Playing a dangerous game: Canada risking nuclear war with Russia

Ukrainians paying the price of American neoconservatism, and Ottawa has been an enthusiastic cheerleader
Photo: Anita Anand
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It’s been four months since Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine. While Canadians generally consider Moscow’s actions brutal and illegal, few recognize Ottawa’s role in helping precipitate and prolong the deadly conflict.

After Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions passed a bill favouring Ukrainian neutrality in 2010, Ottawa worked to subvert the elected president. During the three-month long Maidan protest that toppled Yanukovych in February 2014, then foreign affairs minister John Baird attended an anti-government rally in Kyiv. Ottawa-sanctioned government officials and opposition activists used the Canadian embassy as a base for a week.

(Imagine Canada’s reaction if a foreign embassy hosted those “truckers” who demonstrated in Ottawa earlier this year, and helped them overthrow the government.)

The coup divided Ukraine between the continental Europe–aligned west and centre of the country and Russian-oriented south and east. It led to an eight-year war in the Donbas region that left 14,000 dead before Russia’s full-scale invasion.

In a bid to halt the fighting, France and Germany oversaw the Minsk peace process. Two months after Minsk II was signed in February 2015, Canada launched a military training mission that bolstered Ukrainian officials opposed to implementing their commitments under the peace accord. Through Operation UNIFIER the Canadian military assisted Ukrainian forces fighting a deadly war in the Donbas.

Canadians training far-right groups in Ukraine

Over seven years Canadians trained 33,000 Ukrainian soldiers, including members of far-right groups. One objective of the U.S., U.K., and Canadian training was to pave the way for full Ukrainian participation in NATO. “The objective was the modernization of their forces with the aim of one day becoming a member of NATO,” explained Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffrey Toope, former commander of Operation Unifier.

(Imagine Washington’s reaction if Russians trained Canadian troops to prepare them to join their military alliance.)

Amidst growing tensions over NATO at the start of the year foreign affairs minister Melanie Joly reiterated Ottawa’s support for Ukraine joining the alliance. Canadian officials have promoted Ukraine joining NATO, even in the face of Germany and France rejecting the move as a provocation towards Russia.

Soon after taking office in 1993, former PM Jean Chrétien’s government began promoting NATO expansion. Such a move violated Western officials’ promise to the Soviets to not move the alliance “one inch eastward” if Moscow agreed to a unified Germany joining NATO. Since then, NATO’s membership has nearly doubled and U.S., Canadian, and Western European troops have been stationed on Russia’s doorstep in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland for five years.

As the initial phase was considered in the late 1990s, George Kennan, architect of U.S. containment strategy towards the Soviet Union, wrote in the New York Times that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.

“Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western, and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

Expanding NATO, ousting Yanukovych, and an eight-year proxy war in the east help make sense of — not legitimate — Russia’s large-scale invasion. As does Washington stationing belligerent weapons systems in Poland and Romania as it dismantled the nuclear disarmament infrastructure by withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile, Open Skies and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaties.

The risk of provoking Russia

Instead of advocating diplomacy, Ottawa has doubled down on its belligerence since Russia’s illegal invasion.

Canadian special forces are on the ground assisting Ukrainian forces, officials encouraged former Canadian soldiers to join the fight and Canada has beefed up its military presence in Eastern Europe. Ottawa has also poured in weaponry, delivering or allocating $600 million in artillery shells, howitzers, light armoured vehicles, and other arms to fight Russia.

Concurrently, Canadian officials have labeled the war a clash of civilizations and scorned negotiations. A month ago Joly declared, “my goal is to make sure that I am not sitting at the same table as [Russian counterpart] Lavrov, nor the prime minister” with Vladimir Putin.

Instead of supporting French, Italian or the UN Secretary-General’s diplomatic overtures, Ottawa has aligned with Washington and London’s preference to prolong the fighting instead of seeking a compromise. Former senior U.S. diplomat Chas Freeman has labeled Washington’s bid to further weaken Russia fighting “to the last Ukrainian.”

Leading geostrategic thinkers foreshadowed today’s destruction. In a 2015 lecture titled “Why is Ukraine the West's Fault?” prominent U.S. realist scholar John Mearsheimer pointed out that pressing Ukraine to get tough with Russia by dangling EU and NATO membership was leading Ukraine “down the primrose path” that will see the country “get wrecked.” Today Russia controls almost a quarter of Ukrainian territory, its economy is in ruins and countless thousands are dead.

Ukrainians are paying the price of Washington’s neo-conservative goal of weakening Russia and Ottawa has been an enthusiastic cheerleader.

It’s time to stop.

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