Harper pushed conflict with Russia long before invasion

Stephen Harper recently joined the chorus ratcheting up tensions with Russia. Paradoxically, the former prime minister’s crass distortion of his relationship with that country offers a sort of roadmap for antiwar forces to restrict further escalation and force Ottawa towards diplomacy.

At a public talk Harper portrayed his government as having sought good relations with Russia.

The former Conservative leader said the west tried to “embrace Russia, to include Russia, to make Vladimir Putin … a major player in our alliance.” But, claimed Harper, Putin “decided he did not want to be that. He decided he would rather be an enemy of freedom and democracy and a rival to the western world when he had every chance to do it otherwise.”

Utter nonsense. Before Russia’s conflict with Georgia or annexation of Crimea Harper was targeting Moscow. Prior to becoming PM, he supported NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia and “coloured” revolutions in eastern Europe partly designed to diminish Russia’s influence.

Within months of taking office in 2006 Harper was taking shots at Russia and hyping their threat in the north. “We’re concerned”, Harper said in 2008, “about Russia’s testing of Canadian airspace and other indications, and certainly Russian actions in other parts of the world, which may indicate some desire to work outside of the international framework.”

The Harper government hyped concerns over the Arctic even though they knew Russia was not a threat. “There is nothing in their Arctic policy that is cause for alarm,” explained a 2009 briefing note to Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

Conservative officials repeatedly linked their controversial plan to buy Lockheed Martin’s F-35 warplane to the threat supposedly posed by Russia. Conservative party claims regarding Russia’s role in the north even prompted the Liberals to criticize their Russophobia. In 2009 Peter Mackay outlandishly suggested Russian fighter jets manoeuvres in the Arctic were designed as a threat during a visit to Ottawa by US President Barack Obama (the jets were over 3,000 kilometers from the nation’s capital). After another similarly absurd accusation the next year Liberal MP Larry Bagnell told reporters, “the Russian flights have been going on for a long time and then all of a sudden on a day when they needed a diversion, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence created a caustic international relations uproar by chastising the Russians.”

In Ukraine Harper promoted policies that ramped up tensions with Russia. During a 2007 visit to Ukraine foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay said Canada would help provide a “counterbalance” to Russia. “There are outside pressures [on Ukraine], from Russia most notably. … We want to make sure they feel the support that is there for them in the international community.” As part of Canada’s “counterbalance” to Russia MacKay announced $16 million in aid to support what was labeled “democratic reform” in the country.

The next year the PM joined George W. Bush in pressing for Ukraine’s adhesion to NATO. In the lead-up to the April 2008 NATO summit he said, “I call upon our NATO partners to agree that we should keep Ukraine moving forward toward full membership in the alliance.” But Germany and France strenuously opposed Ukraine joining. They were concerned about Russia’s reaction and how the North American dominated alliance would further undercut European centric security initiatives. “What’s happening with this artificial, and completely unnecessary, expansion of NATO… will not go unanswered (by Russia), I assure you,” declared Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in response to the NATO push. During Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s visit to Canadian the next month Harper warned Russia to stop opposing Ukraine’s NATO membership.

The Conservatives promoted anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalist mythology. In 2008 Parliament labelled the early 1930s Holodomor famine, which left millions dead, a genocide. But millions also died in other parts of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s after droughts and collectivization of land.

Harper visited Ukraine in 2010 with ultranationalist Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) head Paul Grod. During the trip Harper met opposition leaders and visited a controversial new nationalist museum. As I detailed here, this was part of the Conservatives multi-year campaign to weaken and ultimately overthrow elected president Victor Yanukovych who opposed joining NATO.

The coup spurred right wing violence, Russia’s intervention in Crimea and a war that left 14,000 dead in the east. Just after the Minsk II accord was concluded to end fighting in the east, Canada instigated a military mission in Ukraine, which the Russians labeled “deplorable.” “Foreign ministers of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine … [have] called for enhanced intra-Ukrainian political dialogue,” noted the Russian Embassy in Ottawa in April 2015. “It is neither appropriate, nor helpful to assist the military buildup playing into the hands of ‘party of war in Kiev’”, which was their pejorative description for Poroshenko’s government.

Harper’s distortions are not an error of memory. He’s fully conscious that he helped escalate tensions with Russia and turn Ukraine into an anti-Moscow beachhead. More important than seeking to exculpate himself from today’s horrific violence in Ukraine, Harper is promoting the NATO line that Russia’s illegal invasion was unprovoked.

Commenting on this point, Noam Chomsky recently noted, “it is de rigueur to refer to Putin’s criminal aggression in Ukraine as his ‘unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.’ A Google search for this phrase finds ‘About 2,430,000 results’ (in 0.42 seconds). Out of curiosity, we might search for ‘unprovoked invasion of Iraq.’ The search yields ‘About 11,700 results’ (in 0.35 seconds) — apparently from antiwar sources, a brief search suggests. The example is interesting not only in itself, but because of its sharp reversal of the facts. The Iraq War was totally unprovoked …. In contrast, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was most definitely provoked.”

For years many prominent international affairs practitioners and academics have been warning that the US and Canada’s posture towards Ukraine would lead to conflict. The current director of the CIA and former diplomat in Moscow, William J. Burns, repeatedly warned that NATO expanding to Ukraine would provoke conflict. In a 2015 lecture viewed by 25 million on YouTube prominent international relations professor John Mearsheimer remarked that the US was leading Ukrainians “down the primrose path” that will see their country “get wrecked”.

By whitewashing his and Canada’s role in ratcheting up tensions Harper is laying the ideological grounds for further escalation. Antiwar voices should be doing the exact opposite. The best way to undercut escalation and propel Ottawa towards diplomatic negotiations is to discuss how Canada helped precipitate the invasion.

 

On Mondays I will be hosting a weekly news roundup and interactive discussion about Canada’s role abroad. Register for the Canadian Foreign Policy Hour with Yves Engler. 

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