The Canadian government has taken a hard-line stance against Russian aggression in Ukraine. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, in fact, has vowed to work with other western allies to take any measures necessary to curb Russia, short of deploying military forces of our own.
But this is a time for diplomacy rather than bellicosity.
While there has been plenty of speculation about Russia’s strategic goals in invading Crimea and amassing a massive number of troops along the eastern border of Ukraine – with the potential for an invasion of Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, next – for Canada’s purposes a series of points need to be made clear before making any firm decisions about exactly how to handle Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s aggression in invading Crimea has been described in terms of “Soviet-style” behaviour, but while the tactics are reminiscent of the Soviet era the strategic foresight and style of Russian manoeuvering can actually be referred to as “neo-Soviet” in nature.
Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s actions in Eastern Europe were motivated primarily out of a desperate need to maintain a semblance of order within the Union, and to keep control over satellite states.
The Ukrainian case, however, like the cases of Georgia and South Ossetia before it, is different. Ukraine is vitally important to Russia’s economic, strategic and national security interests.
While dismissed by Canada and the West as needlessly aggressive, from Russia’s point of view the invasion of Crimea – which was part of Russia until 1954 – is justified for two reasons. The first centres on the large Russian-speaking population in Crimea – approximately 60 per cent of Crimea’s residents still identify themselves as Russian – and Russia’s desire to protect their interests. This explanation, however, is far less powerful than the second justification for the invasion: the need for Russia to protect its Black Sea Fleet.
The Fleet’s base in Crimea has been controversial for years, with some claiming its presence in Ukrainian territory facilitates instability and separatism. The agreement that kept the base in Crimea was set to expire in 2017 until an agreement in 2010 between deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was struck to extend the Fleet’s presence in Crimea. This was a particularly controversial agreement for Ukrainians not loyal to Moscow, as it led to an influx of Russia counterintelligence and FSB agents into Ukraine.
But while the Black Sea Fleet base was secure under pro-Russian Yanukovych’s regime, he is no longer in power. And as the Fleet is key to Russia’s access to the Mediterranean Sea and to the Atlantic Ocean, it could not allow its Fleet bases to be potentially threatened. As such, while it is certainly not a welcome move, the fact that Russia is taking such steps to protect its Fleet is very compelling and should not have come as a surprise.
For these reasons, Canada needs to pay particular attention to the role of diplomacy and dialogue in diffusing tensions. Expelling diplomats and recalling Ambassadors may send a powerful signal in the short-term, but limits opportunities for constructive diplomatic discussions moving forward. Sanctions, travel bans, and G8 banishment may get Russia’s attention, but it also backs Putin into a corner.
An important element of Putin’s geostrategy to date has been to outwit the West and refuse to bend when it exerts pressure. Russia’s involvement in prolonging the Syrian Civil War and selling nuclear technology to Iran are only two instances of how Russia has little interest in acquiescing to western demands, and thus it is unwise to employ a strategy against it now that would beg a similar response. Brinksmanship is unlikely to work in this case anyway, especially when western states have already overtly stated that military deployment is not an option.
The escalating tensions and Russia’s recent actions should not have come as any surprise to the west, as the signs of a potential crisis existed long before now. The problem was that the West, especially the EU, did not make Ukraine a priority and now must attempt to navigate an incredibly complex and tense crisis situation.
Canada could, and should, be at the forefront of diplomatic efforts to bring the parties to a table immediately. Its next steps must be calculated and careful, aimed at producing an amicable solution through diplomacy.
Red lines, threats, and one-upmanship will not work.
Robert Murray is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta and a Senior Fellow of Security and Defence at AIMS
*This piece appeared in the 4 March 2014 opinion section of Troy Media