The war in Ukraine has been going on for over three months. During this time, we witness the historic unification of all Free World states against Russian aggression. One of the largest Ukrainian diasporas in the West is Canada, which has also been actively involved in helping the people attacked by Vladimir Putin’s regime. The editor-in-chief of The Warsaw Institute Review, Jan Hernik, talked about Canada’s response to the war in Ukraine with Michael Werbowski, an expert in international relations, NATO and security.
Jan Hernik: We know the war in Ukraine has been going to for almost three months now. Since then Ukraine has received enormous humanitarian and diplomatic help from the entire Free World – including Canada.
From the very beginning of this war, what was the first reaction of the Canadian government to this Russian aggression against Ukraine?
Michael Werbowski: Canada had a very active role even before the conflict. That is because there are many Ukrainians or Canadians with Ukrainian origins who have a very powerful influence on domestic policies towards Ukraine. We can say that 1.5 millions Canadian-Ukrainians were monitoring what was going on in Ukraine since the country broke of from the Soviet Union.
Now as far as the current conflict and the Russian invasion is going on, the Ukrainian-Canadian lobby immediately kicked in – if I may say – a very positive and powerful influence over Ottawa. But not directly, as we know that Canada cannot intervene in a conflict directly because Ukraine is not a member of NATO but the Canadian armed forces have been training Ukrainian forces in the western part of Ukraine for several years.
That training enabled Ukraine to be better prepared for the Russian aggression. As for the domestic politics, the Liberal government really needs the support from the Ukrainian Canadians. The government assisted with as much military help as they could, it has mobilised the Canadian public, there was an enormous humanitarian aid. Many Canadian cities took Ukraine refugees.
The media here is very actively following the situation. The domestic support for the Ukrainian population is really quite astounding.
What will it bring in case of concrete results? That’s another question. Canada’s role is significant but Canada is literally following the lead of the United States. Canada cannot act on its own. Canada must act in accordance with what Washington is formulating. And if the United States engages in a dialogue with the Russians, Canada unfortunately will have a minimal role what kind of agreement will be made in order to stabilize the situation. So also on the diplomatic stage one should not overestimate Canada’s role in that perspective.
JH: In the end of April, Canada’s Minister of Defence took part in a meeting in Ramstein Airbase, which was devoted to the armament aids to Ukraine. As you said it is the United States who play the main role as the leader of the Free World. But if Canada’s reaction to the war will increase the position of this country in the international arena, do you feel that might be a good chance to show that Canada also plays its role?
MW: In a historical context, during the Cold war Canada played the intermediary role between the US and the Soviet Union. Canada skated between the two superpowers. It positioned itself as a mediator. Today Canada’s role is more as of a secondary role or a secondary confidant in NATO: They are actively engaged in the Baltic, they have divisions there, which sends a signal to Moscow: There is a Canadian presence on the ground. It is a kind of a triggering mechanism. Several hundreds or possibly thousands of troops are there on the terrain. But it is the more bigger NATO countries that play the most important role.
To return to your original question about the meeting in Ramstein, Canada really is there as a backup. The big heavy lifting is obviously done by the Germans, the Poles perhaps, the Americans. I am sure Canada is fulfilling a logistical and technical role but I don’t think it has the capacity to take the initiative as to how to assist Ukraine in its military campaign.
Again Canada is there. But I think in the closed door meetings, Canada hasn’t the capacity to present initiatives. It is the Americans and the Europeans who are organising the support for Ukraine.
JH: We see quite exceptional unity in the West. And also we see unity and coordination in the line Ottawa-Washington. How do you evaluate this cooperation? And could the West’s reaction had been different when Donald Trump was elected president?
MW: It’s a very though question. From what I am reading from other experts is that if we had a Trump presidency there might have not been the war in Ukraine. Already at the beginning, Canada had a very fractious and uneasy relationship with the Trump administration. Would it had to follow Washington’s path? The Trump administration would have maybe done things differently.
Today we know the Russians have gained territory in Ukraine and the Ukrainians are resisting. Coming back to your first question, I would say it is really the Canadian government, that is taking the cues from Washington.
