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Prime Minister Stephen Harper leaves Ottawa on Friday, March 21, 2014 en route to Europe where he will visit Ukraine, the Netherlands and Germany. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper leaves Ottawa on Friday, March 21, 2014 en route to Europe where he will visit Ukraine, the Netherlands and Germany. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Christopher Westdal

Harper should offer Ukraine aid, but also hard truths Add to ...

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits Kiev on Saturday, he will bear and voice the hopes and the deep fears of Canadians, millions of whom have taken the crisis in Ukraine to heart.

Though his hosts are beleaguered, bruised, tired, sad, angry, exasperated and more, the Prime Minister will be warmly welcomed, his gesture of solidarity and support much appreciated. With the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, our bilateral relations with Ukraine were transformed. The last time the Prime Minister visited, we were vocal critics of the Kiev administration. Foreign Minister John Baird later joined the protests in person. But now, our partners are in power. With them, with western Ukrainians and on the Maidan, we have significant credibility. The Prime Minister will want to use it.

Our partners face a perfect storm of problems. Though they may be denying the fact, Crimea (with four per cent of their population) has been painfully, humiliatingly amputated. Russia, the great power next door, is contesting the new government’s legitimacy. Their nation is deeply, angrily divided, with the risk of violence widespread. Their economy is in serious financial and structural distress. Corruption has been systemic. Wealth and power are in an unholy wedlock. Ukrainian institutions are not trusted by the foreign donors upon whose largesse Kiev now depends for relief and support.

Ukrainians need all the help they can get. To put the size of their urgent needs in context, consider that our initial $220-million contribution amounts to a scarcely transformative $5 per capita. Without Crimea, there are still some 44 million Ukrainians.

An election is set for May 25. Austerity imposed by lending agencies such as the International Monetary Fund would undermine the new government’s prospect of winning a nation-wide democratic mandate. Mr. Harper will want to assure his hosts that he will work to make sure the aid is prompt.

We can provide technical assistance as well, wherever we have relevant excellence to offer. Our very best would be pleased to serve. We should want that aid to move much faster than usual, too.

When he visits, the Prime Minister will be enroute to a G7 meeting to discuss further sanctions. His credibility there will be enhanced by his having just been in Kiev. Many Ukrainians will be disappointed by the modesty of the sanctions package being discussed and will press the Prime Minister to urge the G7 to do much more. They should be reminded that, caught between the tight fist of the IMF and the mercies of an irate Kremlin, they would likely be among the chief victims of any prolonged tit-for-tat war of sanctions.

They can also be assured, though, that in this security crisis, Russia will indeed pay a price for its annexation of Crimea – a price denominated, appropriately, in the currency of security: deepened distrust and suspicion in Eastern Europe, the re-animation of NATO and the stirring of Germany, among others.

Some of his hosts will want Russia ejected from the G8 permanently, not just for the time being, and the planned Sochi G8 Summit canned. Germany has reportedly been reluctant, arguing that engagement is more productive than isolation, but Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday that in the current political climate, “the G8 no longer exists.” Above all, the G7 should present a united front. It must also recognize that Kiev, however bruised and angry, remains in need of a functional relationship with the great power next door, whether or not it’s in the G8.

Crimea was a line in the sand, now crossed, with consequences ensuing. Mainland Ukraine is a red line, blood red, because, as Moscow knows, Ukrainians would fight, one way or another. More important now than punishing Moscow for a fait accompli is making it abundantly clear to the Kremlin publicly and behind the scenes that any further incursion into the mainland of Ukraine would bear a very steep price.

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but it is a partner – and it would be supported with cash, military advice and arms in any struggle. Moreover, NATO would stiffen its guard with new resolve and increased defence budgets Moscow would be hard-pressed to match in the war that would ensue. The legacy of Vladimir Putin, all his current surging popularity notwithstanding, would be stained with fraternal blood forever.

It would be best if Prime Minister Harper’s rhetoric were restrained in Kiev. He ought not go on too long about grave violations of agreements and international law, for instance, lest he have to rehearse the constitutionality of the Maidan’s ousting of President Yanukovych. It’s not just that the Russians didn’t buy it. It’s that many Ukrainians didn’t either. Though the crisis has reinforced much patriotism, Ukraine is still divided, with many in the east and south suspicious of ethnic Ukrainian nationalism.

Mr. Harper’s sustained prominence in this field has gained him particular credibility, which can now be put to good use speaking hard truth. Behind the scenes, the Prime Minister might offer some advice his hosts don’t want to hear.

For one thing, however much the amputation hurt, there is little point in pining for Crimea – or fostering false hope and national yearning for its return. There is too much else to do. Ukrainians have had enough heartbreak. They should not be set up for more. The world will soon abide the reality of a Russian Crimea, whether or not it is formally recognized. Kiev will have to do so too.

Though the advice will seem odd coming from Canada, which has spurned Russia for years, Mr. Harper should encourage his hosts to come to grips with the deal they need to get done with Moscow. Essentially, in exchange for a form of neutrality, like Finland’s in the Cold War, Ukraine would get recognition, peace, quiet, territorial respect and, if things went right, mutually beneficial cooperation with the great power next door.

Finally, taking advantage of our credibility on the Maidan, in the western Ukraine and with some members of the new government, the Prime Minister could urge them to do their utmost now to constrain ethnic nationalism and to make Russian-speaking Ukainians feel that their language and their culture are welcomed and that their patriotism is unquestioned. Ukrainians don’t need to take such steps to placate Russia. They need to take them, urgently, to save and build their own country. I do hope our Prime Minister’s visit helps them do so.

Christopher Westdal was Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine from 1996 to 1998 and ambassador to Russia from 2003 to 2006.

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