In 2015, freshly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a bold performative move by putting forward a cabinet with gender parity. When asked why, he simply said, “because it’s 2015,” implying that it was high time for politics to reflect gender equality — a central value in a just society.
Today, Canada needs to make another bold performative move by emphasizing on the world stage that Ukraine needs to win the war that Russia has launched against it. When asked why, the prime minister should stress that it is high time for world politics to reflect a value that should be self-evident in the 21st century — imperialist conquest is immoral; it crushes the very foundations of the international rules-based order; and it should be consigned to history. Russia should not be allowed to achieve its revisionist goals in this war — incorporating Ukraine, in whole or in part, into Russia and denying Ukrainians’ national consciousness and self-determination rights.
Russia’s blatant disregard for the rules-based order despite its position as one of founders of that concept after the Second World War pulverizes the legitimacy of United Nations Security Council decisions affected by Russia’s participation and right to veto. To salvage the rules-based order, the world needs to make sure Russia does not emerge victorious and bears appropriate consequences for launching this invasion.
How can Canada be a leader in helping Western democracies rebuild the international rules-based order that Russia has shattered with its invasion?
To make a bold statement, the prime minister should travel to Kyiv now to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Since the war started, the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, as well as the speakers of the parliaments of the three Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) have all travelled to Kyiv to show solidarity and support. Formerly subordinated to Soviet influence, the Central Europeans and the Baltic people understand and viscerally feel the danger of Russian expansionism in the region.
A visit by Trudeau to Kyiv would signal to all NATO allies that this war is about more than neighbourhood security in Eastern Europe. It would demonstrate an understanding that Ukraine is fighting for values that are central to Canada’s worldview — freedom and democracy. It would also say loud and clear that Ukraine, not Russia, will be a partner in rebuilding the rules-based order after Russia’s aggression.
Indeed, Canada should use its “convening powers” — as Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly recently put it — to stress that a post-war rules-based international order cannot include a fundamentally unchanged Russia as a central player, regardless of the outcome of this war. Russian regime change is Russian society’s job, not the West’s or NATO’s. However, until Russia tackles and repudiates its colonial and imperialist worldview, there should be no return to co-operation with Russia and no lifting of sanctions. A Russian regime that continues to feel entitled to a “sphere of influence” in its neighbourhood or that remains committed to deciding the contours of the national identity and memory politics of its neighbours should be isolated. It’s impossible to bring Russian President Vladimir Putin to justice while he remains in power. Still, Canada should continue advocating for war crimes investigation and charges. If Putin faces war crimes charges, he would not be able to travel, retire or go into exile outside Russia. Canada should also work with Europe to contain Russia and guard against future military, economic and political threats and interference.
Canada should advocate with all its allies that at no point should Ukraine be pushed to cede territory and/or agree to any partition. It is up to the people of Ukraine and their elected representatives to decide these difficult questions. Russia’s invasion was motivated by imperial revanchism, rather than by concern for the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine. It certainly was not motivated by security concerns coming from the much smaller and neutral Ukraine. Russia’s chief media propagandist, Dmitry Kiselev, alluded to Russia’s goals in his prime-time show: “Russia will never cede Ukraine to anyone … it has to be part of Russia, even against Ukraine’s own will.”
The staunch military resistance and peaceful protest against occupation that we observe today across the predominantly Russian-speaking eastern and southern parts of Ukraine demonstrates loud and clear that the population sees Russia as the aggressor that it is, rather than a liberator. Aggression cannot be rewarded with territorial concessions given through diplomacy without the implosion of the norm of territorial inviolability.
Finally, as the creator of modern peacekeeping, Canada needs to unequivocally state that peacekeeping is not an appropriate solution for Russia’s war in Ukraine. The key reason is that this war is not a conflict that grew out of a territorial dispute between the two countries or escalated from inter-ethnic tensions within Ukraine proper. The previously frozen conflict in Donbas that dates to 2014 was originally caused by interstate aggression by Russia, rather than domestic escalation to civil war within Ukraine. Therefore, diplomatic efforts should not be devoted to looking for a compromise solution, but to finding a route for Russian withdrawal from Ukraine.
The “Russian-speaking separatists in Donbas” narrative is a Russian justification of its 2014 aggression in Ukraine. Until Russia sent operatives in the spring of 2014 to agitate among protestors who opposed the popular uprising that drove out the pro-Russian president at that time in Kyiv, there was no separatist movement in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Even Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority weakly supported separating from Ukraine; separatism was seen by the majority as an undesirable and impossible project right up to the arrival of Russia’s “little green men” (disguised Russian soldiers). Russia’s intervention created overnight separatists in parts of Donbas, but in several predominantly Russian-speaking regions of eastern and southern Ukraine, local elites quickly pledged allegiance to Kyiv, which led to the quick failure of the Russia-instigated separatist insurgency.
In a small part of Donbas, local political and economic elites, such as oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, misread the situation in the spring of 2014. They thought that they could use the Russia-driven insurgency to press demands on Kyiv and pull the plug on it after they had gotten them. They initially turned a blind eye to Russian interference, but within a month it was too late to drive the Russians out. The elites relocated to Kyiv-controlled territories, clearly demonstrating their actual allegiance, but those parts of Donbas remained under the control of the Russia-instigated insurgency. After fighting the Ukrainian army with Russian backing, the separatists eventually formed the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (DNR/LNR).
Given this background to the development of the two entities, which Russia recognized as independent states right before the current invasion, Russia should not be allowed to push narratives about a “Russian-minority” in Donbas that wants to separate from Ukraine. Russia should not be allowed to hold Ukraine hostage through a peacekeeping arrangement on part of its territory.
In 2014-15, the international community decided to appease Russia, so its reaction to interstate aggression — the annexation of Crimea and the jumpstarting of an insurgency in Donbas — was muted and conciliatory. As a result, Europe allowed the signing of the Minsk Agreements, which legitimized Russia’s aggression by casting Russia as a mediator in a conflict between the central government in Kyiv and DNR/LNR in Donbas, rather than as a party to this conflict as the sponsor and backer of DNR/LNR. Today, diplomatic efforts should steer clear of Minsk-type agreements, which require monitoring arrangements between consenting states. These arrangements require a minimum level of trust in the good faith of the parties. After Russia’s current invasion, Moscow simply cannot be taken at its word.
At a practical level, Canada should continue its current measures to support Ukraine. First, military aid should keep going to Ukraine. Second, the government should signal that sanctions against Russia are likely to be in place in the medium- to long-term, so private investors and companies should plan to invest in the rebuilding of Ukraine after the war, rather than wait for things to blow over to resume business with Russia. Third, we could go beyond humanitarian response efforts to aid Ukrainian civil society and state institutions on the ground. Of course, reunification for those Ukrainians who want to join family in Canada should be facilitated. The three-year temporary working visa is also a good idea. But there should also be significant effort devoted to helping Ukrainian civil society and state institutions on the ground to organize the logistics to support the war effort. Canada and Canadian companies could help Ukrainian internally displaced persons (IDPs) have income by hiring them remotely.
In sum, it is time for Canada to lead at the international stage. We need to help Ukraine win this war. We also need to salvage the international rules-based order from Russia’s attack and make it stronger and safer for democracies.