In Digest, Ukraine

By Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist, Toronto Star, April 15, 2015

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s increasing political reliance on foreign policy comes at a time when domestically he is in some trouble.

Deep in his secret heart, Stephen Harper should whisper a quiet thank you to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Conservative prime minister’s tough-on-crime agenda is on the ropes following a landmark decision Tuesday by Canada’s Supreme Court.

But thanks in part to Putin’s intransigence, Harper is able to forge ahead with his tough-on-Russia agenda. The prime minister confirmed Tuesday that Ottawa will send 200 Canadian soldiers to Ukraine.

Technically, the government refers to this as a two-year training mission.

But the real reason, as Defence Minister Jason Kenney told reporters, is to send a “clear message” to Putin of Western “determination and resolution.” He didn’t mention the political reason which, in the run-up to Canada’s fall election, is to paint Harper as a strong leader in a perilous world.

That pesky Supreme Court

Harper’s increasing political reliance on foreign policy comes at a time when domestically he is in some trouble. The economy is slowing. With oil prices down, Canada is no longer the international economic star it once was.

And Tuesday, the Supreme Court delivered a body blow to the notion of mandatory minimum sentences, a centrepiece of Harper’s crime policy. The top court ruled that requiring a mandatory three-year minimum sentence for possession of a firearm would be, in some cases, “grossly disproportionate.”

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin noted that in many cases, including the one before the court, a three-year sentence was justified. But in others, such as a case in which a gun owner had committed a simple licensing infraction, such a sentence would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Put simply, the court ruled that while laws requiring mandatory minimum sentences are not always unconstitutional, this one is.

The top court has long been a thorn in the government’s side. It has struck down laws that toughened up sentencing, cracked down on prostitution and banned assisted suicide. It found Harper’s attempts at Senate reform unconstitutional and, in a final insult, ruled that one of his appointments to the Supreme Court itself was illegal.

It has, however, little control over what Harper does abroad.

The Ukraine opportunity

Since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea, few Western leaders have talked as tough as Harper.

The Germans have sought a diplomatic solution to the ongoing civil war in Eastern Ukraine as have the French. Even the Americans speak in relatively measured tones. U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out going to war against nuclear-armed Russia over Ukraine.

But Harper is a consistent hawk. He and his ministers have nothing but praise for the central government in Kyiv. They have nothing but scorn for Putin.

Kenney even refused to acknowledge Moscow’s role in airlifting some Canadians from danger in war-torn Yemen.

The 200 Canadian soldiers are ostensibly being sent to train the Ukrainian army. They will join 800 American and 75 British military trainers in Western Ukraine. Exactly why one of Europe’s larger armies needs to be trained on how to fight in its own terrain is not entirely clear.

What is clear is that Harper figures this is good politics. Proportional to its population, Canada is committing far more soldiers than either Britain or the U.S. That’s not enough to take on the Russian army. But it will please the politically important, pro-Kyiv Ukrainian-Canadian lobby

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau says he is on side with the deployment.

Interestingly, the New Democrats — who in the past have supported Ottawa wholeheartedly on Ukraine — are not. Party leader Tom Mulcair pointed out that this mission has been authorized by neither Parliament nor NATO. He also said the adventure poses “grave danger” to Canadian troops.

What happens if things do get hot in Ukraine? Kenney was asked that Tuesday. He said none of the Canadian military advisers will be armed. He said that most of them will be so close to Ukraine’s western border that they could easily skedaddle into Poland.


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