Op-ed

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Might NATO and Russia make peace for Ukraine?

by Chris Westdal

The Hill Times
April 27, 2016

OTTAWA—There may at last be light at the end of the tunnel of war in Ukraine. The NATO-Russia Council, which had been dormant for two years, met last week to discuss the peace process in eastern Ukraine. It was better late than never.

There was no great leap forward. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg voiced the requisite assurance that the meeting was “no return to business as usual.” United States General Philip Breedlove, the head of the U.S. forces in Europe and NATO’s supreme allied commander, added that, despite the talks, NATO reinforcement in Europe would continue. Afterward, Stoltenberg advised that the discussion had done nothing to change the “profound and persistent disagreements” between Russia and the NATO states.

All this notwithstanding, the revival of the NATO-Russia Council is a major step toward peace for Ukraine because, unlike the Minsk peace process, which is focused on the mechanics of the conflict and its possible resolution, the council must focus on the larger picture, in which the root causes of the conflict need diagnosis and remedy.

The council’s deliberations are also a major test for our new government. The subject matter is crucial. Canadians have fought two no-holds-barred world wars for Eurasian security. We cannot fight another, not ever, not with NATO and Russia both nuclear-armed. If our new leaders have any new ideas about how Canada might help avert Cold War II, now is the time to voice them.

We know our policy is not going to be more of the same. We’re re-engaging with Russia, for one thing, and surely we won’t carry on campaigning, as our last government did, for further NATO growth, even unto the Caucasus. But just what will our new policy be?

The essential elements of peace in eastern Ukraine include not only the substance of the Minsk plan but also a larger peace between NATO and Russia, an agreement to stop the tug of war for Ukraine and start giving that tormented state a chance to make the best of its circumstances, between East and West, rather than go on making the very worst of them.

That larger peace requires better fences between NATO and Russia—in our minds and on the ground—than the ones we’ve got, particularly now with NATO so far extended, the EU at (if not beyond) its limits, and Russia back on its feet. These parties need better boundaries. They need what Robert Frost called “mending walls.”

To build them, NATO would have to eschew further growth. The West would have to recognize that Crimea was Russian. The government of Ukraine would have to decentralize and work to regain the trust and loyalty of the Donbas. With Ukraine looking these days like another case of failed U.S.-backed regime change, the West would have to step back, stop pouring billions into Kyiv with obvious political intent, stop choosing leaders and running major ministries there and stop feeding exclusive Ukrainian nationalism.

Russia would have to stop interfering in eastern Ukraine, stop the hybrid war, stop holding Kyiv to ransom and start making normal life possible along its 1,920-kilometre border with its Slavic neighbour.

Both sides would have to commit themselves to restraint in rhetoric and in action. Both would undertake to negotiate trade agreements freeing Ukraine to resume its natural, age-old commerce with both east and west.

Both sides would have to acknowledge that, with much of the political and natural world falling apart before their eyes, there are much, much better, urgent things to do than spend new billions on arms to scare one another—arms they know they dare not use.

A new deal is not all available tomorrow morning. The council’s meeting last week did not shake the earth. Formidable political and diplomatic obstacles still lie in the path to such a peace.

But these essential elements of peace had better not be just pipe dreams. The long-term stakes are too high. The West has many more interests in common with Russia than it has reasons to squabble. The time is right for us to try to turn the rising tide of new cold war.

Chris Westdal is a former ambassador and current fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He is also a consultant, corporate director, and occasional commentator on Canadian foreign policy.

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