CHRIS WESTDAL ON RUSSIA & UKRAINE - Testimony to House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence, Oct 23, 2017
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. For me, this is an honour. Truly.
I will talk about the global setting of the crisis in Ukraine; about its origins; about the existential imperative that we in the West keep more peace with Russia and how Canada might help do so; and about what I think you should recommend.
The Global Setting
Our world is in turmoil. Global power is shifting. The West is in palpable relative decline. The Americans are stumbling, the Europeans in crisis. China is risen and still rising. Russia is back on its feet. The Middle East is in flames. Jihadism is raging. Persian power is spreading. And an Asian fanatic is rattling nukes. It’s a multi-polar world now – and some of the poles are sharply at odds.
Crises come at us thick and fast. Everyone’s list is different, but they all include Ukraine. The crisis there has lit the fuse of this new Cold War we’re waging, more dangerous than the last one. The stakes are sky-high, existential.
The Blame Game
When media remember Ukraine these days, there is constant talk of who’s to blame. In our popular narrative, it’s clearly Russia’s fault; in Russia’s, it’s clearly ours. I think there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Russia is blamed for aggression in Georgia, in Ukraine, in the Baltics, in Syria. Its President is a demon, a killer, a spoiler, a thief, a war criminal, a fixer of US elections – choose your epithet; they’re all in regular use. He’s out to restore the Soviet Union, to conquer the Balts again, to make life miserable for Ukraine and generally to thwart the West at every turn.
I think that narrative is faulty. I don’t think Putin is a demon. He strikes me as one of the more rational adults in the room. And though, as has been said, nothing is as offensive as Russia on the defensive, I don’t think Moscow is an aggressive marauder. I don’t think it wants war and a broken Ukraine on its western flank. I do think it won’t abide a security threat there, though, and that it will pay and impose very high costs, as it’s doing, to avoid one.
More generally, I think that Russia demands more respect than it’s been getting and that Putin is prepared to be our partner, but never our puppet, and that he’s damned if the United States is going to go on running as much of the world as it’s been doing – and running it so badly. Just think of the US foreign policy fiascos Putin has seen in his seventeen years of power, above all in the Middle East – and imagine how the charge that he’s the one who’s “aggressive” strikes him.
All things are relative. There is no meaning without context.
Let me spend more time, though, on some of the blame for this mess we’re in which we hear much less about.
We wrote Russia off when the Soviet Union collapsed. We decided we could ignore its interests. For a decade, Yeltsin played along. Putin won’t. For one thing, he will contain NATO. He made that clear in Georgia in 2008 and he’s making it clear now in Ukraine.
NATO, Russians know, is not a knitting club. It is a congenitally Russo-phobic, nuclear-armed military alliance, the mightiest in the history of the world, that’s been growing by leaps and bounds.
I think driving NATO up Russia’s nose was a colossal, counterproductively provocative mistake. That deed’s been done, though, and we have to live with it. Expanding NATO further, however, to include Georgia and Ukraine - as Canada has advocated - would invite catastrophe.
When historians assess the origins of this new cold war, I expect NATO expansion will be high on the list.
Independent Ukraine’s political, economic and foreign policy performance hasn’t helped much either.
Politically, Kyiv lost a fateful measure of the loyalty of its large ethnic Russian minority – one in five Ukrainians at independence, about the same proportion as Francophones in Canada. Kyiv also failed to wrest political control from oligarchs.
Economically, though it is rich in natural resources and human capital and though it has received billions in aid, Ukraine has fallen far behind its neighbours, east and west, condemning millions of its people to lives of poverty.
In foreign policy, with Ukraine the rope in a tug of war, Kyiv’s mistakes have been devastating.
It failed to keep the peace with its giant neighbour. Three years ago, with hard-line nationalists in charge, who’d trashed an EU-brokered settlement we’d all welcomed, the Maidan picked a fight Kyiv can’t win with the Kremlin.
Kyiv can’t make the West care more – and can’t make the Kremlin care less. Like them or not, theory aside, major powers’ spheres of influence are real. We Canadians know that; we live in one. In the real world, Kyiv has about as much freedom to undermine Moscow’s security as Ottawa has to undermine Washington’s. (And, of course, its effective sovereignty is compromised. Welcome to the club.)
Kyiv was mistaken too in taking European promises of integration, of EU membership even, far too seriously. The prospect of EU membership was always a dream; now, with the EU beset, it’s pure fantasy.
Kyiv was mistaken as well in letting Westerners mind so much of its business. We’ve seen the US choose a Prime Minister. We’ve seen American-proxy Finance Ministers. We’ve seen foreigners as Ministers of reform and anti-corruption. We’ve seen the spectacle of Mikhail Saakashvili, fresh from picking his own fight with Russia and losing a good chunk of his country, show up in Ukraine as a regional governor and would-be President.
It’s an old story. For a thousand years, someone else has always been in charge; the buck has seldom stopped in Kyiv. It should stop there now. It is clear foreigners don’t know how to solve Ukraine’s problems. In their independent country, Ukrainians are going to have to solve more of them – or not – themselves.
