Should the Trudeau government push for a negotiated end to the war in Ukraine? Could it, even if it wanted to?

At a webinar hosted by the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute (CFPI) last week, Columbia University professor and economist Jeffrey Sachs – who previously worked on the economic advisory teams of former Russian presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, and former Ukrainian presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko – said he believes the only way for the war to end without prolonged violence and destruction is with a negotiated settlement.

This, he argued, will require difficult conversations about the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the military alliance of which Canada is a member and which has sent an estimated total of US$14.3 billion in weapons and other types of aid to Ukraine since last year.

“There is no other way this war will end,” said Sachs. “If we want peace, we actually have to tell the truth, which is that there are limits to NATO enlargement, and I'm sorry to say, Canada is absolutely an accomplice to this.”

“I always regarded Canada as the sane part of the continent, because I knew that the United States was the crazy part of the continent, but I'm not seeing Canadian leadership now.”

During the event, The Maple asked Sachs if Canada wields enough diplomatic leverage to push its NATO allies to sue for peace, even if it had the political will to try. Sachs said this would be possible only if Canada worked in concert with other countries.

“Canada, together with other countries, certainly could help the United States to see reality,” he said. “Everybody knows that this is a disaster, but nobody tells the U.S. The United States is not all powerful.”

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began last year, Canada has pledged more than $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine, along with financial and humanitarian assistance. In the most recent federal budget, the Trudeau government extended a $2.4 billion loan to help shore up the country’s battered public finances.

In response to China’s recent efforts to broker peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said she believed the proposals were intended only to buy Russia enough time to rearm and resupply its forces for a renewed offensive.

More recently, however, American foreign policy commentators have interpreted comments by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as an indication that Washington is warming to elements of Beijing’s peace plan.

The War’s Brutal Toll

According to recently leaked U.S. intelligence documents, the war has resulted in up to 354,000 casualties on both sides and could set into a years-long war of attrition in the country’s southern and eastern regions. The outcome of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive in the coming weeks remains uncertain, according to military analysts.

In addition to Russia’s invasion itself being a violation of international law, the conflict has resulted in widespread human rights violations, with Russian forces killing civilians, attacking residential buildings and infrastructure, as well as engaging in rape and torture, according to international monitors.

The Ukrainian state, meanwhile, has clamped down heavily on civil and democratic rights, including outright bans on religious organizations and political parties accused of holding pro-Russian sympathies. In Russia, the Putin government’s long standing oppression of dissent and media freedom has also intensified since the invasion began last February.

With special forces from NATO countries reportedly deployed in Ukraine, critics of the war have renewed warnings about the dangers of the conflict escalating into a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia, both nuclear armed powers.

Such concerns have only intensified following conflicting allegations over a drone attack on the Kremlin last week, and an incident last year when what was likely a Ukrainian air defence missile that accidentally landed in NATO-member Poland was briefly mistaken for a Russian strike.

Should The Weapons Keep Flowing?

The question of whether Canada should continue sending weapons to Ukraine, and whether or not it should push for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, remains highly controversial in some circles.

An Angus Reid poll in February found that the Canadian public broadly supports continuing to send aid of various kinds to Ukraine. More than half (55 per cent) of those surveyed said they believe Ukraine should keep fighting, but are divided as to whether they think Ukraine should try to reclaim only the country’s eastern provinces (23 per cent), or to pursue victory in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014 (32 per cent).

The latter endeavour is seen by some experts as particularly fraught with risk, as Crimea’s population is majority Russian-speaking, and the region would be strategically difficult to conquer. Twenty-three per cent of Canadians said they favour a negotiated end to the conflict.

Meanwhile, support for sending military aid to Ukraine has dropped significantly since last year. Fifty-two per cent support sending “defensive” equipment and munitions, a decrease of 9 per cent since March 2022, and a minority, 37 per cent, said they support sending more “lethal aid,” a decrease of 11 per cent since “the early days of the war.”

In a recent dialogue hosted by Passage, the forerunner of The Maple’s opinion section, Ukrainian socialist activist and soldier Taras Bilous argued that despite the intense suffering caused by the war, Ukrainians are not ready to “capitulate for the sake of peace at any cost.”

“If the Kremlin had stated that it was ready to withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine under certain conditions, it would have been worth starting negotiations,” Bilous wrote. “Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin has annexed territories, including parts Russia doesn’t control, and is demanding the recognition of these annexations.”

“Internationalists shouldn’t advocate for peace at any cost, but rather a just and lasting peace,” he added, suggesting that “an unjust peace would also be unstable” and could slide back into open war at any moment.

