‘We do fear an armed conflict in Ukraine,’ Justin Trudeau says

By Tonda McCharles
Toronto Star
January 12th, 2022
OTTAWA — The Canadian government says it is ready with further diplomatic and economic sanctions on Russia and more support for Ukraine as part of an intensifying multilateral effort to deter any Russian incursion in that country.

But in a week of whirlwind global diplomacy that saw the U.S. warn Russia will pay a harsh economic price if it doesn’t back down, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed a pessimistic view of the prospect that hostilities could be avoided, pointing to 100,000 Russian troops massed on the border Ukraine shares with Belarus.

“Yes, we do fear an armed conflict in Ukraine,” Trudeau told a news conference Wednesday. “Russia is looking for excuses or reasons to continue and even escalate its aggression against Ukraine.”

But Trudeau would not say if his cabinet has made a decision on Ukraine’s request for military assistance, or if Ottawa would pull out or fortify about 200 Canadian Forces troops on the ground training Ukrainian military personnel.

“We’re working with our international partners and colleagues to make it very, very clear that Russian aggression and further incursion into Ukraine is absolutely unacceptable,” said Trudeau. “We are standing there with diplomatic responses, with sanctions, with a full press on the international stage to ensure that Russia respects the people of Ukraine, respects their choice to choose their governments and their direction.”

Hours later U.S. President Joe Biden said he’s prepared to increase the American contribution of $600 million worth of defensive weapons and warned that if Russian President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine, the Russian economy would suffer a “severe cost and significant harm” from co-ordinated international sanctions.

But Biden, who last month ruled out putting American troops on the ground, appeared to couch his threat, saying the U.S. response “depends” on what Russia does next.

“It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, etc.,” he said Wednesday. “But if they actually do what they’re capable of doing with the forces massed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a news conference earlier in Kyiv that the U.S., the G7, the European Union and NATO have put forward a “comprehensive set of sanctions” that include financial, economic and export control measures.

Blinken is scheduled to meet Friday in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. He said the U.S. is prepared to talk about some of Russia’s demands and its concerns about its own security.

While Biden said NATO is not yet prepared to admit Ukraine, which must make more progress on democratic reforms, as a member of the military alliance, he flatly rejected Russian demands that NATO withdraw strategic weapons and halt troop rotations through eastern Europe.

“We’re gonna actually increase the presence of Poland, Romania, etc. if in fact he moves,” said Biden, “because we have a sacred obligation ... to defend those countries. They are part of NATO. We don’t have that obligation relative to Ukraine, although we have great concern about what happens to Ukraine.”

In Ottawa, Trudeau did not answer directly when asked why Canada hasn’t offered Ukraine defensive weapons as the United Kingdom did this week. “The decisions that we take will be based on what is best for the people of Ukraine and what is best towards keeping the peace globally as long as we possibly can,” he said.

Professor Jane Boulden, a professor of international relations at Royal Military College and Queen’s University, said for Canada “the options are limited in terms of what we can do, and I think we’re doing it.

“Canada’s clearly and deeply allied to the Ukraine, and Russia knows that, so it’s not as if the option of being an impartial mediator even is on the table,” Boulden said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly’s visit to Ukraine, as well as to Paris and Brussels this week to co-ordinate with European allies, serves as an important signal to Ukraine and to European partners that Canada will stand with them, but also to Putin that the West is united, Boulden said.

“In a prelude to possibly war, all of this signalling matters a huge amount,” she said.

With the parade of diplomats to Kyiv this week, Putin saw “that NATO is activated,” she said.

“He is seeing Canada and others making bilateral commitments to the Ukraine. He’s taking all that into consideration. It may not stop him, but if we didn’t do it, it certainly wouldn’t stop him,”

Maria Popova, who teaches political science at McGill University, said all the focus on Ukraine is too narrow, and that it’s unlikely there will be any immediate de-escalation or an immediate eruption of hostilities. “This is not really only about Ukraine, and not even mostly about Ukraine,” she said.

Russia is playing a longer game “over whether the West is going to acquiesce to Russia reasserting some of its previous dominance over the region,” said Popova, and is holding the possibility of further invasion of Ukraine “as a threat, but the ultimate goal is negotiation with the West of the geopolitical terms.”
Prof. Maria Popova
McGill University
Ferrier Building, #462
840 Dr. Penfield Ave.
Montréal, Quebec
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