ICYMI: Conservative Party’s disastrous approach to Ukraine embraced by Liberals

Image description: Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, both standing, shake hands in front of a row of Canadian and Ukrainian flags on July 14, 2015. In front of them is a table with two chairs, two sets of documents and pens, and a vase of flowers. To either side of the Prime Ministers are two unidentified observers. (Image credit: Uncredicted/pm.gc.ca via the Wayback Machine)

Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada says that the new Liberal government hasn’t departed in any major way from the policies of the old Conservative one – and that’s cause for major concern.

But unlike other continuities from the Harper era which have garnered much more attention, the new administration’s steady-as-she-goes approach to the Ukraine file is drawing precious little comment from the press or the public.

While debate rages over the Trudeau government’s retooled war non-combat operation in Iraq, for instance, a renewed deployment of Canadian Forces troops on a virtually identical “training” “non-combat” mission to Ukraine came and went with a minimum of national attention or fuss.

But that’s a problem, because the mission was never subject to much public scrutiny to begin with. That was despite the fact that there were major concerns that Canadian troops would be training Nazis.

Typically, the word “Nazi” is deployed as a hyperbolic epithet, but in this case we’re talking about actual factual honest-to-God Nazis:

Based on interviews with [Azov Battalion] 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.”

Doubting the Holocaust, admiring Hitler, and calling oneself a Nazi – is there a more textbook definition of being a Nazi than that?

The Azov Battalion, to be clear, is not some fringe force on the periphery of the conflict. Though not fully integrated into the Ukrainian military, it is a part of the National Guard, and has the explicit backing of the national government, which acknowledges the battalion’s fascist politics but prizes the group for its fervour and willingness to fight.

And when Canadian troops were initially deployed into Ukraine on a training mission, it wasn’t at all clear whether this battalion was going to be the recipient of Canadian training, as I wrote at the time:

[W]e’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.

That’s still the case today, although the Nazi aspect gets overlooked more than ever. After initial protests in Congress, for instance, the United States recently gave a quiet go-ahead to training and funding of the Azov Battalion by American forces. And if members of Azov are to be believed, American aid was going on covertly for quite some time before this policy reversal, leading one to question the extent to which the Canadian military is also enmeshed with the battalion, official protestations notwithstanding.

Then there’s the issue of war crimes. A report issued by Human Rights Watch just days after the Liberals were elected last October, Human Rights Watch and the New York Times accused the Ukrainian government of using cluster bombs in its campaign against rebels in the country’s eastern regions. The Ukrainian government has denied the allegations, but as far as I can tell, the Canadian government hasn’t commented on them one way or another.

Of course, as we know from the whole Saudi arms contract episode, the Liberal Party seems to be completely willing to prioritize money over human rights, so that ought not to be too big of a surprise. Because there is money to be made here.

While economists and business experts spar with academics and activists over the contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Canadian government’s announcement that it will proceed with a politically motivated and economically disastrous bilateral free trade deal with Ukraine was met mostly with yawns.

The total benefits of the deal are not that big – Stéphane Dion was quoted as saying they amounted to a $13 million USD boost to the Ukrainian economy. But there are other upsides to the deal:

Ukraine’s Prime Minister is calling on Canadian investors to take part in a massive privatization of state assets organized by Kiev as a way of weakening the power of wealthy oligarchs blamed for spreading corruption in his country.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk cited, for instance, Ukrainian businessmen who have been “sitting like vampires” on the country’s publicly owned energy sector…

Ukraine is preparing to spin off billions of dollars of government enterprises – including power generation and distribution assets and chemical plants – and the government wants Western investors to bring more orderly business methods to the Eastern European country.

“I don’t want Ukrainian tycoons to buy these state-owned enterprises,” Mr. Yatsenyuk said. “We would be happy to see Canadian folks buying Ukrainian assets and bringing into Ukraine good corporate governance, new investment and new jobs.

“That is what I asked the Canadian Prime Minister: ‘Please tell your investors and your businesses to jump into Ukraine.’”

Basically, this free trade agreement is about opening up Ukrainian state-owned enterprises for Canadian oligarchical “investment”/pillaging. The benefits for the working people of Ukraine and of Canada are non-existent, while the downsides – particularly for the Ukrainians – are numerous. This trade deal is neoliberal neo-colonialism, plain and simple – and while it was negotiated by Stephen Harper, who had half an eye on the upcoming election, it’s been wholeheartedly embraced by Justin Trudeau, who hasn’t been afraid to tear down aspects of the Conservative legacy he doesn’t like.

And while Global Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion preaches the virtues of nuance when it comes to normalizing relations with Iran and opening up a limited dialogue with Russia, labelling the previous government’s foreign policy as “ideological and irrational”, Canada continues to buy into a Manichaean understanding of the Ukrainian situation in which Russia is unquestionably the bad guy and the Ukrainian government is deserving of unrestrained support:

“I am so pleased to go to Ukraine to express to the government of Ukraine the steadfast support of Canada for Ukraine, how much we deeply disagree with the invasion and interference of the Russian government in Ukraine,” the minister said.

“We owe so much to Ukrainian Canadians and we will always support them.”

There are about 1.3 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent, a group that is viewed as an important voting bloc. [my bold]

This hard line of absolute and unquestionable support for a supposedly stalwart ally must be considered in the context of NATO aggression against Russia. I’m no Russian apologist and I believe that there is a lot about Russia’s behaviour in the last two years which merits strong condemnation. But that does not make Ukraine the protagonist of this conflict: “basically, you’ve got a Nazi-supporting, unelected, foreign-controlled government in Kyiv, which is supported both financially and militarily by NATO nations”. How do you think that looks from a Russian perspective? A little threatening, maybe? Especially given NATO’s steady advancement towards Russia’s border, despite promises in the early 90s that this would never happen?

Ultimately, the perfect continuity in the government’s Ukraine policy in the aftermath of last fall’s election demonstrates that certain priorities are not dictated by the parties, but by supranational organizations like NATO and by the powerful Canadian business community. Of course, the competition for the votes of Ukrainian-descended Canadians is a factor as well. But the actual interests of Canada – or of Ukraine, for that matter – don’t seem to be a major consideration of the Liberal government. Otherwise, they would at least be asking some hard questions about the wisdom of continuing down the perilous path laid out for them by the Harper Conservatives.

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