When Russia fired on and seized Ukrainian ships and sailors this weekend, it did so to send a message to the West in what the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada says was “absolutely” an act of war.
In an interview with Global News, Ukrainian ambassador Andriy Shevchenko said the West needs to recognize the alarming escalation of Russian aggression that the Sunday attack on Ukrainian naval vessels by Russian coast guard ships represents, and not hesitate in laying down a new round of sanctions before Russia tries similar attacks on other ships.
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“It’s important to understand what makes this situation different from previous situations. For the first time, we have Russian military openly firing onto Ukrainian soldiers,” said Shevchenko.
“This time, Russia chose not to hide behind any green men like in Crimea or local rebels or mercenaries like it was in Donbass. This time, it was Russian men in uniform with orders to shoot and attack the Ukrainian military. To me, it’s clear the Russians did this in a very demonstrative way. They wanted to send a message to Ukraine and to the West.”
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The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting on Monday after Russian ships on Sunday rammed and fired on three Ukrainian naval vessels sailing through the Kerch Strait, a waterway that connects ports in the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea beyond.
Access to the strait is vital as it is the only waterway through which ships from several key Ukrainian ports can access the broader shipping and trade routes opening up from the Black Sea, including ports in Turkey, Georgia and the European Union countries of Romania and Bulgaria.
Blocking access to the Kerch Strait by extension blocks off the ports Ukraine uses to export steel and agricultural products.
Steel makes up roughly 17 per cent of Ukrainian exports and Turkey is one of Ukraine’s largest markets for steel.
Shevchenko said the blockade of the Kerch Strait, which a 2003 treaty stated was shared territory between Russia and Ukraine, specifically targets the Ukrainian economy and is part of a larger set of Russian positioning that set it up for a potential attack on the eastern Ukrainian port of Mariupol.
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“Russia is now in the perfect position for an attack on the far eastern parts of Ukraine around the city of Mariupol,” he said, urging Western leaders to act swiftly and apply new sanctions to show Russia there will be repercussions for its aggression.
Shevchenko also said the incident shows there is a need for an increased NATO presence in the Black Sea.
Roughly 1,000 Canadian soldiers are deployed in and around Ukraine as part of military efforts to deter Russia after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
There are 200 Canadian Forces members rotating every six months through postings as trainers to the Ukrainian military.
Another 835 Canadian sailors, soldiers and members of the air force are deployed to central and eastern Europe for Operation Reassurance, which is part of an ongoing NATO effort to deter Russian aggression in the region.
They will be there until March 2023.
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At the Security Council meeting on Monday, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the United Nations read out radio transmissions he said had been intercepted from the Russian coast guard ships and Russian soldiers stationed at the port of Kerch.
Those orders included authorizations for the coast guard ships to shoot to kill, said Volodymyr Yelchenko to the meeting members.
Shevchenko said the video footage of the attack and the yelling that can be heard from Russian authorities in the background is alarming.
“You hear them screaming ‘crush him, kill him, get in, press him, squeeze him,’” he said. “They would of course do it in a future when a new opportunity arrives.”
Global News asked the Department of National Defence on Monday whether the direct attack by Russia on a Western naval ship raised concerns about the safety of Canadian sailors and soldiers stationed in the same area.
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He also said the military would not comment on whether it would change any rules of engagement, force protection measures or specifics about tactics and techniques for operational security reasons, and that the same message applied to Operation Reassurance.
But Shevchenko the escalation the matter represents means the West, including Canada, needs to “send a strong message back.”
While Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has not said whether the government will consider further sanctions against Russia, that’s exactly what Shevchenko said is needed across a broad spectrum of targets.
“The international community has different tools when it comes to sanctions. Some of them target specific individuals, some of them target specific companies and groups of individuals. There are also very important opportunities with sectoral sanctions,” he said, noting the Canadian government also has the option of using the Magnitsky Act.
“I think we should explore all of that.”