The situation in the Donbas seems to have calmed with Ukraine withdrawing its artillery from the line agreed upon at the last peace talks in Minsk, and the Russian troops and their proxies reducing the amount of their fire at the Ukrainians. Should the West respond to the capture of Debaltseve, which occurred after the Minsk talks, with deeper sanctions against Russia and supplies of lethal arms for Ukraine, to prevent Russia’s further advancement? We have asked these questions of two prominent Canadian MPs, Ted Opitz (Conservative, Etobicoke Centre) and Chrystia Freeland (Liberal, Toronto Centre).
We started our interview with Ted Opitz with a question about Operation REASSURANCE within which 125 Canadian Army soldiers will depart for Eastern Europe.
NP: Where is this force going?
TO: They are going to Poland. They may be in Latvia for an exercise, I don’t know for sure, but it’s not uncommon. Op “Reassurance” is something NATO has asked us to participate in because of the Putin’s provocation against Ukraine and as a show of solidarity with our Baltic allies.
NP: Is there a possibility that they could have exercises in Ukraine?
TO: I don’t think that’s on the schedule at the moment. It doesn’t mean that it precludes these things in the future. There is the opportunity, as they have in the past, for our force to work in the tri-national Poland-Lithuania-Ukraine brigade. But to my knowledge, I don’t think this force is going to be in Ukraine at the moment.
NP: Is Canada going to send military advisers to Ukraine, similar to what the US and Britain have recently announced?
TO: That’s all being looked at right now. No decision has been made yet, it doesn’t mean one wouldn’t be made soon. It would be premature to talk about any of it before Minister Kenney makes decisions on the way forward, in concert with our allies. You absolutely need to work with your allies: it coordinates the effort and what is being instructed, it economizes on the resources and the number of troops that need to be in any given place.
NP: Debaltseve was captured after Minsk-2. Do you think the West will still react to this violation of the agreement?
TO: The fact of the matter for me is that the Ukrainian armed forces are acting honorably and are following the terms of the ceasefire that they have agreed to. I am less hopeful about Mr. Putin’s forces and his proxies. It is quieter, for sure, although the shooting has not stopped entirely. I don’t have the means to confirm this for you, but we are giving Ukraine access to satellite imagery which will help to see where the Russian positions are. My concern is whether the Russians follow through on what Putin promised in Minsk. I am concerned about Mariupol and even Odesa now, my understanding is there’s been some machinations in the area.
What we are doing as a country, the amount of military equipment we’ve given Ukraine is great deal. What first deputy Ukrainian Parliament Speaker Andriy Parubiy told me last week: “All the equipment you gave has raised the moral of the troops. The troops that are being inducted to the military now are all being equipped with uniforms”. We are continuing to look at all other courses of action and that includes lethal arms. But we have to move forward with our allies. Because if we don’t, Putin achieves his aim and starts to create splits within the alliance. So, the options, which we are considering, are seemingly taking a little bit of time, but they are considered robustly.
NP: Do you think such tough measures as switching Russia off SWIFT would be justified now?
TO: This is being talked about. This was brought up during Minister Ed Fast’s last meeting with the Ukrainian community leaders and he took note of it, I saw him write it down. I am sure he will discuss it with his Cabinet colleagues. That’s also an option that needs to be followed through in a uniform allied manner, one nation alone can’t do that.
We interviewed Chrystia Freeland during the event at the Trident Banquet Hall on March 8, arranged in solidarity with the unlawfully imprisoned in Russia Nadiya Savchenko, where Chrystia was a keynote speaker.
NP: Many people are saying that the West’s position towards the war in Ukraine could be described as appeasement of the aggressor. Do you agree with this?
CF: No, I don’t think that’s right. I think that the Western position has been stronger than Putin expected. I think Putin expected Ukraine not to fight back and expected the West, especially Europe, to absolutely turn the blind eye. Having said that, I think, we need to be prepared that right now this Minsk-2 moment is a pause, not the end. And we need to be prepared for this conflict to be a very, very long conflict. I think there is a great possibility that there will be another wave of Russian aggression. Even if that doesn’t happen, we have to understand that the period when it was possible to see Russia as a country which in its own way was evolving in a more moderate direction is over. Putin’s Russia since the invasion of Crimea is a very different place which has declared itself to be hostile to the rule of law in international relations. And that’s going to be a real long haul. In this period of a little bit more calm on the ground, in my personal view we should be very skeptical that it will last long, but the most important thing right now is to strongly support Ukraine. Ukraine needs tremendous economic support. There are positive and negative possibilities to do with Ukraine. The positive one is that if Ukraine can emerge from this conflict as a democratic, economically prosperous country, that will have a tremendous impact on the entire region, starting with Russia. Russia, as we see with Nemtsov’s murder is at the beginning of a profound crisis. A democratic prosperous Ukraine is the best way to pull Russia out of this abyss and in a healthier direction. Think about the impact that Poland has had on Ukraine. The Maidan would not have been possible without a shining example of Poland. A successful Ukraine will have exactly that impact on Russia. But a Ukraine which fails and sinks into economic disaster and is partly dismembered by Russia, and the West would be partly to blame if that happens, would be an increadibly negative example. It would show to people in Russia that democracy is impossible in their part of the world. And it would tell Putin that his aggression is rewarded and it would make Poland, the Baltic states and all of Europe insecure. So, this is a struggle for Ukraine, and more thatn that, it’s a struggle for democracy in Europe.
