Fight for the Kerch Strait: the afte​rmat​h​. Canadian edition

Russia’s use of its military force near the Kerch Strait on November 25, 2018, resulted in a seizure and detention of three Ukrainian naval vessels and their 24 sailors, has suddenly turned over the construction of the Canadian response to Russian actions in the entire region. There is no doubt that since 2014, Canada has been unequivocal in its condemnation of the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin’s active involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the MH17 downing over the Donbass region, the Salisbury attack, and etc. Canada even adopted its version of the Magnitsky Act in 2017 and imposed targeted sanctions on Russian individuals and companies. The Canadian contribution to NATO’s assurance and deterrence measures in Central and Eastern Europe brought up in view of the aforesaid should not also be underestimated, not to mention a traditional alliance with Ukraine which could not even be withheld from intensification in light of the hostile Moscow approach to Kiev. And Canada found itself in the position of sponsor of recent Ukrainian political and economic reforms on the ground, military instructor for the Ukrainian armed forces fighting with pro-Russian separatists and promoter of Ukrainian needs on the international stage. But the events of November 25 near Crimea, portrayed by the Kremlin for the internal use in the country as a sort of “a flick on the nose” of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko who is seen in Russia as the one having orchestrated this provocation in order to raise his political rating on the eve of the upcoming 2019 presidential election, have initiated an entire package of Canadian counteractions in less than a month.

On the surface, there are still official statements urging Russia to de-escalate the situation and to release the sailors which on their own cannot really influence on Mr. Putin, the principal decision-maker. But with the affirmative position being clearly stated, Canada has immediately advanced with a series of versatile measures this time.

First of all, as long as a set of two elections in Ukraine is at stake, and the Russian state propaganda is actively using this fact to show off the nature of provocative actions demanded by Kiev, Ottawa is assigned to invest in securing the electoral process in this country. On December 6, 2018, on the occasion of the OSCE meeting in Italy, the Government of Canada announced its financial contribution at the rate of $24 million to support Ukraine’s 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. Almost half of this sum of money is devoted to election observation. Around 500 Canadian observers are meant to be seconded to Ukraine, although not only as a part of a standard OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission but also within a separate Canadian mission. CANADEM, an implementing partner for government, is already hiring people for the mission. ODIHR has opened its application process as well. With 750 short-term observers being stated, it is going to be a big mission for this organization (the biggest OSCE/ODIHR mission in the history of – as appeared in the original publication; corrected by the author).

Up to $2.5 million out of $24 million will be dedicated to countering Moscow interference during both election campaigns. Considering the famous Russian meddling into the 2016 U.S. presidential election, revealed malicious disinformation initiated by the so-called Troll Factory from St. Petersburg and the ongoing hybrid war in Ukraine in general, the 2019 elections will highly likely lead to a hot phase at least in the information battlefield.

Most notably, the situation with Ukraine forced Canada to apply a unified approach to the region. Although Ukraine stays traditionally important, Canada is seriously exploring strengthening support to Moldova and Georgia in the face of potential and real Russian aggression. Despite the fact that these three countries were among the first to leave Russia’s orbit and to reorient for European and Euro-Atlantic structures by founding GUAM at the end of the 1990s, the Kremlin simply didn’t accept such a turn, hoping to keep all of them in Moscow’s sphere of interest. With all the ups and downs of this organization since then, depending largely on a political will of the existing leaders of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova (Uzbekistan was for a certain period of time a part of this group until its “come back” to Russia largely connected with the outcomes of the famous events in Andijan in 2005), Canada addressed GUAM pursuing a possible initiation of a cooperation program between the country and the organization. Chrystia Freeland met her colleagues from the above-mentioned countries on December 10, 2018, in the course of the GUAM Council of Ministers for Foreign Affairs.

At the same time, Ambassadors from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova addressed the Standing Committee on National Defence of the House of Commons on December 4, 2018, further advocating for the adoption of the unified approach by Canada to the region. The bottom line was that the Kremlin (not to mix up with the people of Russia who are simply victims of the regime themselves, according to Konstantine Kavtaradze, Ambassador of the Republic of Georgia to Canada) used the same strategy unleashing inveterate conflicts in these countries by various means to destabilize the situation. Thus, Canada was asked to support by action all of them in order to send a clear message to Moscow that its aggression would no longer be tolerated. And the House did present to the Government of Canada a report containing among other findings 13 recommendations on how exactly Canada should respond to the Russian aggression, including more sanctions against the Kremlin and military cooperation with the countries of the region.

The question, for now, is what the response will be from Ottawa. Meanwhile, some of the recommendations such as early renewal of Operation UNIFIER or establishment of Canadian observation missions to Ukraine are either being actively discussed in the public space or have already been settled. Ukraine is also waiting for the realization of their first lethal weapons deal reached with Canada earlier in August 2018. Meanwhile, Canada is strengthening its arms export control.

Everything might, of course, be a coincidence, especially taking into consideration that some of the above-mentioned meetings were certainly scheduled pretty much in advance of their actual dates in early December or should be considered in a broader aspect of the continuing processes. Anyway, the arising configuration might become a new wave in the existing Canadian approach of holding Russia accountable for its behaviour on the world scene.

Will Canada be willing to move further into Russia’s immediate sphere of interest in the post-soviet zone with countermeasures against the Kremlin? And if so, what could Moscow possibly do about it? Pretty straightforward step for Canada which has had no Ambassador to Russia since the end of July 2018.

 

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