The Liberal government is really keen on showing it is absolutely committed to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Whether it is a Biden or a Trump administration, Canada has to insist on that Crimea was annexed by Russia. In that aspect it doesn’t change much. But of course Biden and Trudeau would consult on a regular basis and Trudeau has clearly reiterated what Biden has said: That Putin’s aggression must be stopped. Had the Trump administration won, then it would be a very different story. Because Trump and Trudeau never got along and the Trump administration had better channels of communication with the Kremlin than Biden.
JH: The Canadian House of Commons unanimously voted for recognizing the Russian aggression as a genocide. Canada is involved in documenting theses crimes in Ukraine that happen on a daily basis. How do you assess the chances to bring Putin to justice after this war?
MW: If one is an optimist one would hope, that Canada is bringing documented proof of these crimes to court in the Hague. Canada has been at the forefront of promoting the war crimes tribunal during the Balkans conflict and Canada plays a very positive in the Hague and the ICC.
That in itself is fine. But the problem is that the main players don’t recognize the International Criminal Court – neither the United States nor Russia. So Canada was instrumental in establishing the ICC. And Canada will continue to do the impossible, to have prosecutorial power implemented and the Parliament has clearly denounced the Russians in Ukraine. However, without being a legal expert, Canada can translate this into actual prosecution as it was the case with the conflict in Yugoslavia: That remains to be seen. Right now the main occupation of Canada is to resolve the refugee crisis. There is a tremendous strain on Poland. I do believe that it is doing its upmost to elevate the pressure from Poland concerning amount of Ukrainian refugees.
JH: How many refugees would Canada accept? For example, while being in Warsaw Joe Biden said he will take about 100.000 Ukrainian refugees. Did the Canadian government say anything about the numbers?
MW: Looking to the interesting aspect that the United States gave a specific figure of 100.000, Canada has so far been reluctant to put a number on how many refugees will come. But the immigration ministry alludes to the fact that the number could be unlimited. And they have ordered flights to Poland to accommodate the Ukrainians to fly to Canada. On a logistical Canada is doing its upmost. Considering the fact that Canada is a much smaller country, it doesn’t have the same financial means to bring in so many refugees than the US. But in the long term Canada will take more Ukrainians.
There is a generous amount of money to support them. These Ukrainians are highly educated but of course there is the linguistic difficulty of learning English and especially French. So they are in a limbo before they find employment and that is what the government is aware of when inviting a large amount of Ukrainians.
JH: The last question is your assessment about the future of the war in Ukraine. When will it end? Will the West be able to maintain this unity we are observing for the last three months?
MW: I would say the best-case scenario for the Kremlin is to secure a buffer-zone between the two republics along the Black Sea coast. Once that corridor is secured, occupied or annexed, the Kremlin will be satisfied with that. If that’s not the crystal-ball solution, then in the worst-case scenario more tragic might happen. Ukraine might be partitioned: Something like a post-war Germany that is divided between NATO and Russia. Of course it was tragic. But looking to the European history it is not an impossible scenario.
As far as Poland is concerned, I think that the government will take military and diplomatic measures to secure Ukraine’s eastern border or what could be a rump-state, which would be west of the Dniepr or western Ukraine with its capital Lviv.
And on the NATO side we have just seen extraordinary relief. Everybody was about to pop the champagne corks: Sweden and Finland had almost done a deal to join NATO. Then suddenly my favourite man, Mr Erdogan steps in and throws a rock into the machinery. Right now we don’t know whether Turkey will accept the expansion of NATO to Scandinavia.
I now that some citizens in Scandinavia have mixed feelings about the accession. But the governments decided so. Regarding Turkey, if they block the expansion, there might be a crisis in the alliance we have never seen before. What are the Americans to do? Are they going to put pressure on Ankara? Right now, my reading of the situation is that Erdogan is in a very powerful position. There are American bases such as Incirlik in Turkey’s south. If the Americans push too hard, Turkey might threaten to close the American bases. This would be catastrophic for NATO and play in the hands of the Kremlin.
It is a very strategic step for NATO to expand in the north. So what Turkey does is very important and one should keep an eye on that.