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Russian invasion a ‘bone-chilling act’ of colonialism, uOttawa expert says


“One of the heartbreaking things that I’ve read was from a young professor in Kyiv. She cancelled class and she said, ‘My students are joining the army.'”

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Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine is a “bone-chilling” example of empire building and modern-day colonialism, says the chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa.

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“It’s a full-scale invasion of a type we haven’t seen on European soil since the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939,” said Dominique Arel, a political scientist who has studied the Ukraine for 30 years. “It’s totally unprovoked, like in 1939, with a very similar narrative: that the Poles don’t deserve to have a state or to even be nation.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his assault early Thursday, sending ground troops into Ukraine from the north, east and south, and seizing airfields with airborne troops. The size and the scale of the invasion caught many experts off-guard, but Arel said Putin had been signalling his intention for days “using obscene language like the “de-nazification of Ukraine.”

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“What is colonialism if not the pretence that the people cannot govern themselves. That’s exactly what Putin is telling us: That Ukrainians are incapable of governing themselves,” Arel said.

“It’s bone-chilling to hear that.”

Arel, who is not Ukrainian, but a Québécois francophone, says he has graduate students in Ukraine and is getting continual updates on the situation from friends and colleagues on the ground.

“One of the heartbreaking things that I’ve read was from a young professor in Kyiv. She cancelled class and she said, ‘My students are joining the army.’ That really hits home. You can’t go to school. Instead you join the army to defend your country.”

In a speech recorded Monday, but delivered Thursday, just before the invasion, Putin spoke of the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine — code words, Arel said, for destroying Ukraine’s armed forces and its democratically elected government.

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In Ottawa, a small group of protesters gathered Thursday outside the Russian Consulate on Charlotte Street, waving the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag and anti-Putin banners. Another group demonstrated outside the United States Embassy on Sussex Drive, urging that country to supply arms and anti-air defences to Ukraine’s military.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the Russian attack a “massive threat to security and peace around the world” and announced targeted sanctions against 62 individual Russians and entities. The U.S. has also targeted $1 trillion in assets in Russian banks.

“Short term, sanctions will not stop the war,” Arel said. “The Russians are hoping for a quick war, but we have plenty of examples, of course, in world history of quick wars that become less quick. Then the impact of sanctions could be significant because it’s very expensive to wage a full-scale war.”

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But Trudeau’s actions aren’t enough, said Yaroslav Baran, a managing principal with Earnscliffe Strategies in Ottawa.

“What we’re seeing right now is tantamount to Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. And you do not respond by adding 60 new people to the sanctions list,” Baran said.

“This is at the point where the response has to be using every lever at our disposal to turn (Russia) into a self-ghettoized pariah state.”

Ukraine supporters demonstrate in front of the United States Embassy in Ottawa on Thursday.
Ukraine supporters demonstrate in front of the United States Embassy in Ottawa on Thursday. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

Baran had been expecting Putin to move troops into the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, taking over the country “bite by bite.” He was taking part in a demonstration outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa on Wednesday night when an embassy staffer took him aside and told him Ukraine intelligence was predicting a massive invasion. “He said, ‘Brace yourself,’” Baran said.

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Baran said Russia should be immediately kicked out of international organizations, including the G20, and banned from the e-commerce network SWIFT, a move Western nations have been reluctant to make because of the global financial implications.

“We should be looking like things like international travel bans. ‘You’re travelling on a Russian passport? Nope. Sorry. Turn around and go home.’ These are the kind of things that would actually start to hurt.”

Russia’s “shock and awe” attack against Ukraine, a Western-leaning country, but not a member of the NATO alliance, should worry all nations, Baran said.

“This is not just a Ukraine issue, Baran said. “Ukraine just happens to be the human sacrifice standing between Russia and the rest of the old Eastern Bloc that Vladimir Putin also laments losing.

“There’s no credible reason to think he’s going to stop at Ukraine. And those next countries are NATO members, so, at a certain point, if this continues to escalate, we will have an Article 4 responsibility,” Baran said, referring to the section of the NATO treaty invoked when a member country feels its security threatened.

“No one wants it to get to that point. But no one wanted it to get to this point, either.”

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