‘Sky is the limit’. Russians may blockade Odessa if there is no response – US Colonel

What has changed in the world in the wake of the Kerch crisis and what conclusions should be drawn? Colonel Ray Wójcik, Director of the Warsaw office of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and a former US military attache in Poland, answered questions of Belsat TV show Prasviet host Syarhei Pelyasa.

Director, what do you think about Russia’s recent attack on Ukrainian navy units?

What Russians continue to do is challenge the West, challenge NATO, challenge Europe, challenge the US by what they are doing in Ukraine. And Russians need to see it in a category ‘it is not just Russia and Ukraine’. The West was not well-prepared for this next escalation. We keep having continued escalations by the Russians, so you can see in the responses from the West, from different capitals and organisations, various levels how we feel about this. So, for example, one of the things is important to know is there is one aggressor and there is one victim in the situation. The aggressor are the Russians and the victim is Ukraine. So, the idea that both sides need to deescalate, for example, that both sides have some falter capability in this is flat wrong. The Russians are taking more steps of regional aggression in sort of creeping territorial annexation, in this case, territorial waters.

In your opinion, why didn’t the Ukrainian navy men respond when Russians started shooting at them?

I cannot speak for the rules of engagement for the Ukrainian navy. Clearly, the Ukrainian navy is outgunned, outmatched in the sea of Azov, Black Sea, so probably they did not want more risk of even higher escalation. Clearly, the Russians are taking the advantage declaring de facto ownership of all the territorial waters, the sea of Azov, the entrances and so forth, or using the essence of international rules upside down to say they are in the rights to do what they are doing. The Ukrainian navy, like the ground forces, has long way to go to build into a more capable force and that is something NATO, US need to seriously look at – rapid development of the Ukrainian navy.

How can the US and generally the West support Ukraine’s steps to rebuild its navy after the annexation of Crimea?

There has been a significant loss of naval capability after the annexation of Crimea. First, the West, particularly NATO, needs to develop its coherent Black Sea strategy. And so far today there has not been really taken on by NATO. There have been efforts by NATO and US as a key NATO partner to reinforce and place rotational forces into the Black Sea area, but not enough has been done at a larger scale and more coherently in the Black Sea. There needs to be more naval presence from NATO in the Black Sea on the continuous spaces and more outreach. Unfortunately, there is a challenge with Turkey because of its relationship – Turk stream energy relationship with Russia, the relationship with Russia in general and how we deal with something called the Montreux Convention which has a significant limitation for NATO to operate in the Black Sea. So, for help and support the development of the Ukrainian navy, some of the first steps can be looked at – speeding up some programs to provide fast transfer and fast training to Ukrainian naval personal on petrol boats and land-based anti-ship missile systems and intelligent, surveillance, reconnaisance and maritime awareness capability, so the Ukrainians can see what Russians are doing and be able to react to it.

Do you think the Russians will stop after they de facto capture Azov Sea and turned it into their own ‘internal lake’ or they will go forward and try, for example, to blockade Odessa, i.e. Western Ukrainian Black Sea coast?

I think it is clear that Russians will go as far as they feel they can get away vis-a-vis Ukraine. So, that includes potentially blocading the Azov and stopping Ukrainian merchant shipping which may have a crippling impact on the Ukrainian economy and therefore the Ukrainian ability to govern. [The case is ] the way to the south, the areas around Crimea. If [it goes] unchecked by the West, without more sticks (I mean the carrot and sticks method to let the Russians know that the West is serious about the security of Ukraine), I think the sky is the limit for the Russians – including Odessa; that is why there needs to be a stronger response from the West including NATO, the European Union and the US.

In the wake of the recent developments, President Donald Trump said he may cancel the meeting with Mr Putin during the G20 summit in Argentina. Do you think it is enough or it is time for a stronger reaction?

A key thing is not to focus on particular individual reaction, President’s reaction, for example, but watch would happen now with NATO, the US as we go forth. I think the important thing is not to spend a lot of time talking about President’s statements in the past about the security in the eastern flank of NATO, but look what this president has done. As far as security rotational forces continue to increase in presence and commitment resources to the eastern flank, I think [one should] focus on the response.

Do you think Russia’s recent aggressive step may result in US placing a permanent base in the eastern flank of NATO in Poland? Or such things are not connected?

I think they are definitely connected. Historically, it is clear that Russian mindset, Russian perspective, particularly Mr Putin’s responds to strength, strong position. The idea of permanent presence of Western forces on the eastern flank of NATO is an absolute sign, demonstration of our commitment and our ability to flex and be flexible on the eastern flank.

The interview was part of Belsat TV show Prasviet (World And Us):

Photo: Sergei Malgavko / TASS / FORUM