What’s next in Canada’s response to the Skripal attack in Britain?



by Rob Huebert

The Hill Times
April 7, 2018

The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent is the most recent indication of the continuing deterioration of relationships between the West and Russia.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has made it clear that the British government is convinced that the Russian government was directly responsible. On March 15, Germany, France, and the United States joined the British in issuing a joint statement specifically blaming the attack on the Russian government.

While both France and the United States had initially expressed some skepticism about the link to Moscow, the joint statement makes it clear there is now no doubt about their views about Russian culpability.

More than 22 European countries as well as the United States and Canada have taken the additional step of expelling a growing number of Russian diplomats.

Canada kicked out four Russian diplomats. But what else is Canada prepared to do?

Since the Russian intervention in Ukraine in March 2014, there has been a growing willingness of Canadian governments to identify Russia as a threat to international peace and security. The former Conservative government of Stephen Harper immediately joined with its Western allies in both condemning the Russian actions and quickly imposing sanctions on Russia.

Following the election of the Liberal government, the actions and statements of its first foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, seemed to suggest an effort to soften this position. However, his replacement, Chrystia Freeland, has shown a willingness to challenge Russia, which has demonstrated a return to the Harper harder line on Russian international behaviour.

The Liberal defence policy—Strong, Secure, Engaged—also was very frank in identifying the actions of the Russian government as a growing threat to the security of the international system and therefore to Canadian security. Both Harper and Trudeau agreed to deploy Canadian troops to Ukraine as instructors. So why has there been such a limited response by Trudeau on this attack, and why was Canada not included in the joint statement?

On the statement, the answer may be as simple as Canada was not asked. This, of course, raises serious concerns about the Trudeau government’s core foreign policy statement, which has been that “Canada’s back.” If our most important allies did not think it was important to include Canada, that says something about the Liberals’ efforts to claim we are now a more active player in the international system.

But regardless as to why we were not included, the question still remains why Canada is simply following the lead of others. It is difficult to believe the government does not believe this is an important issue, as it developed over the weeks. It is clear that the government would rather focus on its “peacekeeping” mission to Mali, but a nerve gas attack carried out on the soil of one of our most important allies is a very dangerous development.

All of our core allies are now convinced that the poisoning was an act of the Russian government. Relations therefore are only going to get worst. As much as Canada may wish it could act elsewhere on the globe, it is obvious that it will need to be giving much greater attention to working with allies to manage the growing tensions with Russia. We will not be able to get out of our reassurance and training missions in Latvia and Ukraine any time soon, and will need to probably do much more.

Are we ready and able to do this? One thing is clear: we are going to have to be much more careful not to over-commit scarce Canadian capabilities elsewhere. Canada will need to be “back,” but not in the way the Liberal government was hoping.

Rob Huebert is a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary.

Image credit: Andrew Meade

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