The search for stability in Eastern Europe: Policy options for Canada



by Andrew Rasiulis

April 4, 2016

The war in Ukraine that started in 2014 and that was brought under some measure of control through the Minsk process in February 2015 has claimed more than 8,000 lives. Diplomatic and political steps are underway in the hopes of bringing this conflict to a negotiated settlement. From a defence perspective, NATO is strengthening its deterrence posture in Eastern Europe as witnessed by the recent Defence Ministers Meeting in Brussels and by the upcoming Warsaw NATO summit in July.

Historical legacy

The resolution of the conflict in Ukraine must take into account its history. Simply put, the Ukraine that emerged in 1991 as an independent state after the collapse of the USSR was unified for the first time as one state since the Middle Ages. Having been divided by Lithuania, Poland and Austria in the west, and Russia in the east, the newly independent Ukraine struggled to balance its transformation between the two. The result was a marked lack of economic reform and chronic national debt.

By 2013, Ukraine's fiscal situation had become dire. After failure to re-finance its debt with Western aid, Ukraine lurched to Russia for a bailout. This, in turn, caused an upheaval amongst Western-leaning Ukrainians and the consequent regime change that brought in President Petro Poroshenko. Then there was an uprising by Ukrainian rebels in the eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk and the Russian seizure of Crimea. Russian involvement in Ukrainian affairs now took a dramatic turn that would shake up not just Eastern Europe, but the West as a whole.

Search for stability: War, frozen conflict or diplomatic resolution

At the time of writing the Minsk process is incomplete. The key outstanding issues are the requirement by the Ukrainian government to pass special legislation providing a measure of autonomy to the rebel regions, and the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty along the borders of these regions with Russia. Thus far the Ukrainian parliament has not been able to muster enough votes to pass this legislation. The consequence is that the rebels, with Russian backing, remain in control of their respective border with Russia.

Intellectually there are three possible outcomes to this impasse: resolution by force of arms (war), frozen conflict or diplomatic resolution.

This conflict will be a key item on the agenda of the July NATO summit in Warsaw. The West has actively supported the Ukrainian government of Poroshenko in the conflict by providing military training assistance and non-lethal equipment, along with substantial economic aid and political support, including significant economic sanctions against Russia. As Ukraine is not, however, a member of the alliance, NATO is not prepared to go to war with Russia over Ukraine.

Rather, the NATO summit will focus on bolstering the alliance's Article 5 commitment to defend its member states. The Baltic states and Poland are the most vulnerable to potential military pressure from Russia. To offset scenarios of limited military incursion by Russian forces in this region, the summit will review the status of commitments made at the last summit in Wales, specifically the upgraded presence of the alliance in the Baltic states and Poland. The question that will require resolution is the degree to which this presence will be maintained through a pre-positioning of equipment and rotation of forces (particularly from the United States to act as a "tripwire"). The permanent stationing of NATO forces is impeded by the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act.

Policy options for Canada

With a new Liberal government in Ottawa, Canada has an opportunity to enhance its important role in Eastern Europe beyond providing military assistance, governance advice, financial aid and imposing economic sanctions on Russia. In accordance with Canadian national interests, Canada should become far more engaged than it has in seeking a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine.

Canada has a tradition of diplomacy, not to overplay the Pearsonian metaphor, of being able to constructively seek solutions to conflicts, while at the same time maintaining its defence and security commitments where they lie as a member of NATO. This Canadian diplomacy has been missing in the context of the war in Ukraine where the policy has been to avoid engagement with Russia unless it returned Crimea to Ukraine and desisted from supporting the Ukrainian rebels.

Canada has considerable influence in Ukraine due to its longstanding support for Ukrainian independence and its reform process. It also hosts one of the largest Ukrainian diaspora groups which itself has an interest in Ukraine moving forward on conflict resolution and avoiding a frozen conflict, or, even worse, a full-scale war with Russia.

It must be admitted that the prospects for a diplomatic solution are not high. Continuing Ukrainian attempts at reforms are not going well, as evidenced by the recent resignation of the Ukrainian Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius. On the other hand, sustaining a frozen conflict has negative financial and otherwise consequences for both Ukraine and Russia. While a diplomatic solution may seem out of reach, the consequences of failure to achieve a constructive peace demands an effort by all who are able to lend a hand.

Canada is therefore in a somewhat unique position to work toward a constructive diplomatic solution. As a confederation with experience in regional and linguistic tension, Canadian advice should be further brought to bear on the deliberations of the Ukrainian parliament seeking to find a way to resolve the issue of autonomy for the eastern oblasts. Without this resolution, the Minsk process is unlikely to move beyond the frozen conflict stage. It is in Canada’s political, economic and military interest to have peaceful order re-established in Eastern Europe.

Andrew Rasiulis, retired from the public service, is now a freelance consultant with Andrew Rasiulis Associates Inc. He is also a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. See the policy paper this op-ed was based on here.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov

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