The Line's Nice List: Canada finally gets it right on Ukraine
After a typically slow start, Canada is starting to show some real … leadership?!
We at The Line are, we admit, often a bit on the grumpy side. But there are wonderful, happy stories worth celebrating, and in the final week before Christmas, we’re going to make a point of lauding some of what’s good in the world right now. That’s right: this is our nice list.
Today: Andrew Potter on Canada finally showing leadership on Ukraine.
By: Andrew Potter
In an interview last week with Russia’s state-owned news agency, Russia’s ambassador to Canada Oleg Stepanov whined about how the Trudeau government is using its “Twitter megaphone” to lead an effort by the West to isolate Russia. This comes a week after the Ukrainian ministry of defense tweeted a short propaganda video saying “Canada, we love you!” and thanking Canada for all its help in its fight against the Russian invaders. The video, set to BTO’s “You ain’t seen nothin yet,” showed a montage of Canadian support being delivered and used, and ended with a clip of Bob and Doug Mackenzie talking about long underwear.
By their friends you shall know them, the old saying goes. According to that standard, Canada would seem to be making the right friends, and the right enemies. So let’s be direct about this: In its words and its actions, Canada has pretty much nailed its policy on Ukraine.
It wasn’t always the case. When Russia started massing troops on the border in Ukraine this time last year, Canada was one of the first Western countries to close its embassy in Kyiv, moving everyone to Lviv on February 12. Hours after Russia launched its illegal, insane, nihilistic, genocidal full invasion of Ukraine on February 24, all non-Ukrainian employees of our embassy scooted across the border into Poland.
For months after the invasion, that highly risk-averse attitude infected every aspect of Canada’s approach to helping Ukraine. Whether it was diplomacy (hesitant), military aid (slow and limited), financial support (inadequate) or straight-up moral fortitude (lacking), the Trudeau government made it clear that it would do the least amount necessary, while taking the most credit possible, in supporting Ukraine.
It all came to a head in midsummer, when Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy got tired of Canada’s hesitant, two-faced, and trepidatious approach to supporting his country, posting a video in which he completely lit into Trudeau. The last straw for Zelenskyy was Canada violating its own sanctions regime against Russia by allowing Siemens to return to Germany up to six gas turbines for the Nord Stream 1 pipeline that were being repaired in Montreal. But it was followed by a bunch of other actions that made it clear just how unserious Canada was being. This included the revelation that a Fort Pearson official went to the Russia Day festivities at the Russian embassy to drink vodka and eat caviar, and the discovery that Canada’s reopening of its embassy in Kyiv turned out to be a cynical bit of Instagram-friendly Potemkin theatre.
The weird thing about Canada’s foot-draggy-as-she-goes approach to helping Ukraine is how little sense it made politically, for both domestic and international audiences. Canada has one of the largest Ukrainian diaspora populations in the world. We were the first Western country to recognize Ukrainian independence in 1991. The deputy prime minister of Canada is half Ukrainian and has been a loud supporter of the country for years. Privately and publicly, our allies were pleading for us to do more.
Who knows what it was that finally shook some sense into the Trudeau government. Maybe it was Freeland, maybe it was a call from Uncle Joe Biden, maybe it was just a sense in the PMO that, having exhausted all other options, the only thing left to do was the right thing. Whatever it was, over the last three or four months, Canada is finally punching its weight on the global stage on the Ukraine file. In particular, we seem to have finally figured out that the best way to help is to provide the sorts of support that draws on our strengths.
So for example, while the handful of M777 howitzers we sent were certainly useful (and the ammunition we’re continuing to supply will be well spent) we’re never going to compete with the Americans or Brits when it comes to heavy arms supplies. That’s why, back in October, it was probably more helpful for us to send 400,000 pieces of winter gear and to provide a few million dollars worth of satellite communications to the Ukrainians through Telesat. And it was great to see Canada re-engage with its training commitments to the Ukrainian armed forces through the deployment of 40 combat engineers to train Ukrainian sappers in Poland, to complement our ongoing training of recruits in the U.K.
On the financial front, the few hundred million in dollars Canada has provided in development and humanitarian assistance has no doubt helped, but the creation of a Canada-backed Ukraine Sovereignty Bond, which quickly raised $500 million for Ukraine, was a genuinely creative idea that should be repeated.
And on sanctions, Canada has done a decent job of matching our allies in imposing a fairly comprehensive sanctions regime on Russian individuals and on the economy as a whole. But it was pleasantly surprising this week to see Canada become the first G7 country to use a new law to seize assets belonging to Roman Abramovich, a sanctioned Russian oligarch who is a major Putin ally. The amount Canada will try to seize is not a lot, around $36 million. But it’s just a start, and the money will be handed over to the Ukrainians.
As the war in Ukraine moves into a new phase in the New Year, the big challenge for the Trudeau government on this file will be to keep its nerve and maintain its focus, two habits that don’t come easily to this crowd. But for now, the point is that after spending the first six months of Russia’s invasion trying out its usual approach of following as far behind the pack as is consistent with polite appearances, Canada is trying a different tactic, one that is looking dangerously close to actual leadership.
Andrew Potter is associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. To help Ukraine, here is a guide to purchasing a Ukraine Sovereignty Bond. In addition here is a list of verified ways you can donate directly to organizations providing military and humanitarian support to the country.
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