The great journalist I.F. Stone may or may not have once said that he loved reading the Washington Post cover to cover, because you never know where you’re going to find a front-page story. In the increasingly fragmented journalistic landscape of the Internet Age, that’s more true than ever – the important stories have to fight with the celebrity controversies and the manufactured political scandals and the short attention spans of the public in order to get noticed, and more often than not all they’re able to muster is a day of coverage before they’re submerged by the relentless news cycle.
So starting this week, I’m going to be devoting Mondays to dredging these critical but overlooked stories back to the surface, and giving them the critical examination they deserve.
The first story I’d like to highlight is one that passed me by entirely when it first broke. I only became aware of it during Stephen Harper’s Russia-bashing European vacation last week, and even then only because I did some digging.
So, in case you missed it, here’s the headline from April 14:
Ukraine crisis: Canada sending 200 trainers for Ukraine military
Troops to leave this summer for [“]lower-risk[“] operations at bases in western Ukraine
(My scare quotes, of course.) And the details:
Canada will join a training mission to help Ukraine’s military in its struggle against Russian-backed rebels, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday, following months of requests for assistance from Ukraine’s government.
Starting this summer, roughly 200 troops will be deployed, until March, 2017, to help develop and deliver training for Ukrainian forces personnel…
[Defence Minister Jason] Kenney told his news conference that from the beginning, Canada was interested in doing something in western Ukraine that would maximize the distance from the conflict and minimize the risk Canadian forces would find themselves in a confrontation with the Russian-backed forces in the eastern part of the country…
Kenney pointed out several times the troops “could not be farther away,” as this facility is 1,300 kilometres, or a day’s drive, from the current conflict zone. Lawson agreed that the risk is “very low, geographically.” […]
Kenney said Canada’s contributions were necessary to “send a strong message of resolution and deterrence” in the face of aggression from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But Canada has “no intention” of making this an accompanying mission, where Canadians would go with their Ukrainian trainees to the front.
“This is a non-combat mission,” he said, noting the Polish border is “virtually within sight” and it would not be difficult to extract Canada’s troops. [my bold throughout]
Now, at first glance, this doesn’t sound like too big of a deal, does it? Even if you’re opposed to Canadian involvement in this conflict, this is pretty low-grade, low-risk, low-impact stuff, right?
Well…no. Not really.
To start with, why is Kenney so adamant that these trainers are gonna be, like, totally sooooo far away from the front lines? Like, srsly?
It probably has something to do with (a) this:
Several dozen Canadian soldiers will be sent to Iraq to advise that country’s military forces in fighting Islamic terrorists, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced here Friday [September 4, 2014]…
The Canadian soldiers would provide strategic and tactical advice to the Iraqis and Kurds before they go into battle against ISIL.
The Canadians will not take part in combat, Harper said.
And then (b) this:
Canadian special forces soldiers on a “non-combat” mission in Iraq have been giving directions to fighter jets to bomb Islamic State positions and have exchanged gunfire with extremists, the military said Monday, revealing a more involved role for Canadians than previously disclosed.
While their mission to train Iraqi forces is not supposed to involve fighting, the small band of elite troops has seen frontline action, senior commanders told a briefing.
That includes calling in airstrikes by Canadian CF-18s on targets and in one dramatic incident in the last week [in mid-January 2015], firing on extremists after being attacked.
Oh and then also (c) this:
A Canadian soldier based in Petawawa, Ont., was killed by Iraqi Kurdish forces who “mistakenly engaged” in combat in Iraq, according to the Department of National Defence.
In other words, this government doesn’t have the most credible record when it comes to situations like this.