“The only alternative to this scenario is Ukraine’s victory, meaning that the Kremlin must be forced to agree to peace terms acceptable for Ukraine. And for this, Ukraine needs foreign arms supplies.”

(You can read Bilous’ full argument, along with Dimitri Lascaris’ case against sending more weapons, here.)

But for Sachs, a peace deal of any kind will not be reached until what he sees as the root cause of the conflict — namely, NATO expansion into Eastern and Central Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union — is addressed.

“This is a story about NATO expansion, and this is a story that you will not read in the mainstream media,” Sachs told the webinar. “NATO assumes that it can move to anybody's border without complaint or response. If you want to know why this war occurred, that's it.”

That argument has been dismissed by NATO governments, as well as a handful of reports and academics — including some that received federal government funding — in the United States and Canada as an example of Russian “disinformation” or “propaganda.”

Sachs rejected that suggestion.

“I'm sorry; I was there at these instances,” he said, citing his past experiences working with governments in both countries, including in Ukraine after the Maidan uprising of 2014. “I was there the day after, because I was asked to be there by the next government.”

The risks of expanding NATO to Ukraine, which the alliance has not ruled out, were also anticipated by former U.S. ambassador to Russia William Burns, who wrote in a 2007 cable (published by Wikileaks) that: “NATO enlargement and U.S. missile defence deployments in Europe play to the classic Russian fear of encirclement.”

Citing comments from Russian officials in 2008, Burns also wrote: “NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains ‘an emotional and neuralgic’ issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.”

He added: “Experts tell us that Russia is particularly worried that the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community against membership, could lead to a major split, involving violence or at worst, civil war. In that eventuality, Russia would have to decide whether to intervene; a decision Russia does not want to have to face.”

Sachs also referred to an alleged promise made by U.S.-allied powers to the Soviet Union that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward” following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991.

The exact nature of what was promised to the Soviets is a matter of debate. Kristina Spohr, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics, wrote last year that suggestions the West betrayed the Soviet Union over the promise of not expanding NATO is a “myth.” The “not one inch eastward” promise, Spohr argued, was limited to a pledge not to place NATO command structures and troops in the territory of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Spohr wrote: "...the talks in February 1990 were never about NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. They were confined to the specific issue of NATO’s defence in the wake of German unification."

Other scholars see the promise as pertaining to broader NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. In 2017, George Washington University’s National Security Archive published documents that it said showed:

“[...] multiple national leaders were considering and rejecting Central and Eastern European membership in NATO as of early 1990 and through 1991, that discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory, and that subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were founded in written contemporaneous memcons and telcons at the highest levels.”

One of the documents in question, a confidential U.S. embassy cable, states that in a speech, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher: “(Made) it clear that the changes in Eastern Europe and the German unification process must not lead to an ‘impairment of Soviet security interests.’ Therefore, NATO should rule out an expansion of its territory towards the east, i.e., moving closer to Soviet borders.”

Critics have noted that if Putin had hoped his invasion of Ukraine would check NATO’s growth, then this objective has backfired spectacularly, as it has pushed Europe further into the American fold. Last month, Finland, which neighbours Russia, joined the alliance, and Sweden is also seeking membership.

NATO Stronger Or Weaker?

During the webinar, The Maple asked Sachs if he believes the war will ultimately strengthen or weaken NATO’s international standing in the long-term. He said most discussions about perceptions of NATO policy among the “international community” disproportionately focus on the views held by U.S.-allied countries.

“The rest of the world is nowhere near this,” said Sachs. “The attitude of the rest of the world is ‘Holy shit, what are you guys doing?’” He noted recent comments made by Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who pitched a peace initiative to end the war, as an example. By one estimate, governments representing 87 per cent of the world’s population have refused to follow the U.S. line on the conflict.

In February, former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett said NATO governments “blocked” progress on a potential peace deal between Ukraine and Russia that had been developing in the first weeks of the invasion because they felt it was more important to “smash” Putin. Bennett later downplayed his comments, tweeting that “it’s unsure there was any deal to be made. At the time I gave it roughly a 50% chance.”

Ivan Katchanovski, a professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in Ukrainian and Russian politics and conflict, also spoke at the CFPI webinar. He stressed the illegality of Putin’s invasion and its basis on false claims about the country being ruled by a Nazi regime that was committing genocide against Russian speakers, but reiterated his view that the war could have been prevented.

“This war could have been prevented and avoided, and it was possible for Ukraine to become a successful country which would avoid devastation from this war, by declaring its neutrality,” he explained. “In exchange, Ukraine could have been offered membership in the European Union, which would promote its economic development.”

Katchanovski added: “A military solution to this conflict would be much more negative in terms of consequences to Ukraine.”

Alex Cosh is the news editor of The Maple.

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