In Background, Ukraine

Canada quietly tiptoes into Ukraine-Russia war

By Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist, Toronto Star, Feb. 25, 2015

It’s less controversial than the war against Islamic State jihadists. But more dangerous.

U.S. General Ben Hodges meets Ukrainian military officers

U.S. General Ben Hodges meets Ukrainian military officers

As debate over Canada’s role in the latest Iraq war rages, Ottawa is quietly being drawn into a second, more dangerous, conflict.

That second war is in Ukraine. The U.S. and Britain are sending military advisers there to help Ukraine’s embattled central government fight Moscow-backed secessionists. Defence Minister Jason Kenney says Canada might do the same. Kenney told both Global News and the CBC that any Canadian soldiers in Ukraine would stay far away from the fighting. This, of course, is the same assurance that the government gave last fall when it dispatched 69 commandos to advise Kurdish troops in Iraq. As it turned out, those advisers did end up under fire on the front lines.

For Canada, there are two big differences between the war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and the war in Ukraine.

The first is that the Ukrainian conflict is more serious. It has reopened Cold War fissures between the world’s preeminent nuclear powers.

Both the United States and Russia say they don’t want to go to war against one another over Ukraine. But events are pushing both in that direction. Washington has gradually ramped up its non-lethal military aid to Ukraine. The Ukrainians also want weapons and U.S. President Barack Obama says he may oblige.

Obama has already agreed to send a battalion of soldiers next month to western Ukraine to train government forces. On Tuesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he’d send up to 75 military advisers. Last fall, roughly 1,300 NATO troops carried out a joint exercise with the Ukrainian army in the country’s west.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, continues to provide military aid — and troops — to rebels in eastern Ukraine, even as he insists he is not.

The possibility of a collision between Russian and Western forces cannot be ruled out.

The second big difference is that, so far at least, all three major Canadian political parties have taken the same position on Ukraine.

The Liberals and New Democrats oppose Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to join the war against the Islamic State. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has argued forcefully that the current Iraq war is not Canada’s battle. But neither Mulcair nor any other opposition MP has said that about Ukraine. Indeed, the opposition’s only criticism to date is that the government hasn’t been tough enough in its dealings with Russia.

In the Commons, MPs compete with one another to see who can be most pro-Kyiv. In part, this is standard political pandering. Ukrainian-Canadians constitute a significant and vocal voting bloc. But in part, the Ukrainian crisis seems to fit a familiar template. In an uncertain world, it is almost reassuring to be transported back to a Cold War time when Russia was bad, we were good and our job was to stand up to bullies.

In fact, there is nothing simple about this.

Ukraine has a long proud history as a nation but only a short one as a modern independent state. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was divided among Poland, Russia and Austro-Hungary. Following the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, it was reassembled and absorbed completely into the Soviet Union. During the 1930s, it suffered under Soviet rule. During World War II, it suffered under German occupation. Since becoming independent in 1991, it has had more than its share of corrupt politicians.

But Ukraine’s real curse is geography. Save for a brief period in the 1990s, Moscow has never been willing to abandon its influence over eastern Ukraine, an area it sees as strategically crucial to Russia’s very existence.

It is within this history that Putin’s actions must be understood. He may be a thug. He is almost certainly a gangster. But in his hard-nosed approach to Ukraine, he is classically Russian.

Economic sanctions have weakened neither him nor his popularity. Western leaders, including Obama, understand the danger of escalating this conflict by sending weapons and military advisers into Ukraine. But they don’t seem to know what else to do. They are hoping that this time Putin will blink.

What if he doesn’t? Does the U.S. know how far it is willing to go? Does Canada?

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