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How Canada’s support for NATO expansion led to the Ukraine tragedy

Canada was the first NATO country to approve the enlargement of the alliance in 1998

Canadian PoliticsEuropeWar Zones

Justin Trudeau attends a NATO Summit in Warsaw, July 9, 2016. Photo courtesy the Prime Minister’s Office.

Moscow’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has been condemned around the world. The suffering of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers is shocking, and the worst is yet to come as Russian forces push deeper into Ukrainian territory and begin targeting non-military infrastructure. Fury and indignation has rightfully been aimed at the primary architect of this crime against humanity, Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it is dispiriting to see hawkish pundits and other commentators push for further escalation.

Predictably, the invasion has bolstered those calling for more military spending, and emboldened fossil fuel interests to push their agenda. “The West’s anti-carbon obsession fuelled Putin’s war against Ukraine,” blared a recent editorial by the National Post, while an op-ed by John Ivison in the same paper excitedly reported that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussed liquefied natural gas exports with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, apparently in an effort to promote Canadian energy as a stopgap for Europe’s now threatened supply (Russia provides approximately 40 percent of the European Union’s natural gas and more than 25 percent of its crude oil).

While Moscow’s violation of international law must be unequivocally condemned, we also need to be honest about the origins of this crisis, the most significant conventional warfare operation in Europe since the Second World War. Doing so is not to downplay Putin’s clear act of aggression, but to understand the geopolitical realities at play.

As I detailed in a post on my personal blog, Ottawa played an important auxiliary role in the 2014 coup that partly precipitated today’s conflict. As many experts have documented, it was the “attempt to lever Kiev into the western camp,” alongside NATO’s rapid expansion into eastern Europe and Washington’s provocative withdrawal from longstanding US-Russian nuclear arms control agreements, that greatly contributed to the instability that preceded Russia’s intervention.

For its part, Ottawa has supported NATO expansion despite promises made more than three decades ago to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the conclusion of the Cold War. In 1990 Gorbachev agreed not to obstruct German reunification, to withdraw tens of thousands of troops from East Germany and for the newly unified country to be part of the military alliance in return for assurances that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward.” A 1990 Ottawa Citizen article quoted West German Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, as saying, “the West is agreed that with a unification of Germany, there will not be any eastward extension of NATO,” which was ostensibly a defence arrangement against the Soviet Union.

But Canadian officials immediately ignored those promises. Soon after taking office in 1993, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien began promoting Poland’s accession to NATO. A 1994 Edmonton Journal article about a forthcoming summit of the alliance noted that Canada wanted a statement “that NATO is open to the admission of new members.” According to the Journal, “Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said the US plan doesn’t move fast enough to incorporate Poland and some other countries into the 16-member NATO military alliance.” Of note, the article also recognized the possibility of rekindling Cold War tensions, noting “how does NATO, for example, admit new members when Russian President Boris Yeltsin has publicly opposed such a move?”

Two years later, in 1996, the Toronto Star published an article titled “Poland, Ukraine get PM’s backing. Chrétien favors their NATO bids.” Again, Canadian officials acknowledged Moscow’s opposition. Derek Ferguson reported, “officials said Chrétien will spend much of his time assuring [Russian Prime Minister Viktor] Chernomyrdin that NATO’s expansion is not meant to come at Russia’s expense.”

The next year Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were granted a path to membership in the alliance. Ottawa also pressed for Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia to be admitted, but Washington objected. Without so much as a debate in Parliament, Canada was the first NATO country to approve the enlargement of the alliance in 1998.

In flagrant disregard of the promise made to Russian leaders upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Chrétien called the initial enlargement of NATO “a historic day” and said the alliance was finally fulfilling its “moral obligation” to the former Warsaw Pact nations. Canadian media again mentioned “opposition from Russia” to the expansion, which formally took place on the 50th anniversary of the alliance in 1999. A Vancouver Sun story headlined “NATO’s big leap east” Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who called NATO expansion “perhaps the worst mistake in Europe since the end of World War Two.”

