As we enter the fifth month of the Ukraine war and resultant food and fuel shortages worldwide, parties to the conflict have begun showing crisis fatigue. They increasingly appear to be reconciling to this mutually hurtful stalemate with no end to the violence yet in sight.
Russia of course was the first to tone down its lofty objectives of seeking written security guarantees against NATO’s eastward expansion, limiting its goals to consolidating its positions in bordering territories inside Ukraine. Now Western nations have as well begun to reveal a similar dwindling of resolve, unleashing their internal catharsis, with systemic implications worldwide.
Meanwhile, all sides continue to claim victories as they gradually begin to drift into myopic and self-centric policy choices, thus thinning their facade of being guided by sublime objectives of seeking regional or global welfare and peace.
Their diplomatic doublespeak continues to thrive as they attempt to explain the circumstances restraining their options, as the hapless Ukrainians continue to die or flee for their lives and while consumers worldwide continue to be pulverized by soaring prices of essential commodities.
As of now, it is Europe’s growing panic about impending energy shortages in the coming winter that may be casting a reset in their equations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet the microcosm of Sri Lanka’s political vacuum and financial ruin reveals what could replicate in other vulnerable countries.
A firm Ukraine supporter
The case of Canada presents the most apt example of Western circumspection that defies logic. Canada has been an example of a NATO country with a strong normative foreign policy. This has seen it employing a humanitarian discourse to undergird its inordinate indulgence with Ukraine and standing tall with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Canada has been a leading advocate of Ukraine joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and proactive in its military support of Ukraine since its 2014 backing of the ouster of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych, and since 2015, Canada has trained more than 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers.
This indulgence is partly guided by Canada’s Ukrainian diaspora, which numbered a whopping 1.36 million at the last count in 2016.
So on February 25, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the first to “condemn” Russia and slap sanctions on 58 Russian people and entities. The last four months have seen Canada sending soldiers, volunteers, weapons and relief materials and supporting Ukraine in international forums.
Canada has not only welcomed Ukrainian refugees but has waived multiple immigration rules of eligibility and provided them with a monthly financial stipend on arrival under the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel.
The federal government website on Canada’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine presents impressively user-friendly handholding in offering safe passage and shelter to those wishing leave their war-torn country.
But this past Monday, in the face of opposition from its Ukrainian diaspora at home and the Ukrainian leadership in Kiev, Canada delivered by plane the first of six Russian turbines being repaired by the German energy firm Siemens in Montreal.
It arrived at Russian’s Portovaya compressor station, which is a crucial element of Moscow’s Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline to Germany and the most powerful instrument in its arm-twisting of European countries.
While the US State Department, the European Union and Germany have expressed support for this Canadian decision, Ukrainians have been vocal in their opposition. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called it a “mistake,” saying “this solution will not address the problems” and will instead “put Russia in a winning position.”
On Tuesday, Canada’s own former chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, described it as signaling a “relenting of pressure from NATO [and] from the West in general.”
No doubt, both uncertainties and shortages of Russian gas supplies have pushed up both panic and prices across Canada’s European allies, yet this decision varies widely from, for example, Australia’s standard line on the Ukraine crisis.
Likewise, confusion among Europeans has also continued to flourish. Most European nations have already taken emergency measures, and yet next Tuesday will see the European Commission debating a proposal to ask member states to ensure a 15% cut in their gas consumption, which needs a difficult-to-achieve two-thirds majority for approval.
No easy choices
Gazprom, which stands in the midst of these shifting tides, owns majority stakes in Nord Stream 1, and has been under Canadian sanctions since March. Last week, Gazprom linked its decision to reduce Nord Stream 1 gas supplies by 60% of its capacity to the continuing delays in repair of its turbines at Siemens’ facility in Montreal.
That apparently was the last straw pushing Trudeau to make the difficult choice of allowing repair of six Russian turbines in Canada for a period of years, though he defended his decision by saying it was designed to spare European allies the pain from sanctions meant to target the Russia regime.
Putin, however, shows little sign of relenting on using energy to browbeat Canada’s European allies. For months, the Russian president has been threatening to cut back supplies, thereby weakening already shaky resolve among several vulnerable European countries, including Germany, which relies heavily on Russian gas supplies.
Of the European Union’s total import of 140 billion cubic meters (bcm) from Russia’s pipelines last year, the biggest share came from Nord Stream 1, which annually transports 55bcm of gas, but it has been shut down for annual maintenance since July 11. That repair period had been scheduled for 10 days, thus ending on July 21, but some suspect Putin will not return the pipeline to 100% capacity.
That prospect threatens to throw European plans to store gas for winter into disarray while they grope between emergency measures and imposing punishing price increases.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg this week pressured the European Parliament to “stop complaining” and help Ukraine, alluding to his fears of Europe’s changing trajectories.
Realizing that the Ukraine stalemate is bound to become a painful long haul with no meeting ground between Russia and the US and its European allies yet in sight, third countries like Turkey have become proactive in finding exit strategies for Moscow and Kiev. This is where the logic-defying Canadian concession to Gazprom could help strengthen such positive vibes.
The last four months have already witnessed both Russia and Ukraine diminishing the intensity of their violence. Moscow and Kiev have also been engaged in more than a dozen direct talks with various interlocutors of repute. Now, with facilitation provided by Turkey – often an irritant for the US – Russia and Ukraine were to sign on Friday a UN-brokered deal to allow Ukraine to resume its food exports from its ports on the Black Sea.
The deal entails Russia enforcing a truce while Ukrainian naval vessels escort grain shipments through heavily mined coastal waters, while Turkey – supported by the UN – ensures that the Ukrainian ships are not misused for weapon smuggling.
While experts remain skeptical whether such gestures will make any dent in Putin’s policies, after the arrival of the first turbine from Canada, Moscow on Thursday resumed Nord Stream 1 gas supplies, albeit as yet at only 40% of its capacity.
At the same time, even after this unusual gesture from Ottawa, Putin on Wednesday accused Canada of sabotaging Gazprom’s ability to continue with its full supplies. He went a step further to allege that Canada had sinister motives, saying “Canada did it because it produces oil and gas itself and plans to enter the European market,” which of course carries a mixture of both myth and reality.
At the very least, this concession to Gazprom brings Canada back into the global spotlight, for it has long been missing from most other US-led global initiatives.
Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.