NP: You talked about this current pause. But it settled after the capture of Debaltseve, and Debaltseve was after Minsk-2. There has been no strong reaction about Debaltseve from the West, do you think that’s correct?
CF: No, I think that’s a mistake. There should have been a stepped up reaction to Debaltseve. Every time Russian aggression happens without consequences, it is an invitation to further aggression. Looking forward, we need to focus on three things right now. One – support Ukraine. The IMF tranche is supposed to arrive on March 11, that’s very important. Second – it’s very important not to allow the Western sanctions against Russia to fall apart. It’s very important for the European sanctions to be renewed when the deadline comes. And the third thing – we have to be ready for this battle to be a long haul. And if the Russian aggression continues, we have to be ready with a very strong response.
NP: Are you aware that the US representative in the UN, Samantha Power, said last Friday that there have been 500 dead bodies found in the basements in Debaltseve?
CF: Yes, I am aware of it exactly as you are from the statements of Ambassador Powers.
NP: I have found no trace of this in the Western media. Do you think this kind of huge massacres should be reported about in the media?
CF: Yes, it’s a huge massacre. It’s hard to get to Debaltseve, but you are absolutely right, someone should go in and investigate what happened there. In Canada, what I think the government should do is add Igor Sechin and Vladimir Yakunin to the sanctions list. Those are two Russian officials, close to Vladimir Putin, they are on the US sanctions list, they are not on the Canadian list. It’s very important to put pressure on the government to sanction those two men, it’s a right thing to do, and if we want the Canadian voice in the international discussions about what to do with Russia to be listened to, we can’t be hypocrites. That’s something specific which does not depend on the EU and the White House, and which can be done tomorrow. And I also would like Nadiya Savchenko to be officially recognized by the Canadian Parliament as a Prisoner of War. The US Senate has passed a resolution to that effect and we should too.
NP: Do you think the West should give Ukraine lethal weapons?
CF: I think it is very important for that issue to be on the table. I think the fact that there was such an active discussion of it contributed to the Minsk agreement, which for all its shortcomings does, at least for now, seem to have created a pause in the East which is very helpful for Ukraine. We need to continue to consider this with an awareness of the situation on the ground. Right now our priority should be first of all really focusing on economic support for Ukraine. Secondly, we should have a clear plan for what the next round of sanctions against Russia would be in the event of further aggression. What needs to be openly on the table that it’s being discussed in a specific way – is cutting specific Russian institutions off the SWIFT banking system.
NP: Do you think they should be cut off SWIFT as a preventive measure?
CF: Right now, I think it should be something that we are starting to talk about very specifically. Which hasn’t happened yet. It should be very clear to the Kremlin that this is on the table. When it comes to SWIFT, this is a time when we need intense diplomacy in the West. Putin is trying to drive a wedge between the Europeans and the North Americans, it’s essential that that not be allowed to happen.
During this lull, is the time to be talking between the Europeans and the North Americans. Frankly, the North Americans are a little bit tougher now and we need to be persuading Europeans that for this to work, we need them on board. Where the Western diplomacy is essential is in talking with China, Brazil and India which have been on the fence about this. There is a real opportunity to say to them: “Russia’s aggression is bad for you too. The way the Kremlin wants to talk about this is ‘This is Putin who is fighting the US domination, and you don’t want the US domination’. What is actually happening is Putin breaking up the world order and globalization has been very good for you”. We as Ukrainian Canadians should be asking Canadian officials to be working very hard on this international diplomatic front right now.
NP: President Obama and his National Security Advisor Susan Rice have been increasingly named a soft spot as related to Ukraine lately. Do you think that their position is tougher anyway?
CF: Yes. What we have to remember is, and the fact that Sechin and Yakunin are not on the Canadian list speaks to this, that the Europeans have suffered in real meaningful economic ways from this conflict, in ways that it hasn’t affected the US and Canada. That’s why I think it’s so important not to have even a millimeter of hypocrisy. The Europeans are bearing a much greater cost of supporting Ukraine. It’s very important to make the argument with the Europeans, with the Canadian public, with the emerging market countries about the ways in which this crisis hurts their national interests.