The decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to put the country’s nuclear forces on high alert over the weekend is “deeply irrational” and is a threat that must not deter the West from its support for Ukraine, says Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Bob Rae appeared before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee on Monday for a special meeting on Russia’s violent and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign democracy.
Facing repeated questions about the nuclear threat implicit in Putin’s decision, Rae said the world should not be cowed because that is exactly what the Russian dictator wants to achieve.
“When President Putin turns around and makes the announcement that he made yesterday, what are we to make of it? I think it’s deeply irrational,” said Rae on Monday, pointing to a joint statement from Russia and the U.S. in June 2021 which stressed: “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
“I also think it’s important for us not to be scared off by this tactic, and I think it is a tactic,” Rae added. “I think it’s really important not to give in to what it’s intended to do. It’s intended to make us all back off.”
He finished: “No one’s getting turned away by this.”
Putin’s Sunday decision marked a dramatic escalation in tensions five days after he launched an invasion of Ukraine, which has so far seen fierce fighting by Ukrainians defending their homeland and unprecedented economic sanctions by Western countries.
NATO late last week deployed its quick response force for the first time in its history to support surrounding areas fearing spillover of the Russian violence, while countries with longstanding aversions to supplying lethal military aid have shifted course to bolster Ukrainian defences.
Canada sent $7.8 million worth of lethal aid last week while Germany pledged to send 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine — a historic policy reversal for Germany, which has long maintained a refusal to supply weapons into conflicted territory.
Switzerland, as well, also broke with historic policy as a neutral state to announce on Monday that it will apply all the same sanctions against Russia as its European Union allies are doing.
Putin cited “aggressive statements” from NATO as well as the economic sanctions now in place in the decision to move his nuclear forces to high readiness.
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On Monday, Ukrainian leaders made a request to join the European Union after talks with Russia failed to produce a ceasefire. It comes as Russian troops and equipment continue to approach Kyiv.
Putin has repeatedly demanded that the NATO military alliance refuse to allow Ukraine to join, and spread misinformation that Russia is justified in attacking Ukraine because expanded NATO influence poses a threat to Russian security.
“He puts his finger on the nuclear button and says, ‘You’re making me do this,'” said Rae when questioned on what he believes is motivating Putin.
“That’s the language of an abuser. That’s like someone who’s an abuser saying, ‘I’m only hitting you because you’re making me hit you.’ It is dangerous talk, it is irrational talk.”
He continued: “The issue of NATO membership is determined by all the members.”
One of the alliance’s core principles is collective defence — an attack against one member is an attack against all members, and will spark a joint military response.
That includes cyber attacks.
Russia invaded Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula in 2014, annexing the territory, and Putin has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the fact of Ukrainian sovereignty, insisting it is part of Russia in what many have interpreted as a bid to restore the scope and influence of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
The question of whether Russia’s failure to advance more significantly through Ukraine could lead Putin to take more aggressive and violent actions remains an open one.
Maj.-Gen. Paul Prévost, director of staff for the Canadian Forces’ Strategic Joint Staff, agreed that the Russian advance does not appear to have moved as fast as Putin hoped.
But neither Rae nor Prévost would commit to whether Canada plans to send more military aid.
“Sending weapons to a country is not something simple and it starts with, what do we have to offer? So when we send the last package, it’s what we had to offer on the shelf here,” Prévost said.
He said the contributions by allies to Ukraine should be viewed as “complementary” to each other, and that any weapons being sent need to be ones that Ukrainians know how to use.
“There’s an issue of interoperability: Is what we’re going to provide here available for Ukrainians? Are they trained on this? If not, why send it?” he said.
“What Canada’s provided over the years is training to Ukrainians. That’s what we’re known for — providing good training.”
Rae added that while it is true that many countries did not take the threat of a Russian invasion as seriously as they should have, now is not the time to focus on what could have or should have been done before.
“Right now, we’re in the middle of a battle,” he said.
“The moments for analysis or reconsideration will come later.”