Presented with the opportunity to exercise unprecedented pressure on Russia, Ottawa instead did the opposite
July 13, 2022
For a brief moment, Canada found itself in the rare position of exercising near-unprecedented leverage over the Russian Federation.
Without a single dollar spent or bullet fired, Ottawa could have unilaterally brought more pressure to bear on the government of Vladimir Putin than almost any other action it has taken since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.
Instead, Ottawa did the exact opposite, and it’s quite possible that Ukrainian-Canadian relations may not recover.
“Today was a difficult day,” was how Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described his reaction to Canada’s decision on Sunday to lift its Russian sanctions just enough to supply Moscow with equipment critical to maintaining its Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline with Western Europe.
“If a terrorist state can squeeze out such an exception to sanctions, what exceptions will it want tomorrow or the day after tomorrow?” he said.
A statement by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress noted that Canada is only a few months removed from a unanimous House of Commons resolution declaring Russia guilty of genocide in Ukraine. “The maintenance and return of these pipelines will mean that Russia’s state coffers will receive more European money – thus fuelling Russia’s genocide against Ukraine,” said CEO Ihor Michalchyshyn.
In tandem with outrage against the decision, meanwhile, came outright gloating from Russia.
A Russian Government Twitter account boasted this week that “the Canadian government has decided to sidestep its own anti-Russian restrictions and return the ‘Nord Stream’ gas turbine to Russia despite criticism from Ukraine.”
At the time of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, the Montreal workshop of Siemens Canada just happened to be completing repairs on a set of six high-performance turbines designed to pump natural gas through Nord Stream 1, an underwater pipeline connecting Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea.
The turbines were soon among a number of Russian-owned items stranded on Canadian soil due to a round of federal sanctions intended to prevent the export of anything “that could benefit the military and government of Russia.”
“This decision will help to undermine and erode the capabilities of the Russian military,” wrote Global Affairs at the time. The agency also noted the need for Russia to feel a “direct economic cost” for mounting the invasion.
Initially, the most noted impact from the sanctions was a Russian-registered Antonov AN-124 cargo plane that has been grounded at Toronto Pearson International Airport ever since. But it was the six turbines that easily imposed the most “direct economic cost” on Russia.
Nord Stream 1 is a primary conduit for the estimated $500 million in natural gas that flows every day between Russia and Western Europe. In just a few days, revenues generated by this single pipeline dwarf the cumulative $640 million that Canada has sent to Ukraine since Russia first began seizing Ukrainian territory in 2014.
The impetus for Canada’s issuing of a “time-limited and revocable permit” to return the turbines was ultimately due to lobbying by Germany.
Russia has already cited the stranded turbines as justification for a nearly 40 per cent cut in gas transfers via Nord Stream 1, and Berlin has expressed fears that a similar excuse would be used to completely shut down the pipeline in winter.
“Absent a necessary supply of natural gas, the German economy will suffer very significant hardship and Germans themselves will be at risk of being unable to heat their homes as winter approaches,” wrote Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson in a statement justifying the return of the turbines.
It’s a position supported by the U.S. State Department, who claimed that the return of the turbines would combat “Russia’s efforts to weaponize energy.” The Canadian decision also earned a thank you from Sabine Sparwasser, Germany’s ambassador to Canada. “We know it was not easy,” wrote Sparwasser.
Serhii Makohon, who operates Ukraine’s own natural gas pipeline network, wrote on his Facebook page this week that Canada and Germany had effectively fallen for a Russian ruse.
“I believe that even after the return of the turbine, Gazprom will find a reason to further reduce supplies to the EU,” he wrote, noting that Russia still has plenty of unused capacity in alternative pipelines, such as those running through Poland. “There are no problems with free gas transit capacities to the EU. Gazprom only wants to continue blackmailing Europe.”
The Conservative Party of Canada took much the same position. A Sunday statement from MP Michael Chong, Conservative shadow minister for foreign affairs, said the decision “sets a dangerous precedent of folding to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s blackmail.” The statement also called out the apparent perversity of Canada, the world’s fifth largest natural gas producer, openly assisting the gas sector of a hostile country.
“Russia has never played by the rules in the energy sector and it will not play now unless it sees strength,” Zelenskyy said in a pointed Monday message to Canada and Germany.
Zelenskyy’s harsh reprimand is a sharp turnaround for a Canadian government that has often laid claim to be one of Ukraine’s loudest defenders in the West.
Ottawa was the first to ban imports of Russian oil and was an early proponent on financial sanctions against Russian banks. Canada is home to the world’s largest Ukrainian diaspora population outside Eastern Europe and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks Ukrainian and owns property in Kyiv.
In April, Canada was even pioneering legislation that would hand seized Russian assets to the Ukrainian government as a form of reparations.
Just days before her government sent Moscow some sanction-exempted turbines, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly was telling The Canadian Press about her plans to avoid shaking the hand of Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov at a G20 summit.