretary-General (SG) to set up a court for this purpose, followed by establishing the tribunal by an agreement between the UN and Ukraine, and the SG can then appoint judges from the international community. Meanwhile, some other countries—including the US, UK, and Germany—advocate for a Ukrainian chamber with international elements. The authors view this approach as problematic: “A Ukrainian chamber, even with some international elements, will still be a national court of Ukraine. And the ‘pooling’ model, without more participants, won’t create a truly international court either. In both scenarios, top leaders will enjoy immunity. The very purpose of the exercise will be defeated.” Canada endorses the G7 position, but there is a call to reevaluate it, given the concern that the G7 states may be consciously sidestepping the establishment of a precedent for accountability, mindful of the possibility of one of their own leaders facing accusations of a similar nature. “Canadians want to see Mr. Putin brought to justice for starting his catastrophic war of aggression in Ukraine,” Rock and Trahan emphasize. “And Canadians deserve an explanation from their government as to why it is supporting an approach that would leave Mr. Putin above the law.”

Russia will continue its warmongering if the West abandons Ukraine. David Satter (Wall Street Journal) warns in his opinion piece that if aid to Ukraine is cut off and Kyiv is forced to accept a Russian victory, it won’t lead to peace but rather to the Kremlin’s preparation for a new war. Russia’s war in Ukraine has reactivated the psychological legacy of [imperial Russia and] Soviet totalitarianism, fostering nationalist fanaticism and an increase in militarization. Russia’s budget for the next three years that was signed off by Vladimir Putin, significantly boosts defence spending, and Satter warns that allowing Russia to win in Ukraine could lead to a long-term security threat for the West, as it would reinforce the “war psychology” among the Russian population and leadership. Satter argues that Russia has been transmogrifying into a military machine, with historical narratives being rewritten to depict Russia as a besieged fortress defending civilization. Military instruction in schools, elimination of reminders of Russia’s real history, and the glorification of figures like Stalin contribute to a dangerous shift in Russia’s identity. “Russia’s position in the world is defined by the personal interests of its rulers. Under wartime conditions, they have made national fanaticism the key to their hold on power,” he adds. Satter emphasizes the importance of the West defending its principles and the potential risks of allowing Russia to win in Ukraine, suggesting that it would prompt Russia’s leaders (whether Putin or somebody else) to seek new conquests, “creating a massive and long-term security threat for the West.”

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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