They would be having an easier time of it had they inherited a smaller, more ethnically homogenous state. But they didn’t – and they’ve not done well keeping the place together. There is admirable popular democratic will, but the country’s political institutions confound it. There have been mass movements and uprisings. There are angry protesters encamped on the Maidan as we speak. There have been democratic elections, massively monitored, declared free and fair, but they have yet to produce any semblance of peace, order or good government. As its evangelists should humbly take note, democracy is not an import.
Through the quarter century of Ukraine’s independence, Canada has been determined to play a prominent role, driven above all by passionate diaspora sentiment. Quite out of character, and far from keeping with our modest military means, we became the West’s leading hawk. This aggressive posture, with its highly vocal hostility to Russia is sustained to this day.
What I find striking in this record is that we’ve stood our values on their heads in Ukraine. We go out of our way, for starters, to get along with our giant neighbour. For Ukrainians, though, who also live beside a giant, we counsel confrontation. The Russian bear should be poked in the eye at every opportunity.
Consider as well that while at home we practice pluralism, inclusive accommodation, federalism, bilingualism and significant regional autonomy, we pander in Ukraine to lethally exclusive nationalism. Julia Timoschenko, recall, was recorded advocating that the solution to Russian ethnicity in Ukraine was a nuclear bomb. The latest example bound to exacerbate inter-ethnic animosity is new education policy banning Russian language instruction after Grade 4. Ethnic Russian Ukrainians, however patriotic, and Russians cannot help but take offence. Wouldn’t you?
No country in the world has a more profound interest in good bilateral and Western relations with Russia than does Ukraine. Yet no country in the world has done less than its best, loudest friend, Canada, to encourage essential reconciliation.
Consider our Magnitsky sanctions. All of you voted for them. Can any of you tell me, please, what shred of due process they entail? How are those lists of the condemned determined? Who decides who’s guilty, who’s not? Foreign policy advisers? Journalists? Well-financed lobbyists? Who knows?
At a time of new, tense Cold War and global upheaval, and particularly in the glaring, ahistorical absence of any Canadian effort whatever to ease tension, reduce risk, Canada’s grandstanding contribution of a late, ill-timed, imitative, redundantly duplicative, and entirely due process-free set of new Russia sanctions makes no sense whatever. This is all we have to offer? This is our best shot?
To everything there is a season, including moral outrage.
Keeping Some Peace
However we got here, though, whoever’s to blame, we are where we are, on the verge of greater disaster, and, given the stakes, we really do have to keep some peace with Russia.
To do so, to respond to this imperative, my view is that we need to foreswear further NATO growth and make room and arrangements for Ukraine to trade well with both Europe and Russia, while posing a security threat to neither - and to have the space and peace and quiet it so desperately needs to reunite, to recover, to reform and to succeed. Far from “sacrificing” Ukraine, as critics will claim, neutrality and détente would permit its salvation.
[ following text in quotes below was unspoken. Chairman said time was up.]
"This vision is not widely shared. It makes more sense to me, though, and offers more hope for peace in Ukraine and beyond, than others on offer.
Take our official one, for instance, which is apparently that if we give Ukraine enough help, it will beat the rebels and Russia in the Donbas, win back the loyalty of the now bitterly alienated ethnic Russians there, retrieve Crimea, join the West and Europe and NATO and live happily ever after, hostile all the while to its vast neighbour, Russia. I find that vision incoherent, full of delusions, sure recipes for more misery, more war.
So, what should we being doing?
I think Canadian policy has to take account of several hard facts we’ve been inclined to ignore.
First, Russia is back. It cannot be ignored, boycotted, isolated or much swayed at all by sanctions.
Second, the EU’s party is over. Ukraine came too late – and wasn’t ever even really invited. European integration and EU membership are not on.
Third, Ukraine’s circumstances are dire and deteriorating. Ukrainians have been dealt a bad hand, not for the first time, and they’ve not been playing it well. Ukraine doesn’t need to reform to appease Moscow, it needs to reform to save itself. Meantime, it threatens to drag us all to war with Russia. It can’t move; it is in between; it will be either buffer or battleground.
Fourth, more realism, we’re waging Cold War again. NATO’s not going away. Like it or not, we’re now sworn to defend its far reaches, right on Russia’s borders, and we must do so.
In brief, we’ll have to balance deterrence and détente. F. Scott Fitzgerald comes to mind: the test of a first-rate intelligence is to entertain two opposing thoughts and retain the ability to function."
Recommendations [[Spoken Later]]
Here is what I’d have you recommend:
- That we devote intellectual and diplomatic talent to the conception and promotion bilaterally and multilaterally of a coherent, realistic vision of Eurasian security;
- That we recognize, comprehend and restore rational relations with Russia;
- That we reconsider our advocacy of further NATO expansion;
- That we promote essential Ukrainian-Russian reconciliation;
- That we meantime sustain our necessarily modest contribution to NATO in Europe and enhance our armed forces at home. It’s a tall order, but along with three oceans to sail, we have promises to keep.
Thank you for your attention. I look forward to our discussion.
Tags: Chris Westdal