Michael Bociurkiw is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a global affairs analyst.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was right when he said that Ottawa’s decision to skirt its own sanctions law and send Nord Stream 1 gas turbines back to Russia via Germany was “absolutely unacceptable.”
The six Russian turbines that the German company Siemens Energy had been servicing in Montreal, but which became stranded owing to sanctions on Moscow, had been a bilateral irritant between Ottawa and Kyiv for some time. The Russian government had claimed that the missing equipment was the reason it reduced the flow of natural gas to Germany through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, prompting Berlin to press Justin Trudeau’s government for the turbines’ release. But this week, Canada actively amended its own sanctions laws in order to return them to Germany – which will then turn them over to Russia.
Mr. Trudeau likely had to make many calculations before issuing a decision. Among his probable interests: the protection of Canadian companies’ reputations as reliable commercial partners, and the country’s reputation as a predictable place to do business. But at the end of the day, what is most important is that the turbines will now serve as a cog in the Russian war machine.
Oil and gas exports on average generate more than US$100-billion a year for the Kremlin, which in turn helps fund its invasion of Ukraine. “Russia is incredibly unimportant in the global economy except for oil and gas,” economist and Obama White House adviser Jason Furman told the New York Times. ”It’s basically a big gas station.”
Ottawa’s decision, then, doesn’t just send a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he can continue to play fast and loose around sanctions imposed over his invasion of Ukraine – it also calls into question Canada’s very commitment to assisting Ukraine during an existential period in its history.
The Russian government is using the turbines as an excuse to have some of the sanctions waived, said Olga Khakova, the deputy director for European energy security at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. “They are testing the waters on pressuring Europe into granting future sanctions exemptions.”
Russia’s demand for the generator to be returned is a classic example of its “grey zone aggression,” Elisabeth Braw of the American Enterprise Institute told me. “It wasn’t an overtly aggressive move. But people know instantly it isn’t right and that you are likely to get away with it.”
It’s to be expected that when sanctions begin to hurt the economies of those who implement them, “unity gets to wear thin,” she added. But friends who say they “stand with Ukraine” are supposed to do just that: Stand with the country, even though it may bring pain from time to time.
Ukraine did not mince words in its reaction to Ottawa’s decision. On his Telegram channel Monday evening, Mr. Zelensky said he had summoned Canada’s chargé d’affaires to Ukraine over the sanctions exception. “It’s not just some Nord Stream turbine that Canada shouldn’t have, but decided to hand over anyway. … Every concession in such conditions is perceived by the Russian leadership as an incentive for further, stronger pressure. Russia has never played by the rules in energy and will not play by the rules now unless it sees power.”
Over the course of the conflict, Mr. Zelensky has not hesitated to name and shame Western countries for failing to support Ukraine, but this harsh language was still surprising given our historic bonds; Canada was the first Western nation to recognize Ukraine’s independence in 1991.
Yet Ottawa’s flawed decision is consistent with its bungled approach to the Ukraine war, as overseen by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly. It was late to approve the provision of lethal weapons to Kyiv earlier this year; it was one of the first to withdraw our diplomats from Kyiv and one of the last to send them back to their desks. And then there was the inexplicable appearance of a senior Global Affairs official at a Russian embassy party in June.
As a middle power, Canada cannot rely on military or commercial prowess to project its reputation on the global stage; only its adherence to principles and its track record as a steward of democratic values can do so. Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Joly thus need to ask themselves: What does it say about us, when we choose to do damage to an aspiring democracy such as Ukraine?