Russians weren’t the only ones making this point. In 1998, the Globe and Mail quoted the architect of US containment strategy towards the USSR, George Kennan, who referred to NATO expansion as “the most fateful error of American foreign policy in the post-Cold War world.” Taking a slightly different tone, the owners of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream financed an initiative opposing the expansion. The Globe and Mail reported that their group took out ads in numerous newspapers stating: “Hey, let’s scare the Russians! Let’s take NATO and expand it toward Russia’s very borders. We’ll assure the Russians we come in peace.”

In 1998, Ben & Jerry’s bought newspaper ads opposing NATO expansion.

As Ottawa took advantage of Russian weakness during the 1990s to advocate for the expansion of NATO, Ottawa spurred the breakup of Yugoslavia through diplomacy and peacekeeping. Then, in a final blow to the multiethnic state, NATO bombed Serbia in 1999—a violation of the United Nations Charter. Eighteen Canadian CF-18 jets dropped 530 bombs during the 78-day assault, which deepened Kosovo’s separation from Serbia. The former Yugoslavia’s division into ethnic states was attractive to NATO because it diminished Russian influence in the Mediterranean. Canada continues to provide logistical support to NATO’s Kosovo Force.

Canada also played a significant role in NATO’s subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Libya. During the 2000s Canada supported Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania and Croatia’s accession to NATO (as well as Montenegro and North Macedonia in 2017 and 2020, respectively). Between 1999 and 2020 NATO grew from 16 to 30 members.

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed “strong support” for Ukraine to join NATO. “I call upon our NATO partners to agree that we should keep Ukraine moving forward toward full membership in the alliance,” he declared during a summit in Bucharest. That year, a Canadian Press story about Canada’s promotion of Ukraine’s NATO membership noted, “Russia strongly opposes NATO’s eastward creep, warning it would spark a new East-West crisis. ‘What’s happening with this artificial, and completely unnecessary, expansion of NATO… will not go unanswered [by Russia], I assure you,’ Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told his country’s parliament.”

In January of this year, amidst growing tensions between Ukraine and Russia over fighting in the eastern Donbas region, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly reiterated that “Canada’s position has not changed… We believe that Ukraine should be able to join NATO.” Canada’s military training mission there is partly designed to help “modernize the Ukrainian Armed Forces” noted former Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, so the country could join NATO. To support Ukraine’s possible accession to the alliance, Canada has supported the NATO-Ukraine Joint Working Group on Defence Reform. Canada also shared the role of NATO Contact Point Embassy in Kyiv.

Canada also contributes other military support to the alliance. In 2002, Ottawa supported the creation of a NATO Response Force, and a Canadian vessel regularly participates in Standing NATO Maritime Group One, which operates near Russia in the Baltic Sea, North Sea and Norwegian Sea. What’s more, the Canadian Navy participates in three other NATO Standing Naval Forces operating in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and elsewhere.

In the past five years the number of Canadian troops participating in NATO missions in eastern Europe has steadily increased. CF-18 fighter jets and pilots have been stationed in Poland and Romania. Alongside similar US, British and German forces in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland, Canada took charge of a NATO battle group in Latvia in 2017. More than 500 Canadian soldiers are semi-permanently stationed near Russia’s border, with Canada completing a new $19 million headquarters in Latvia last year.

A few days ago, the government boasted that 1,260 Canadian troops are part of NATO efforts to contain Russia in eastern Europe. They also put 3,400 more Canadian troops on standby to be deployed to Europe as part of NATO’s Response Force.

NATO expansion led to what professor of Russian and European politics Richard Sakwa has labeled a “fateful geographical paradox.” Sakwa says NATO now “exists to manage the risks created by its existence.”

Remarking on NATO’s expansion in 1998, George Kennan told the New York Times, “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.”

The threat of war has always been good for militarists and the arms industry. It’s hard to see NATO’s expansion as being about anything other than that.

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.

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