Portents of Putin’s Ukraine War – Halifax, 1993

In preparation for his invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin deployed the flagship of Russia’s Northern Fleet to the Mediterranean. Now, the powerful cruiser Marshal Ustinov stands between NATO’s naval forces (including Canada’s HMCS Montreal) and the Dardanelles, which link the Mediterranean to the Black Sea coast of Ukraine. Twenty-nine years ago the relationship had been very different. Ustinov made a memorably visit to Halifax and conducted friendly exercises with the Canadian Navy before heading on to the U.S. Looking back, there were warning signs even then that if the collapse of the Soviet Union were not handled prudently, sooner or later Russia would become an adversary again. And so it has proved.

In July 1993, Ustinov, with the destroyer Admiral Kharlamov and tanker Dniester made a goodwill visit to the east coast of North America.  A year and a half earlier the Soviet Union had dissolved. The Cold War was over and Russians were no longer the enemy. In the West there was a sense of having won a dangerous competition without descent into nuclear war. But for members of Russia’s armed forces it was anything but exhilarating. The Russian economy was in shambles as the state-controlled system was being quietly gathered into the kleptocratic hands of those with influence during Soviet days, Vladimir Putin among them. Officers and men of Ustinov task group who had joined the imposing and expanding naval service of a great world power now found themselves reduced to poorly-paid crews of a gradually deteriorating fleet.

In Halifax, official plans for hospitality were crafted to avoid embarrassing the visitors. Perhaps because it’s a navy town, there was also an unspoken community consensus that we should welcome them as worthy opponents who we were now pleased to embrace as friends and equals. Many citizens, especially naval families, were keen to entertain and swap stories with those who had so recently been professional adversaries at sea. In return the Russians offered their hosts a welcome aboard their ships and a rollicking concert of music and dance ashore.

Russian helicopter with flagsThe mood was warm and buoyant by the time the Canadian destroyer HMCS Gatineau led the Russian squadron out of Halifax for search and rescue exercises and displays of capabilities. One of my more vivid memories is the low, deck-rumbling growl of Ustinov‘s six-barrelled close-in air defence weapons (which, because of its appearance, some of us used to call “the Dalek“). A Russian helicopter flew over Gatineau with the Canadian and Russian flags flying,  while Marshal Ustinov saluted the commander of Canada’s navy, Vice-Admiral Peter Cairns (seen in the picture at the top chatting with Command Chief Petty Officer “Buster” Brown aboard Gatineau) as the Russians set course for Boston.

Russian cruiser "Marshal Ustinov'

Visiting Moscow a year later I learned that Boston’s hospitality had been no less warm and generous, but there had been a subtle but significant difference. I haven’t been able to find any contemporary records, but a story describing a similar visit to Florida a year earlier, before the Soviet Union dissolved, suggests why. “What we’re trying to do is give them plenty of opportunities so those guys can see a little bit of the good old U.S.A. and get a feel for what it’s like to live here” said a U.S. Navy spokesman.“The Soviets love shopping malls, which are a sharp contrast to empty stores back in the U.S.S.R. so the sailors will have plenty of time to stroll through malls.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture a Russian who had worn his country’s uniform with pride – the country that had defeated the Nazis at such cost in World War Two – now being invited to “stroll through malls” with no money to spend because, as many saw it, their politicians had surrendered to a rich, capitalist America without firing a shot. Despite the best and most generous motives in the world, for many Russians their well-meaning American hosts had inadvertently reinforced a sense of humiliation.

When the “Iron Curtain” had opened, a 37 year-old Russian career intelligence officer in East Germany had been burning KGB files to keep them from falling into the hands of demonstrators. By the time Ustinov was visiting Halifax, Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin had resigned to take the political path that would ultimately lead to the presidency. By the time he took office, the nations comprising NATO – an alliance created to counter the Soviet Union – had made the ill-judged decision to expand into newly-independent former Soviet republics rather than focusing on drawing them, and Russia, into the economic and cultural family of the European community (now the EU).

From sixteen nations then, NATO has expanded to thirty today, with talk of expanding even further.  In 2008, America’s president George W. Bush handed President Putin a propaganda gift by making comments in Ukraine about including Ukraine and Georgia.  It only takes a glance at a map to see shows how Vladimir Putin can make the case to his supporters that NATO militaries are pushing ever-closer to Russia’s frontiers; that Ukraine must never join the enemy camp; that Russia must regain its place of power and influence on the world stage.

Map of NATO enlargement
Center for Strategic and International Studies

To paraphrase a wise Spanish diplomat writing during the Cold War, our adversaries are not Russians, but rather their corrupt and oppressive regime. The appropriate policy is, therefore, to offer the people, “but never their oppressors“, the prospect of sincere peace, alliance for peaceful purposes, financial help, keen interchange of trade and free interrelationships.(*) It’s too late to change what happened thirty years ago. Nothing in international relations is ever simple black and white. We can’t wind back the clock. But what we can do is absorb the lesson of treating former adversaries with dignity, grace, and as equals.

(*) Adapted from Salvador de Madariaga,The Blowing up of the Parthenon, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1960.

Ustinov is a sister ship to the ill-fated Moskva which was sunk by Ukrainian missiles in the Black Sea, 14 April 2022.