Let’s not follow Harper’s tough talk on Crimea crisis

Scott Taylor

Scott Taylor

Thankfully, it appears the international community’s initial brash brinkmanship following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea has subsided into more sober reflection on the possible consequences of meaningful sanctions or military intervention.

In the immediate wake of the Ukrainian government’s collapse and the increased Russian military presence in the Crimea, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird were the most strident of all world leaders in condemning Russia for its “interference” in Ukraine.

Denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin as another Hitler, Harper and Baird walked the streets of Kyiv to express their solidarity with the unelected interim government of Ukraine. For all the tough talk from Canada’s dynamic duo, any informed observer would be well aware that, outside of a Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora of some 1.2 million potential voters, Canada has no real stake whatsoever in the Crimea crisis.

While Harper and Baird shout for tougher sanctions and more military sabre rattling, none of the European NATO nations are echoing those sentiments.

Tough sanctions against Russia could result in a reciprocal stoppage of Russian oil and natural gas to Western Europe. At present, about 40 per cent of Western Europe’s oil and gas are provided by Russia through pipelines, which traverse Ukraine.

Termination of that export would have an immediate and crippling impact on all manufacturing, which would in turn impact the already fragile economies of Europe.

Since Canada no longer has any military presence in Europe, it is easy for us to beat the war drum loudly. However, for those NATO nations who would find themselves and their citizens on the frontline of any major conflagration with Russia, things are not so simple.

It would be pretty difficult to motivate French or German troops to fight and die for the singular cause of reuniting the Crimea with Ukraine. This would be especially difficult to justify since, to date, not a single Ukrainian soldier has fired a shot or martyred themselves in defence of that same territory.

At the beginning of the crisis, Ukraine had about 18,000 troops based in the Crimea peninsula. They were aboard navy ships, stationed at airbases and garrisoned in army bases.

Under the negotiated long-term lease agreement valid until 2042, the Russian navy Black Sea fleet was also stationed in the Crimea port of Sevastopol. Although Russia was entitled to maintain up to 25,000 personnel on the peninsula, prior to the crisis this number was only about 8,000 navy sailors and marines.

In other words, during the early days of the Russian annexation, the Ukrainian troops significantly outnumbered those Russians who secured the vital infrastructure and transport facilities. Not a shot was fired, even when Russian troops took control of Ukrainian military bases.

Following the March 16 referendum in which the ethnic Russian majority voted for Crimea to become part of Russia, Ukrainian soldiers were offered the choice of returning to the mainland or changing their uniforms to join a Russian military force in the Crimea.

Only 11 per cent chose to remain in the Ukrainian military while an astonishing 89 per cent chose to volunteer for the Russian military. Again, without a shot fired, Ukrainian navy vessels hauled down their yellow and blue flags and happily hoisted the red, white and blue Russian flag up their masts.

This is hardly the stuff that martial folklore is made of. This is not the outnumbered American defender of the Alamo fighting to their last breath and inspiring the subsequent Texan battle cry: “Remember the Alamo.”

Those Ukrainian soldiers who remained loyal to their original colours were allowed to pack their kit, including trainloads of older tanks and armoured vehicles, and were quietly repatriated back to the mainland.

Again, if it truly were the intention of a power-mad Putin to invade and conquer the remaining Ukrainian territory, as many a NATO chicken little is currently predicting, why would Russia so willingly hand back soldiers and weapons that they would soon be confronting?

One has to hope that as the dust starts to settle, cooler heads than those of Harper and Baird will prevail, and people will realize that despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, it is possible to redraw the map of Europe.

Hopefully, it will remain bloodless, as was the case with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, rather than a bloody fiasco such as the NATO-backed dismantling of Yugoslavia.