September 3, 2014
Every day we read another article about the senseless slaughter of the First World War in which nine million died on the bloody battlefields of Europe and beyond.
One hundred years after its onset, nuclear-armed powers face off over Ukraine, and the stakes are unimaginably higher: nuclear Armageddon, the end of the world. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the other 27 NATO leaders meet later this week in Wales, let us hope they have read the lessons of history carefully and do everything they can to avoid blustering into a war with Russia that nobody can win.
“There will be repercussions for [Russia’s] blatant act of aggression,” Foreign Minister John Baird sternly intones, after mounting evidence of a further incursion by Russian military forces into Eastern Ukraine. For the Globe and Mail editorial board it is nothing short of the return of the Iron Curtain.
The cacophony of calls from pundits and journalists for NATO to be more resolute and for lethal military equipment to be given to the Ukrainian army is invariably followed by the assertion that, of course, NATO won’t actually go to war with Russia.
So while acknowledging that such a war is out of the question, opinion leaders appear to be demanding that NATO ramp up the very military posturing and charged rhetoric that could bring this unthinkable course of action ever closer.
If we all agree that nuclear Armageddon is not an option, then we need to take a deep breath and carefully consider our available options. Putting aside a total abandonment of Ukraine to an uncertain fate, we are left with ratcheting up sanctions, investing major political and diplomatic capital in a negotiated solution or both.
Turning first to sanctions, Russia must surely be feeling some economic bite from those already imposed; yet they have failed to secure any positive change in behaviour—quite the contrary. Further measures are slated for discussion at the NATO summit in Wales.
While sanctions are widely perceived as a diplomatic tool, they are categorized in Chapter VII of the UN Charter as a coercive measure, one step short of armed force. And like the use of force itself, they often have entirely unintended and quite counterproductive consequences.
Take for example the recent call by the United Kingdom for Russia to be ousted from the SWIFT worldwide interbank transaction system. Experts warn that, while this would undoubtedly be very disruptive to Russian financial and commercial activities in the short term, over the longer term it could encourage Russian development of its own transfer payment system, one far less transparent than the global one and beyond the reach of future sanctions.
Add the fact that the historical record suggests sanctions are rarely sufficient on their own to compel the desired change in behaviour, and this brings us back to the only option left standing: the strongest possible promotion of, engagement in and tangible support for, a high-level, broadly supported and internationally facilitated peace process.
There is nothing new in calling for a negotiated settlement. This has been the position of the United States, NATO and the European Union from the outset. Talks involving the Americans, Russia and Ukraine; negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE; and now mediation efforts led by Germany for the EU have so far borne little fruit.
Continued high-level engagement of the US and the EU is critical, but what is now needed in addition is a comprehensive approach which seeks to address all aspects of this complex conflict and which draws on expert, impartial international mediators acceptable to all sides. Russian agreement is by no means assured, but they have expressed some interest in mediation under UN auspices, so that is a place to start.
While the NATO summit will not be the venue to resolve the Ukraine crisis, leaders must, at a minimum, ensure that they do not make the situation worse. That means maintaining a steady focus on, and careful articulation of, sensible defensive measures to reassure nervous alliance members like the Baltic States, and no more.
But NATO leaders can and must do more than avoid inadvertent escalation of tensions. They can put their full diplomatic weight behind a negotiated solution without preconditions that could doom the talks before they begin.
It is time for the Canadian government to tone down its rhetoric and scale up its diplomatic support for a peace process that can pull us all back from the nuclear brink.
Peggy Mason, a former Canadian ambassador for disarmament to the UN, is the president of the Rideau Institute on International Affairs, an independent advocacy and research think tank in Ottawa.