This Article was originally published in The Canadian Global Affairs Institute Quarterly Publication, The Dispatch.
Recent years have seen considerable turbulence in Europe, ranging from continuing fallout from the banking crisis in Greece to threats to territorial integrity by Russia and terrorist action in France. The management of these various crises cannot be left just to Europe; they affect the rest of the western world too. Yet there is considerable debate, not least in Canada, as to how the challenges can best be tackled and by whom.
The continuing imbroglio in Ukraine causes concern as we try to understand and manage the intentions and brinkmanship of Russia. There are several conflating issues at stake. On one hand, Russia argues that it has been betrayed by both NATO and European nations in the so-called drive east to support those countries that have expressed a wish to join Europe. In retrospect, NATO overtures to Ukraine and Georgia could have been handled better, as it was not clear that either country would quickly qualify to join. Under President Putin, Russia seeks to re-establish itself as a great power with a noble history and a country that deserves respect in the world community, despite its anti-democratic and human rights records.
By annexing Crimea in March 2014, Russia laid down a marker, which despite the predictable diplomatic condemnation and economic sanctions from the international community, was not picked up by the west. In other words, Mr. Putin got away with it. Whether this has bolstered his resolve to continue provocative behaviour in countries such as Moldova remains to be seen. Some argue that there is little rational decision making in Moscow these days. Certainly the history in eastern Ukraine in recent months gives us pause. The conflict has continued to burble on with periodic ceasefires that rarely hold. But with Russia denying involvement in supporting the rebels, with whom can one properly negotiate?
Of course, the situation in Ukraine is not clear either. A year into the new administration the country is still distressed. President Poroshenko is an oligarch who has just dismissed a former ally in the Donbass region bordering Donetsk, where much of the fighting with separatists has occurred. A fellow oligarch, former Governor Kolomoisky was on the front line in the fights in the east and saw the president as weak against the threat. But by dismissing a powerful governor cum oligarch, Poroshenko has not rid himself of competition; he has probably contributed to instability not only in Donbass but in the country as a whole. Throughout this difficult period, the West has made clear that it is not prepared to intervene militarily in Ukraine though humanitarian aid, financial support and non-military supplies have been made available. While the supply of arms to Ukraine has not been definitively ruled out, this option is being held in reserve.
Should this unsettling situation, seemingly without resolution as it becomes another frozen conflict, concern Canadians? It seems clear that the Canadian response, such as it has been, has been calibrated partly in response to the demands of over one million Canadians of Ukrainian origin. While containment in Ukraine is not a policy that any western country should aspire to, it seems that is what we might wish for. Should there be further Russian aggression in its near-abroad: the Baltics, Moldova and the Caucasus, it seems evident that there would have to be an escalated NATO/European response, especially if NATO’s Article V is violated. Our collective challenge now is to engage Russia on a basis that allows us to understand her interests and gives her an opportunity to re-join the international community where the rule of law is respected. I am not sure how likely this would be in the short term. I am reminded of my involvement with the NATO/Russia Council (now suspended) some years ago. Within NATO our approach was to manage this relationship through diplomatic (i.e. civilian) channels with military support. The Russian view was that the dialogue should be led by their military with modest diplomatic support. Despite best efforts, we were never on the same page. In the current situation there is some evidence that Russia best understands forceful responses as much as it did in the Cold War. Europe and NATO have to be very explicit that Russia will not get away with the creeping and provocative aggression that we have seen since the illegal annexation of Crimea such as sabre rattling in the Balkans or provocative exercises in the Arctic and proactive enhanced surveillance in the North and Black seas. In the face of threat, NATO needs to demonstrate resolve and not just diplomatically. Military spending, falling since the end of the Cold War needs to be stabilised if not increased. The notional target NATO sets for member nations is 2% of GNP to be spent on defence; Canada barely manages 1%. Surely there must be room for us to demonstrate better our resolve and support Allies?
Canada should continue to lend democratic support to Ukraine. As a member of NATO we should bolster the sense of transatlantic solidarity that Russian actions have prompted and use multilateral fora, as well as bilateral diplomacy to continue to hammer home to the Russians that further aggression is simply not in their interest. Of course, Mr. Putin is a master at manipulating the differences of opinion among western nations. One can but hope that he doesn’t push his luck too far.
David Collins is a retired Canadian ambassador who served twice in NATO, in Turkey and Romania. He was an observer in the 2014 Ukrainian presidential election. He is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a director of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and a member of the programme advisory committee of the Canadian Ditchley Foundation.