And as much as Harper loves to hate on ISIS, he has a special place in his shrivelled little heart for acting belligerently towards Russia, so this is exactly the type of situation that could escalate quickly. All it would take would be for some Donetsk separatists to attack Canadian military positions, and bam, we’d get drawn into the most intractable civil conflict Europe has seen since Yugoslavia fell apart. (Hmm, and it seems to me that NATO was involved in that one as well…)
Then there’s Kenney’s assertion that that we need to resist Russian “aggression”. That message was a main theme of Harper’s big European trip last week, which was a veritable master class of fear-mongering spin. He even got the international press’s panties in a knot when Russian ships trailed a Canadian Navy ship that Harper was on…just miles away from the Russian border.
In case you missed it: Stephen Harper, Action Hero (sing it to the tune of the Ninja Turtles theme song!) visited the Navy ship HMCS Fredericton for nearly 24 hours as it manoeuvred off the coast of Poland while he was on a multi-day Russia-bashing tour of Eastern Europe.
The free boat ride for three (he brought Jason Kenney and his wife – sorry T-Pain!) drew international media attention and generated click-bait headlines after the boat was tailed by a Russian navy vessel, in what the Fredericton’s commanding officer stressed repeatedly to reporters was a totally normal pattern of behaviour, given the proximity to the Russian border and the fact that there were NATO war games going on in the area. (Imagine Canada’s response if the Russian Navy was performing manoeuvres twenty miles off the coast of Halifax.)
Before setting sail, Harper stopped over in Kyiv and Warsaw, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine was a focus of both visits. Both Ukraine’s and Poland’s diasporas are also well-represented in Canada, each numbering over a million, and Harper’s visit can certainly be interpreted as a cynical play for votes. He also touched down briefly in the Vatican for a tete-a-tete with the Pope, which was interpreted by some commentators as an appeal to Catholic voters, especially in Quebec, although he apparently wasn’t entirely aware of where he was and just kept talking about Vladimir Putin.
In fact, throughout his European tour his attitude towards Putin was so belligerent that even the mild-mannered Globe and Mail referred to his remarks as “trash talking“:
Stephen Harper said Vladimir Putin’s exclusion from the Group of Seven is no big loss because Russia under the former KGB officer has little in common with the West and operates an economy which is basically a collection of “oligarchs and criminal syndicates.” […]
“We are having a discussion on the shared interests of the Western democratic world. Mr. Putin, who is in no way part of that, has no place at the table and I don’t believe there’s any leader who would defend Mr. Putin having a place,” Mr. Harper told the U.S. cable network [CNBC]…
“Mr. Putin runs an entirely different system … he runs an economy that is dominated by oligarchs and criminal syndicates, it is not at all like our economy, it doesn’t share our interests, it doesn’t share our values and so I think we need to have discussions where we can really rally the shared interests of the Western democratic world,” he told CNBC.
Yeah! Putin totally doesn’t share our values! Unlike these guys!
Last February, when ethnic Russian rebels were closing in on the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, the New York Times rhapsodically described the heroes defending the city and indeed Western civilization – the courageous Azov battalion facing down barbarians at the gate. What the Times didn’t tell its readers was that these “heroes” were Nazis, some of them even wearing Swastikas and SS symbols.
No but really. A lot of the time when people call someone a Nazi they mean it as a conversation-ending insult, but in this case we’re talking about actual Nazis. And the American government was, up until a few weeks ago, funding them:
[US Rep. John Conyers] described Ukraine’s Azov Battalion as a 1,000-man volunteer militia of the Ukrainian National Guard that Foreign Policy Magazine has characterized as “openly neo-Nazi” and “fascist.” And Azov is not some obscure force. Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who oversees Ukraine’s armed militias, announced that Azov troops would be among the first units to be trained by the 300 U.S. military advisers who have been dispatched to Ukraine in a training mission codenamed “Fearless Guardian.”[…]
Based on interviews with militia members, the Telegraph reported that some of the fighters doubted the reality of the Holocaust, expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler and acknowledged that they are indeed Nazis.
Biletsky, the Azov commander, “is also head of an extremist Ukrainian group called the Social National Assembly,” according to the Telegraph article which quoted a commentary by Biletsky as declaring: “The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival. A crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.”
