To recap: On Sunday it was reported that the department of Global Affairs sent a senior official, deputy chief of protocol Yasemin Heinbecker, to a party at the Russian embassy over the weekend.
A spokesperson for the department initially defended her attendance (“this is not a business-as-usual situation, but we still maintain a diplomatic relation with Russia on matters of Canadian interests”). In the ensuing outcry, however, the same spokesperson abruptly apologized for the decision; shortly afterward, the Minister issued a statement calling it “unacceptable” and vowing it would never happen again.
“I am the Minister,” Mélanie Joly told Parliament, “and the buck stops here, but …” which is the kind of thing politicians say when they want to be seen to be accepting responsibility, without actually accepting it. The message in that “but” was clear: this is on the department. Not only did I have nothing to do with it, I only just heard about it.
However, the next day we learned from “senior government sources” that Ms. Joly’s office, at least, had known of Ms. Heinbecker’s social engagement. For some reason, however, no one had thought to run this by the Minister. Even more shocking, it was apparently kept from the Prime Minister’s Office, whose eyes and ears are everywhere in this government.
What are we to make of this, besides the serial efforts at blame-shifting – from Ms. Joly onto her department, from the department onto Ms. Joly’s staff, from the PMO onto everyone else? If indeed the Minister did not know about it, the implications are troubling enough: ministers are supposed to make it their business to know about such things, and to impress this upon their staff. But whether she personally knew or not, what is more troubling about this affair is the thinking it reveals – the attitude betrayed in that first (“this is not a business-as-usual situation but”) response from the department.
The “this” to which the spokesperson referred was, of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the mass slaughter and other war crimes in which it is engaged there, and the threats it has issued to do the same elsewhere. But then, as the spokesperson noted, Canada had already publicly condemned the invasion and had “summoned Moscow’s envoy twice to express this condemnation to him.” Twice! So you see? Objections noted. Let’s party.
The clear implication is that Russia’s crimes – including, according to a unanimous vote of Parliament, genocide – are not so serious as all that. It may be a pariah state now, diplomatically isolated and subject to the most severe international sanctions. But once all this war stuff blows over we can all get back to business: indeed, to business-as-usual.
Or as the Russian ambassador himself put it in a statement: “We don’t look at Canada through the adversarial optic and are ready to patiently wait when [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau’s cabinet or the next government come to understand that it’s in Canadian national interest to pursue good-neighbourly relations with Russia.”
The timing could not be more inopportune. In the face of Russia’s unrelenting aggression, the resolve of the democracies to defend Ukraine is weakening, their solidarity fragmenting. Deprived of the weapons and ammunition they need, Ukraine’s soldiers are finding it harder to repel the Russian advance. The “realist” chorus calling for a peace settlement to be imposed on Ukraine – the same chorus that blamed NATO and Ukraine for the war to begin with – has grown louder.
A “peace” that left Russia in possession of Ukrainian territory is not just morally wrong, but strategically incoherent. Would such a deal mean the threat of further Russian incursions had been extinguished? Of course not. It would simply give the Russians an opportunity to regroup – the pause that refreshes.
The problem, in short, is not Ukraine. It is Vladimir Putin, or rather it is the broader political culture that produces a Putin. When Mr. Putin crossed into Ukraine, he revealed himself once and for all for who he is, and what he is capable of. There is no going back from that, no way to unknow what is now known. The breach is irreparable.
Yet somehow that message does not seem to have penetrated the bunker at Global Affairs. Somebody thought it was a good idea to send Ms. Heinbecker to that party, precisely for the message it would send. They did not, what is more, come to that understanding unaided. This is a government that is all too easily persuaded that we live in a world without friends or enemies, allies or adversaries, but only conflicts to be mediated, debates to be convened, with Canada in its accustomed role as “helpful fixer.”
The world, it is true, is a complicated place. But that does not require us to abdicate all judgment. We should be careful to see all shades of grey – including black and white.
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