J.L. Granatstein is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
Canada has no direct economic or political interest in Ukraine. Canadians of Ukrainian descent surely do, but Canada’s national interests cannot and should not be determined by components of our multicultural society. Our national interests are, first and foremost, the protection of our people, territory, and national unity, co-operation with our great neighbour and economic growth and well-being.
But there is another precept in any list of Canadian national interests – co-operation with our allies in the defence and advancement of freedom and democracy. Canadians have fought wars for that principle in the past, and more than 100,000 Canadians have died for it. The Russian threat to Ukraine surely is a challenge to this Canadian national interest.
Nothing here suggests that Ukraine is a perfect democracy threatened by an expansionist Russia. The Kiev government has been a badly run kleptocracy, corrupt, and incompetent, as the pathetic present state of its military suggests. The toppling of the regime of Viktor Yanukovych was a populist, largely democratic revolt, led by democratic forces but with a sprinkling of far right nationalist groups. The presence of these quasi-fascist and anti-Semitic elements provided the Vladimir Putin government in Moscow with the pretext it needed to rescue Crimea from the clutches of anti-Russia forces and to claim, as it backs pro-Moscow elements in eastern Ukraine, that it is supporting the legitimacy of the Yanukovych government.
The Russians have played their hand skillfully. The Russian navy’s bases in Crimea provided the core of the invading forces, and there seemed little doubt that the annexation of the territory to Russia, approved in a hasty plebiscite, was the genuine choice of the majority. The same might be true in the industrial cities of eastern Ukraine, and to help matters along the Russian military has sent in its agitators and special forces.
The Western response has been weak. Targeted sanctions aimed at a few institutions and oligarchs around Mr. Putin frighten almost no one. The dispatch of a few hundred American soldiers to the Baltic nations is merely a trip wire. And most of the senior NATO members – the British, Germans, and French – have talked tough while doing nothing much for fear of upsetting the financial and trade links they have carefully constructed with Russian concerns.
But there is the national interest concern for the protection and advancement of freedom and democracy, a national interest shared by all NATO members, including Canada. Canada has put sanctions in place, and the Canadian military response to the Russian moves has been the dispatch of six CF-18 fighters and 228 personnel to Romania, 15 staff officers to NATO headquarters in Belgium, and a frigate to European waters. This is not much, but considering the post-Afghanistan state of the Canadian Armed Forces, it is more than might have been expected.
And Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been blunt in his assessment of Moscow’s revanchism: “This [sanctions list] is in response to the situation that’s developing there, and frankly, more generally to the concern that we have on what really is expansionism and militarism on the part of Russia under the presidency of Mr. Putin … I believe this to be a long-term serious threat to global peace and security and we’re always prepared to work with our allies in NATO and elsewhere to try and bring whatever stability we can to the situation.”
The Canadian government has not received much praise for its tough-talking stance. Though tepidly supported by the Opposition parties, Ottawa’s position has widely been seen as pandering to the large Ukrainian-Canadian vote, and many on the left and right have attacked the ultra-nationalist tilt of the “democratic” groups in Ukraine or called for isolationism to be the only proper Canadian stance. Their strictures may even be correct, and certainly none can deny that the Harper government plays domestic ethnic politics with skill.
But there remains that Canadian national interest in supporting freedom. Ukraine is no democracy but it might become one; it deserves the opportunity to find its place as part of the European Union, as a neutral state trading both east and west, or even as a federation with its eastern provinces leaning to Russia. But whatever the choice, that ought to be made by Ukrainians, not by Moscow’s agitators. The Canadian political response, while not exactly measured in its decibel count, has been appropriate, and so too are the Canadian and allied military moves. Mr. Putin has behaved like the KGB thug he was and remains, and the caution sign needed to be displayed lest he look beyond Ukraine.