In other words, for the first time since World War II, a government had dispatched Nazi storm troopers to attack a European population – and officials in Kiev knew what they were doing. The Telegraph questioned Ukrainian authorities in Kiev who acknowledged that they were aware of the extremist ideologies of some militias but insisted that the higher priority was having troops who were strongly motivated to fight.
Now, again, just in case you forgot – those are the guys we’re rooting for. And, notwithstanding Jason Kenney’s assurances, Canadian military trainers may be giving instruction to these Nazis. I link not to a fringe conspiracy site but to the Conservative National Post:
U.S. lawmakers have voted to block American troops from training a unit with neo-Nazi members that’s operating with Ukraine’s forces — a move that raises questions about what safeguards Canada has to ensure it doesn’t help extremist groups…
Department of National Defence spokeswoman Ashley Lemire said Tuesday that Ukraine is responsible for screening the troops that will be trained by Canada. “The first instalment of trainees will be members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (Land Division), which falls under the Ministry of Defence,” she stated in an email. “We have been assured that this group will not include members of the Azov Battalion as this battalion is not integrated into the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence.”[…]
Jack Harris, the NDP defence critic, said concerns have been raised before about what forces Canada could end up training.
“If they’ve integrated (Azov) into the larger organization, then we will be seeking clarification from Mr. Kenney about what is happening here,” Harris said. [my bold]
So we’re supposed to take the Ukrainian government’s word for it that we’re not gonna be training any of these Nazis. That would be the same Ukrainian government which, when questioned, acknowledged that they were themselves supporting a Nazi battalion but didn’t really care. That would also be the same Ukrainian government which has played fast and loose with the facts, including in February when they gave US Senator Jim Inhofe photographs of what they claimed were Russian tanks in Ukraine. The photos turned out to be of Ukrainian tanks, and of Russian tanks in Georgia during the brief 2008 war between the two countries.
And lest you try to dismiss the Azov battalion as a fringe case, remember that Ukraine’s government installed itself via an unconstitutional coup in which far-right neo-fascist organizations played a prominent role. Regardless of how unpopular ex-President Yanukovich was by the time he fled the country, he was still the duly-elected leader of Ukraine, and he left the country out of fear for his life.
Don’t forget, either, that the US Department of State funded and trained the opposition who led the protests against Yanukovich, and the Assistant Secretary of State and the US Ambassador to Ukraine planned out who would hold which positions in Ukrainian government weeks prior to the regime’s downfall.
So basically, you’ve got a Nazi-supporting, unelected, foreign-controlled government in Kyiv, which is supported both financially and militarily by NATO nations. How does that look from a Russian perspective?
Now, I’m not coming down on Russia’s side here. There’s a lot to criticize in their handling of the situation as well.
I’m just saying that all the focus on Russian aggression seems a little disingenuous from a military alliance which has expanded its network of bases right up to Russia’s borders despite post-Cold War assurances that NATO would do no such thing.
It’s disingenuous to say we’re supporting democracy when we help prop up a regime that came into power through an unconstitutional coup.
It’s disingenuous to say we’re supporting freedom when we’re training and funding neo-Nazi militants.
Mostly this story is frightening because of the sense I get that Harper is doing all of this for domestic political advantage. Preston Manning has said of his one-time protege that Harper was always totally uninterested in foreign affairs, and indeed, on Harper’s watch, Canada has become something of a laughingstock internationally. The decisions this government takes on international issues always seem designed to either appeal to their base or attract voters from a swing constituency – and it’s easy to see this as an appeal for Eastern European votes this fall. That was also the calculus behind the proposed Monument to the Victims of Communism.
So we’re sending the Canadian military – in a strictly advisory role this time, they swear! – to get involved in yet another complex and seemingly intractable conflict based on some hyperbolic rhetoric and the hope of winning some votes for the CPC, on the orders of a guy who doesn’t give a damn about the nuances of geopolitics.
Yeah, this isn’t gonna end well.