With each new report of babies being killed and doctors performing surgeries with kitchen knives because their hospital was destroyed by bombs, Bob Rae becomes more determined to see Russia held accountable for its crimes against the Ukrainian people.
Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, often using very undiplomatic language on social media platforms such as Twitter to convey the rage he feels over what is taking place.
“I don’t know how anyone can be diplomatic when it comes to describing what Putin is doing in Ukraine,” Mr. Rae told me in an interview. “It’s unspeakably wrong and there is no question that watching it unfold, as it has, has affected me on a deep, emotional level.”
While Mr. Rae has spent a lifetime in the public realm – as the first (and only) NDP premier of Ontario and a former federal Liberal MP, among other jobs – we are witnessing his finest hour as he carries out the same UN duties his father, Saul, did 50 years earlier. The UN job can often be a sinecure – a cushy thank you on behalf of a government for a person’s service to their country. Few appointees expect to be thrust into meeting one of the greatest challenges the UN has faced in its history.
In late February, on the eve of the Russian invasion, Mr. Rae gave one of the most compelling commentaries on what was about to take place in a speech to the UN General Assembly.
“We meet at a time of a direct threat to the peace and security of the world community,” he began. During his talk, he pulled out his dog-eared copy of the UN Charter from his suit pocket and quoted specific passages, offering, extemporaneously, his interpretation of how Russia was about to violate several of its tenets in a bid to recast the world order.
Mr. Rae has clearly been given considerable leeway to speak out by the Prime Minister’s Office, a sign of the enormous trust they have in their man in New York. Undoubtedly, some of Mr. Rae’s tweets have incited more than a few “he said what?” moments in Ottawa.
He’s called Mr. Putin “Stalin’s horrendous successor,” for example. If Russia isn’t stopped now, Mr. Putin “will make a desert of #Ukraine and call it ‘victory’ and ‘peace.’ We cannot let him succeed,” he tweeted last week. “We know [the Russians] are lying because their lips are moving,” he’s also said.
Mr. Rae’s mission team also made news with a viral tweet heavily mocking a letter Russia sent to the UN seeking support for a draft resolution around humanitarian aid and civilian protection in Ukraine. Canada’s annotated version of the letter was merciless in its criticism of Russia for creating the humanitarian crisis with which it was proposing to assist. With diplomats around the world applauding Canada’s moxie and dead-on critique of Russia’s position, Ottawa quietly nodded its head in support.
Beyond his spirited tweets and fiery commentary, one gets the impression our UN ambassador is extremely concerned about the existential crisis the world is facing. It’s a period he told me is easily “the scariest” since the Second World War.
In a recent piece for Policy Magazine, Mr. Rae laid out the unprecedented challenges that institutional structures meant to keep us safe from nuclear annihilation, like the UN, are facing. Like others before him, he lamented the vetoes handed out to Russia and four other permanent members of the Security Council that effectively baked in a certain amount of dysfunction in the operating system of the institution.
With that veto, for instance, it’s effectively impossible to kick Russia out of the UN, even if its members wanted to. However, he said there is another, even more powerful veto that exists – that which belongs to those countries that possess means of mass destruction.
“The end of nuclear hegemony created a deadlock more profound than a raise of the hand at the Security Council,” Mr. Rae wrote. “And it is that fact that lies at the heart of the current challenge in how to deal with [Putin’s] aggression.”
In expanding on those observations in our interview, Mr. Rae said the way the world responds to countries that have a nuclear bomb is different than it is for those who don’t. It’s why no one has invaded North Korea, he said. He said Mr. Putin made a statement early in the conflict that he was putting his nuclear arsenal on alert.
“It was his way of arching an eyebrow and saying: “I’ve got a bomb in my pocket so watch what you do,” said Mr. Rae.
The Russian President’s calculus is that his threat – this sword of Damocles he is holding over the head of the Western world – will scare everybody off. It is a weapon for him. And to some extent it has worked in restraining NATO countries from getting their hands dirty on the ground in Ukraine. And while no one wants a dangerous escalation of the conflict, no one in the free, democratic world wants Mr. Putin to win, which will only make his appetite for further conquests more insatiable.
This is where Mr. Rae, in my opinion, walks a difficult line. He clearly can’t stomach what he is seeing taking place in Ukraine – the wanton destruction of a peaceful, democratic nation by a violent murderer who happens to have a bunch of nuclear bombs. Yet, if the world is going to continually be scared off by his threats, then where does this stop? Mr. Rae knows Mr. Putin is using fear as a tactic. He also knows we can’t be afraid to confront him.
I suggested to the ambassador that I have difficulty reconciling the fact that NATO would ostensibly go to war with Russia if it invaded a member state such as Estonia, population 1.3 million, but won’t do the same for a sovereign democracy such as Ukraine, population 44 million, because it doesn’t happen to be a member.
“I don’t think history will judge the Western world well if Ukraine falls to Putin,” I suggested.
After a long silence, he said: “I think all I can say is ‘I hear you.’ I’m listening to what you’re saying very carefully and you’re not hearing me say that’s a completely false premise.”
You sense the ambassador wants to say more, wants to agree there has to be a greater response from the West, including boots on the ground and planes in the air, but can’t go there. That it would be a line crossed, even if he knows, inherently, this is the free world’s fight as much as it is Ukraine’s. And that a Ukraine victory would be a victory for democracy and the rule of law.
Still, he can convey this view in more subtle ways.
“Justice without force is powerlessness and force without justice is tyranny,” he told me, quoting the French physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal from 400 years ago. Mr. Rae said the UN is one of several institutions designed to help protect humankind from the type of unchecked tyranny we are witnessing now – tyranny that has to be punished appropriately.
“The question is how much do we care about the values that are the bedrock of these institutions?” the ambassador asks. “How far are we prepared to go to defend them? That is the question at hand today.”
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