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The Globe and Mail

Ukraine pushes for NATO membership, Western arms

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird (left) meets with Vadym Prystaiko, Ukrainian Ambassador to Canada, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, March 4 2014. Mr. Prystaiko told the Globe on Friday Ukraine is seeking more support from Canada, including Western armaments.


Ukraine is mounting a push for NATO membership as it faces down Russia, a move that comes ahead of a major NATO summit and as the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada renews calls for armaments from the West.

Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Friday said he'd move toward suspending the country's "non-bloc" status, a first step toward pursuing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership, ahead of the alliance's summit in Wales next week.

The push from Ukraine will force Western leaders – including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who will attend the summit – to once again evaluate what role to play in Eastern Europe. Until now, the response to Russian aggression has been largely confined to economic sanctions, public condemnations and "non-lethal" hardware, such as helmets and vests, sent to Ukraine.

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"Obviously, we are seeking more and more support. We've received the non-lethal support, including Canada's, but it's not enough obviously because Russia is not shying away from supplying these [rebels] with military support," Ukraine's ambassador to Canada, Vadym Prystaiko, told The Globe on Friday. Asked whether he was pleased with Canada's response so far, he replied: "I don't want to be disrespectful. I understand Canada is doing what it [can] but it's obvious it's not enough for us for survival."

Ukraine has made similar overtures for NATO membership in the past, including when Mr. Yatsenyuk was speaker in the parliament.

This round, too, is a "largely symbolic gesture" by Ukraine ahead of the NATO summit, said Fen Hampson, an international affairs scholar and director of the Global Security & Politics program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.

"For a country that doesn't have a whole lot of leverage in this situation, they're trying to obviously exert maximum pressure as they see themselves coming under what is, for all intents and purposes, a Russian invasion," Prof. Hampson said, adding that NATO countries are unlikely to come to the defence of Ukraine "because it would mean armed confrontation with the Russians. I think it's a real concern that this could be trigger to a much greater war if they don't play it carefully. And that's the reality."

Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Mr. Harper, said "any European democracy sharing NATO's values and willing and able to assume the responsibilities of membership should be able to apply to join the alliance."

The path for a Ukrainian pursuit of NATO membership is murky. Mr. Yatsenyuk reportedly said non-bloc status could be dissolved through parliament, though Mr. Prystaiko said it could also be struck down through the courts. Regardless, Ukraine needs immediate military aid from the West, Mr. Prystaiko said.

"Russia is getting back and it wants to play something. In 2008, it was [the Russian conflict in] Georgia first, just checking how the world will react. Now they are going to take on much bigger chunk of European territory in a bigger nation [Ukraine]. And if you can do that, the next stage can be anything," he said.

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A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird defended Canada's contributions to date, pointing to its strong pro-Ukraine stand, economic sanctions against Russia and non-lethal equipment sent thus far. "Canada's response to Russian expansionism and militarism in eastern Ukraine has been swift, targeted and unequivocal," spokesman Rick Roth said.

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