Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a flagrant violation of international law that must be condemned. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore how Canada’s opposition to a diplomatic solution to the war in eastern Ukraine increased the likelihood of escalating conflict.
The Minsk agreements were designed to overcome the violence and division caused by the Canadian-backed ouster of elected President Victor Yanukovych in 2014. Negotiated by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, Minsk I and II proposed a more federalist Ukrainian politics.
Signed in February 2015, Minsk II included provisions around a ceasefire, withdrawing heavy weapons and prisoner release. More fundamentally, it called for reforming Ukraine’s constitution to grant autonomy to areas of the eastern Donbas region as part of reintegrating the two breakaway republics into central government control. Both sides failed to fully comply with Minsk II, but the primary culprit was the government in Kyiv.
Ostensibly, the Canadian government supported Minsk II, which was unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. But in practice Ottawa worked against its implementation.
Canadian silence on Minsk II speaks volumes. I searched the Major Canadian Dailies database with the names of Canada’s recent foreign ministers (Stéphane Dion, Chrystia Freeland, François-Philippe Champagne, Marc Garneau and Mélanie Joly) alongside the words “Minsk” and “Ukraine”. There’s little mention of Minsk II by Canadian officials.
After a brief meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a November 2015 G20 summit newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared, “I pointed out that (while) Canada has shifted its approach on a broad range of multilateral and international issues, we remain committed to the fact that Russia’s interference in Ukraine must cease, that we stand with the Ukrainian people, and expect the president to engage fully in the Minsk peace process.” During a visit to Kyiv eight months later the Canadian Press reported, “Trudeau complimented the Ukrainian government for ‘extremely important and difficult steps’ it had made in meeting its obligations under last year’s Minsk II peace agreement before condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its failure to abide by the Minsk accord.” The article said that Ukrainian officials were happy with Trudeau’s comments as Dion had previously expressed a desire to recalibrate relations with Russia “when we have common interests.”
After Freeland replaced Dion as foreign minister in January 2017 Canada’s position hardened. “We will continue to put pressure on Russia, including through the existing sanctions, until the Russian Federation completely fulfills the commitments undertaken in accordance with the Minsk agreements and uses its influence on separatists to force them to fulfill their obligations,” declared Freeland in March 2017.
After that I couldn’t find any mention of Minsk II until Moscow recognized the breakaway republics in the Donbas two weeks ago (ending any possibility that Minsk II would be implemented). In a release titled “Canada strongly condemns Russia’s move to recognize independence of two regions within Ukraine”, foreign minister Mélanie Joly “strongly condemns President Putin’s recognition of the non-government controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent territories. This constitutes a clear violation of the Minsk agreements.”
Right wing Ukrainian Canadians have long been hostile to the Minsk process. In 2017 the head of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Paul Grod, told the Standing Committee on National Defence that Minsk II was “stale-dated” and would never be implemented. He instead called “to force Russia’s hand to remove their military, their equipment, and their financing of the separatists” in the Donbas.
Ottawa did not simply fail to publicly support or press Kyiv to implement Minsk II. They undermined the peace agreement by building up Ukrainian security forces obstructing their implementation. While it’s received little attention, violence has devastated the Russian-oriented eastern Ukraine for eight years. About 14,000 people had been killed before Russia’s full scale recent invasion with the Ukrainian military responsible for the bulk of deaths. Between 2018 and 2021, reports the UN, 81.4% of civilian casualties in the fighting were in separatist-held territory.
Ottawa has devoted significant resources to creating a military that disintegrated amidst the political upheaval and violence after the 2014 coup. Canada signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement with Ukraine and Canadian officials have been part of Ukraine’s Defence Reform Advisory Board “providing strategic advice on defence reform to Ukraine’s Minister of Defence and senior officials”. In 2017 Ottawa added Ukraine to Canada’s Automatic Firearms Country Control List, which allows companies to export weapons to that country with little restriction. At the same time the US and UK have pumped multiple billions of dollars’ worth of weapons into the Ukraine.
Alongside their US and UK counterparts, the Canadian military has trained more than 30,000 Ukrainian troops since 2015. As part of Operation UNIFIER, 200 Canadian troops — rotated every six months — worked with Ukrainian soldiers on sniper training, military engineering, explosive-device disposal, etc.
A March 2017 Canadian Press story on the extension of Canada’s military training mission quoted the Russian embassy linking Operation Unifier to Minsk II. The “Canadian government’s decision to extend the military mission in Ukraine is counterproductive and does not facilitate intra-Ukrainian political process, including direct dialogue between Kyiv and Donbass, as prescribed by the Minsk accords,” said Kirill Kalinin, a spokesperson for the embassy in Ottawa. “Canada should exert pressure on the authorities in Kyiv to implement their obligations under the Minsk accords and concentrate on reaching a peaceful solution instead of pursuing military ventures.”
It’s ironic that Canada, which prides itself on its federalist political structure, effectively opposed Minsk II. At its core the accord is about adopting a more federalist structure in a country linguistically and culturally divided largely based on geography. Today, the government in Kyiv appoints governors across the country. Imagine the political problems that would arise if a Québec dominated federal government appointed the premier of Alberta or a Western dominated government appointed the premier of Québec.
If Ottawa wasn’t intent on using the Ukraine as a proxy to weaken Russia, Canada would have been well-placed to assist that country in becoming a federal state. While we should strenuously condemn Russia’s appalling invasion, Canadians should also ask why our government refused to press Kyiv to follow the Minsk peace process.