By Chris Westdal
Our world is in turmoil. Crises come thick and fast. Everyone’s list is different, but all include Ukraine. The crisis there has lit the fuse of new cold war.
There is constant talk of who’s to blame.
The West accuses Russia of aggression in Georgia, in Ukraine, in the Baltics, in Syria. Its president is a demon, a bully, a spoiler, a thief, a war criminal, a fixer of U.S. elections — choose your epithet; they’re all in regular use. He’s out to restore the Soviet Union, to conquer the Balts again, to make life miserable for Ukraine and generally to thwart the West at every turn.
I think that narrative is faulty. Vladimir Putin is no choirboy; no great power leader dare be. He is tough, ruthless if need be serving Russia’s security interests, but not at all the demon he’s made out to be. And though nothing is as offensive as Russia on the defensive, I don’t think Moscow is an aggressive marauder. I don’t think it wants war and a broken Ukraine on its western flank. I do think it won’t abide a security threat there, though, and that it will pay and impose very high costs, as it’s doing, to avoid one.
More generally, I think that Russia demands more respect than it’s been getting; that Putin is prepared to be our partner, but never our puppet; and that he’s damned if the United States is going to go on running as much of the world as it’s been doing — and running it so badly. Just think of the U.S. foreign policy fiascos Putin has seen in his 17 years of power, above all in the Middle East — and imagine how the charge that he’s the one who’s “aggressive” strikes him.
We hear much less about others to blame for this mess we’re in.
We wrote Russia off when the Soviet Union collapsed. We decided we could ignore its interests. For a decade, Yeltsin played along. Putin won’t. For one thing, he will contain NATO. He made that clear in Georgia in 2008 and he’s making it clear now in Ukraine.
NATO, Russians know, is not a knitting club. I think driving our well-armed military alliance up Russia’s nose was a colossal, counterproductively provocative mistake. That deed’s been done, though, and we have to live with it. Expanding NATO further, however, to include Georgia and Ukraine — as Canada has advocated — would invite catastrophe.
Independent Ukraine’s performance hasn’t helped much either.
Politically, Kyiv lost a fateful measure of the loyalty of its large ethnic Russian minority. It also failed to wrest political control from oligarchs.
Economically, Ukraine has fallen far behind its neighbours, east and west.
In foreign policy, Kyiv’s mistakes have been devastating.
It failed to keep the peace with its giant neighbour. Three years ago, with hard-line nationalists in charge, who’d trashed a European Union-brokered settlement we’d all welcomed, the Maidan picked a fight Kyiv can’t win with the Kremlin.
Kyiv can’t make the West care more — and can’t make the Kremlin care less. Like them or not, theory aside, major powers’ spheres of influence are real. We Canadians know that; we live in one. In the real world, Kyiv has about as much freedom to undermine Moscow’s security as Ottawa has to undermine Washington’s. (And, of course, its effective sovereignty is compromised. Welcome to the club.)
Kyiv was mistaken too in taking European promises of integration, of EU membership even, far too seriously. The prospect of EU membership was always a dream; now, with the EU beset, it’s pure fantasy.
Kyiv was mistaken as well in letting Westerners mind so much of its business. We’ve seen the U.S. choose a prime minister. We’ve seen American-proxy finance ministers. We’ve seen foreigners as ministers of reform and anti-corruption. And now we’re seeing the spectacle of Mikhail Saakashvili, fresh from picking his own fight with Russia and losing a good chunk of his country, show up in Ukraine as a regional governor and would-be president.
Through the quarter century of Ukraine’s independence, Canada has been determined to play a prominent role, driven above all by passionate diaspora sentiment. Quite out of character, and far from keeping with our modest military means, we became the West’s leading hawk. This aggressive posture, with its evident disdain for Russia, is struck to this day.
What I find striking in this record is that we’ve stood our values on their heads in Ukraine. We go out of our way, for one thing, to get along with our giant neighbour. With Ukrainians, though, who also live beside a giant, we cooperate in confrontation. The Russian bear should be poked in the eye at every opportunity.
Consider as well that while at home we practice pluralism, we pander in Ukraine to lethally exclusive ethnic nationalism. The latest example bound to exacerbate interethnic animosity is a new education policy banning Russian language instruction after Grade 4. Ethnic Russian Ukrainians, however patriotic — and Russians — cannot help but take offence. Wouldn’t you?
No country in the world has a more profound interest in good bilateral and Western relations with Russia than does Ukraine. Yet no country in the world has done less than its best, loudest friend, Canada, to encourage essential reconciliation.
Consider our Magnitsky sanctions (a House of Commons bill called Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act based on the U.S. government’s Magnitsky Act), enacted unanimously. What shred of due process do they entail? Who decides how long the list, who’s guilty, who’s not? At a time of new, tense Cold War and global upheaval, and particularly in the glaring, ahistorical absence of any Canadian effort whatever to ease tension, reduce risk, Canada’s grandstanding contribution of a late, ill-timed, imitative, redundantly duplicative, and entirely due process-free set of new Russia sanctions serves no good end whatever. This is our best shot, all we have to offer? To everything there is a season, including selective moral outrage.
Whoever’s to blame, though, we are where we are, on the verge of greater disaster, and, given the stakes, we really do have to keep some peace with Russia.
To do so, to respond to this imperative, my view is that we need to foreswear further NATO growth and make room and arrangements for Ukraine to trade well with both Europe and Russia, while posing a security threat to neither — and to have the space and peace and quiet it needs to try to reunite, recover, reform and succeed. Far from “sacrificing” Ukraine, as critics will claim, neutrality and détente would permit its salvation.
In sharp contrast, our government’s view is apparently that if we give Ukraine enough help, it will defeat the rebels and Russia in the Donbas, win back the loyalty of the now bitterly alienated ethnic Russians there, retrieve Crimea, join the West and Europe and NATO and live happily ever after, hostile all the while to its vast neighbour, Russia. I find that vision incoherent, full of delusions, sure recipes for more misery, more war.
I recommend that we devote intellectual and diplomatic talent to the conception and promotion bilaterally and multilaterally of a coherent, realistic vision of Eurasian security; that we recognize, comprehend and restore rational relations with Russia; that we reconsider our advocacy of further NATO expansion; that we promote essential Ukrainian-Russian reconciliation; and that we meantime sustain our necessarily modest contribution to NATO in Europe and enhance our armed forces at home.
It’s a tall order, but along with three oceans to sail, we have promises to keep.