The Ukrainian president was justifiably livid after Canada agreed to send Russian gas turbines back to Germany. But betraying our principles is a part of our heritage.

By: Andrew Potter

July 20, 2022

The Line

Well, one thing is for certain: There isn’t going to be a “Justin Trudeau Lane” anywhere in Ukraine any time soon.

In case you missed the drama last week, Trudeau found himself on Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s shit list after Canada announced, on July 9, that it would allow Siemens to return to Germany up to six gas turbines for the Nord Stream 1 pipeline that were being repaired in Montreal. Russia was threatening to shut down the pipeline and cut off the flow of gas to Germany, which is facing a very serious energy crisis.

In response, a furious Zelenskyy summoned Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine for what one presumes was a solid chewing out, after which the Ukrainian president posted a video in which he lit into Trudeau for “an absolutely unacceptable exception to the sanctions regime against Russia.” As Zelenskyy put it, the problem isn’t just that Canada handed some turbines back to Russia, via Germany. It is that it was a direct response to blackmail by Russia. And if Canada is willing to bend when its sanctions become politically uncomfortable, what is to stop other countries from carving out their own exceptions to their own sanctions, when it suits? Furthermore, Zelenskyy added, it isn’t like this is going to stop Russia from shutting down the supply of gas to Europe — the turbines were always just a pretext, an opportunity to cause strife and stir dissension amongst the countries allied with Ukraine against Russia.

Trudeau — who spent the weekend flipping pancakes at the Calgary Stampede — must have woken up on the Monday wondering what had gotten into his old buddy in Kyiv. After all, hadn’t Trudeau, along with other members of his cabinet, made it clear through their many, many tweets on the subject that Canada stood by Ukraine? Hadn’t Canada sent enough money, arms and humanitarian aid to Ukraine? Hadn’t Trudeau himself paid a visit to Kyiv in May, to re-open our embassy and to underscore just how seriously Zelenskyy should understand Canada’s commitment?

Besides, all the right-thinking people agreed that allowing the return of the turbines was the right decision. Germany is our ally after all, a key member of the NATO alliance, and if they say they need the turbines back in order to maintain their gas supplies and continue to support Ukraine, who are we to disagree? Even the Americans said it was the right decision.

That was certainly the message delivered by Sabine Sparwasser, the German ambassador to Canada. After natural resources minister Jonathan Wilkinson released a statement on July 9 explaining Canada’s decision to return the turbines, Sparwasser retweeted the statement, adding

a comment saying how grateful Germany was to Canada for making this difficult but necessary (for Germany) decision:

“Very grateful to the Canadian government. We know it was not easy. But it is crucial to help Canada’s European Allies to steadily build out our independence from Russian Energy.”

This prompted the journalist Paul Wells to do follow up with Sparwasser. In her Q&A with Wells, the ambassador said the usual things an ambassador is expected to say — Germany is working hard to wean itself off Russian energy; Germany is solidly behind Ukraine; Germany is the number two provider of money and arms to Ukraine. All these claims are debatable, if not demonstrably false. But reading between the lines, the message from Germany is clear: You want us to keep up even the tepid support we’ve been providing to Ukraine? Then give us the turbines and let us keep Russia happy.

None of this has Zelenskyy fooled, of course. You don’t survive an attack on your capital, multiple assassination attempts, and a government full of traitors and rats while managing to fight off a genocidal invasion of your country without having a healthy sense of who you can trust. Besides, this is Germany we are talking about; expectations are, to put it mildly, low. But the Ukrainian president might be forgiven for having had higher hopes for Canada, and of Justin Trudeau in particular.

Here’s the thing: there is an argument to be made that Canada actually did make, if not the morally correct decision, at least a politically defensible one. The turbines aren’t Canada’s — they just get serviced here. The turbines got caught up in our sanctions regime almost by accident. Germany is a NATO ally that has asked for its stuff back. End of conversation.

But everything about Canada’s handling of this file reeks of bad faith, beginning with the tactic of making Wilkinson the man to slop out the pig sty. Why give the job of announcing the return of the turbines to the natural resources minister and not, say, the industry minister (François-Philippe Champagne), the foreign minister (Melanie Joly), the defence minister (Anita Anand), the deputy prime minister (Chrystia Freeland) or even the prime minister himself?

Instead they all kept their heads down, except for Joly, who got the job of announcing fresh sanctions on Russia even as Wilkinson was admitting we were greasing out on our current ones. From her department’s release:

“To help deplete President Vladimir Putin’s war chest and further limit Russia’s ability to wage war, Canada will expand existing measures on the oil, gas and chemical sectors to include industrial manufacturing”.

But if Joly and Trudeau thought that this would help soften the blow to Ukraine, they were mistaken. All it really did was highlight the fact that Canada knew it was screwing over the Ukrainians, and our leadership didn’t have the guts to own up to it.

Indeed, it was only after the Ukrainian World Congress filed an application in Federal Court on Tuesday to have the permit returning the turbines quashed did Trudeau even bother trying to defend his decision. At a press conference in Kingston on Wednesday Trudeau called it

“difficult” but said it was important to “be there for our allies” — by which of course he meant Germany, not Ukraine.

There was still one member of the federal cabinet left to be smoked out, and that is our minister of everything and, one would expect, cabinet’s most steadfast supporter of Ukraine, Chrystia Freeland. But a quick scroll through her Twitter feed reveals zilch about the turbine decision, and somewhat surprisingly, nothing about Ukraine at all for weeks before she denounced Russia’s presence at a G20 meeting on July 15. It was only after the House of Commons foreign affairs committee threatened on Friday to ask Freeland to come in and chat about the turbines did she finally break radio silence, telling reporters that it was, you guessed it, a difficult but necessary decision.

Quite probably having had quite enough of Canada’s marble-mouthed and shamefaced approach to shivving him, Zelenskyy managed to get Trudeau on a call Sunday to settle things. Trudeau’s report of the call (or “readout” in the jargon of these things) basically says “We’re good!”. In contrast, Zelenskyy’s take is, in essence, “screw you.”

Ultimately, the problem here is a serious failure by Canada to manage Ukrainian expectations, brought about by the profound mismatch between the level of our rhetoric and the clear limits of our commitment. For Ukrainians, there is a moral clarity to the Russian invasion of Ukraine that, from a Western perspective, has not been present in any other conflict since the Second World War. Zelenskyy assumed that Canadians saw that. He assumed that if Ukrainians were going to be slaughtered, the least we could do would be to stick to our principles, even if it meant asking the population to suffer economic harms and the government to manage genuine political discomfort.

He assumed wrong.

Five months into their war for survival against the genocidal Russian regime, the Ukrainians have learned something important about Canadians: When it comes to our foreign affairs, we don’t mean what we say. When we say we stand with a country, that we fully support them, that we will help defend them or hold their enemies to account, there’s always a “but” or an “until” or an “unless.” We will stand with you, unless it’s politically difficult. We will help you, but not if it means genuine sacrifice. We will support you, until the costs get too high. Then, all bets are off.

The bigger point is this: Canada doesn’t do moral clarity anymore. Whether it is our business dealings with China, our arms sales to Saudi Arabia, or sending a diplomat to a garden party at the Russian embassy in Ottawa, we are always and everywhere hedging our bets, fudging our principles, letting down our allies.

For all the talk coming out of Liberal Ottawa since the invasion, it was never going to be any different with Ukraine. We were always going to let them down, eventually. But if it’s any consolation, the Ukrainians shouldn’t take it personally. Just ask the Afghans.