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A peacekeeping force on the Russia-Ukraine border?

Paul Wells on how a long shot mission hinging on a retreat by Vladimir Putin is taking shape, and how Canada is playing a role
Canadian Army instructors discuss mechanized infantry defence tactics with their Ukrainian Armed Forces colleagues during Exercise RAPID TRIDENT in Starychi, Ukraine on June 30, 2016. (Joint Task Force Ukraine)
Canadian Army instructors discuss mechanized infantry defence tactics with their Ukrainian Armed Forces colleagues during Exercise RAPID TRIDENT in Starychi, Ukraine on June 30, 2016. (Joint Task Force Ukraine)
Canadian Army instructors discuss mechanized infantry defence tactics with their Ukrainian Armed Forces colleagues during Exercise RAPID TRIDENT in Starychi, Ukraine, on June 30, 2016. (Joint Task Force Ukraine)

The strangest thing began to happen this autumn: signs of Canadian support for an international peacekeeping mission in Eastern Ukraine.

In September, during a visit by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “there is definitely a very strong potential role” for peacekeepers, nearly four years into a Russian invasion and occupation of the country’s eastern regions.

In November Andrew Scheer, the leader of the official opposition, called for an international force to patrol the Ukraine-Russia border. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan responded with openness to the call.

All of which was confusing to some Ukraine watchers. Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested an international force in the region in early September. But he wanted troops along the “demarcation line” separating Ukrainian army regulars from Russia-backed separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk. A force deployed in such a way would essentially freeze the conflict in its tracks, granting Russia part marks for an invasion and occupation the Western world rejects as illegitimate, and durably destabilizing the Ukrainian government.

Trudeau, Scheer and Sajjan insist any force must be deployed at the border between Russia and Ukraine. Isn’t that wishful thinking? As analysts have pointed out, permitting peacekeepers on the border would amount to a capitulation by Putin. He isn’t normally the capitulating type.

But senior Canadian and U.S. government sources tell Maclean’s that a recent flurry of Western diplomatic activity is predicated on the suspicion that Putin may indeed be looking for a way out of his Ukrainian adventure.

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“What Russia wants is a more friendly government in Kiev,” Kurt Volker, the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, told Maclean’s in a telephone interview. “They want a Ukraine that sees itself as connected to Russia. But by invading and taking this territory they’ve produced the opposite: they’ve produced a more unified, more nationalist, more anti-Russian, more pro-Western Ukraine. So they’re actually producing the opposite of what they called for. Which is why they might be willing to rethink. ”

In case a Russian rethink is on the way, Western diplomats have held a steady succession of low-profile meetings to prepare for some kind of multilateral troop deployment. One person who’s been busy on the file is Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, who has family roots in Ukraine and who studied and worked there nearly 30 years ago.

At their first meeting in February, Freeland and Rex Tillerson, the U.S. Secretary of State, discussed Ukraine. The same month, both Trudeau and Freeland discussed Ukraine with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. Merkel asked Canada to play a bigger role on Ukraine. Freeland has met frequently with Germany’s ambassador to the United Nations, Christoph Heusgen, who was Merkel’s national security advisor and who has kept responsibility for Ukraine since taking up his new role.

At Canada’s High Commission in London, Freeland had dinner with Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s foreign minister, and with their Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts, Edgars Rinkēvičs and Linas Linkevičius.

Canada’s role increased still further when Poroshenko visited Toronto for the Invictus Games and held his joint media availability with Trudeau. Five weeks later Ukraine’s prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, was in Ottawa and Toronto. He was a guest for dinner at Freeland’s Toronto residence, along with the author and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum; the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada, Andriy Shevchenko; and Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, who like Freeland speaks Ukrainian.

It’s a lot of planning for something that may never happen—something that seems, as of today, unlikely to happen: a retreat by Vladimir Putin on his most high-profile foreign-policy intervention, unless you count the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Putin and Western leaders are not talking about the same sort of stabilization force in the same place. Nothing can happen until they agree on terms.

“A peacekeeping force that helps to solve the problem in the Donbas will do its job, and will be acceptable to Canada, only if those peacekeepers are at the Ukrainian border,” Freeland said in an interview with Maclean’s. “It is absolutely essential in this process that Ukraine’s territorial integrity be affirmed and recognized. That’s the key to the whole issue.”

Why, having annexed Crimea and sent troops into the eastern Donbas region, would Putin reverse course? “It’s really a strategic decision for Russia,” Volker, the U.S. envoy, said. “Do they want to get out, try to portray President Putin as a peacemaker, take credit for getting special status, and get on the path for sanctions relief? These are things they could sell.”

(Note that all of this discussion relates only to the presence of Russians and surrogates in the Eastern region of Donbas. Russia’s annexation of Crimea is another question: Still rejected by Western governments as an illegal Russian adventure, but unlikely to be unwound by sanctions or any other mechanism any time soon. “Never say never,” a Canadian source said, but Crimea is likely to remain under Russian control for some time to come.)

Unfortunately, Russia is heading for a presidential election in the spring, and Putin has always run for office “on the basis of an assertive nationalism, defending Russian-speaking people wherever they may be against perceived threats from the outside world,” Volker said. “And he could very well do so again. So I can’t say how he’ll come down on this, but I think there’s an opportunity…even in the context of elections.”

Volker said Putin’s expectations for an easy and successful subjugation of Ukraine may be conditioned by the pretty easy time he had of things after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. “They saw that the West kind of walked away after six months. We didn’t put in place any sanctions. We hit this big red reset button”—literally, in the form of a toy prop former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used to symbolize a new relationship with Russia after Barack Obama was elected President. “There was no lasting penalty to Russia for having invaded Georgia,” Volker said.

Putin might have expected a Ukraine would be a comparable walk in the park. Instead he got united Western condemnations, sanctions that have hurt and held, and the collapse of pro-Russian sentiment in Ukrainian politics. And suddenly he’s talking about peacekeeping. Just not, yet, where his adversaries want it.

Volker has had three meetings with his designated Russian interlocutor, Kremlin envoy Vladislav Surkov. Their most recent meeting was in Belgrade in early October. Their earlier meetings, in Minsk in August and Belgrade in September, were encouraging, Volker said. “It felt like we were exchanging views on how we could actually keep a peacekeeping force. It seemed like we were making some progress.”

Volker’s latest meeting with Surkov, however, “felt like a step backwards,” Volker said. “We have very different concepts now.” Surkov’s includes no access for a hypothetical new peacekeeping force to Ukraine’s border with Russia. “That’s critically important as well, because without controlling the inflow and outflows of people and arms, you’re really not going to be able to secure the area,” Volker said. “So Russia took a step back on that.”

If they change their minds, soften up, decide to make some concessions to a lousy outcome in Ukraine and consent to a multinational force with jurisdiction all the way to the border, who would lead it? Probably not Canada. It’s a NATO country, it has troops in Latvia bolstering the alliance’s eastern frontier, and there’s not much Putin likes less than NATO. It would take another country, one that gets along well with NATO but isn’t a member, ideally one with a centuries-long history of alliances with Ukraine. Sweden is such a country. Volker was in Stockholm earlier this month. And two weeks ago in Toronto, Freeland welcomed another visitor, former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister Carl Bildt. It’s probably not a coincidence.