David Collenette is a former minister of national defence and chair of the NATO Association of Canada. Hugh Segal is a former chair of the standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University.
The solidarity Canada has shown with its NATO allies during recent days of Russian threats, demands and attempted intimidation is worthy of praise. This week, Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly is meeting with her French and Belgian counterparts and visiting Canadian troops in Eastern Europe. Defence Minister Anita Anand and the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Wayne Eyre, have both reaffirmed Canada’s assistance to the training of Ukrainian defence forces. These are constructive signals that reflect our support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and our continued commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence.
Canada and its allies must demonstrate resolve when dealing with authoritarian governments, especially those such as Russia, which has violated international law by seizing Crimea, used mercenaries and special forces to invade and threaten the Donbass region of Ukraine, and collaborated with Syria’s government forces to kill thousands of civilians, including children, during the Syrian civil war. The rules-based international order can only be sustained by firm and focused policy consistency on the part of democracies and middle powers such as our own.
Avoiding armed conflict through constructive diplomacy is always preferable. Diluting important principles of democratic free choice for the countries of Eastern Europe, such as Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, simply to avoid confrontation with the Russians is both reprehensible and ineffective. History teaches us that appeasement to avoid conflict with aggressive authoritarians only leads to more serious conflict around the corner.
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Our government should join with our allies in immediately planning and implementing steps that would facilitate tough financial, trade and personal sanctions against Russia if it doesn’t withdraw its aggressive deployments from Ukraine’s borders. It is vital that Canada does everything possible to ensure tactical acuity and mobility so we are able to act in consort with our NATO allies.
Many Canadians may ask why we should be preoccupied with the current events in Ukraine. The answer is clear. Previous events have demonstrated that when autocratic regimes trample on the rights of democracies without repercussion, they are emboldened to act on threats elsewhere. Whereas in 1939 those threats were contained initially to Europe, today, an aggressor’s reach can be global using conventional military force but also the modern weaponry of cyberwarfare.
Not unlike the Russian Federation, Canada has a large landmass to defend, bordered by three oceans. Recent reports suggesting that Russia could deploy forces to Venezuela and Cuba in the event of hostilities remind us that Canadians must reflect on our Arctic regional defences. Russia is a heavily armed neighbour and potential threat; believing that conflicts can be regionally contained may be dangerously naive.
Both President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping of China have written and spoken of their disdain for the liberal democratic model, as well as the internal debates and political controversies they both see as weakening the resolve of democracies worldwide. They may well believe that notwithstanding the collective military or economic capacity of NATO’s 30 sovereign members, military aggression in Ukraine would be like a hot knife slicing through a mound of butter. NATO solidarity – both in terms of sanctions imposed on Russia in the event of an unlawful invasion as well as tactical deployments to shore up NATO states on Russia’s border – is a vital and stabilizing force. This is the key reason why standing up to Russia on Ukraine and maintaining the right of all NATO members to make their own internal, diplomatic and alliance decisions is so important.
A peaceful resolution to the current crisis is obviously preferable, but only possible if Mr. Putin understands that NATO’s resolve to defend the territorial integrity of its members and aspiring entrants to the alliance is not negotiable.
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