May 26, 2017

NATO must offer an ultimatum to Russia: Get out of Ukraine


There is an old saying: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

It’s been a long time since the world order has hovered on the brink as it is doing now. In the European Union, some members are leaving, while others are reversing course from open societies to insular ones.

North Korea is flexing its nuclear power. The Middle East is chronically unsteady, while Palestine and Israel are geometrically apart on a settlement. Africa’s resource-rich dictators prefer self-enrichment to the well-being of their people. So does oil-rich Venezuela’s dictator. The citizens are on the streets protesting starvation while oppression reigns.

Perhaps most unsettling is the sustained admiration and coziness that President Donald Trump offers to the world’s leading bully, President Vladimir Putin, a man who advances war and chaos in the name of his Russia-is-a great-nation strategy regardless of the cost.

He diverts money from the 144 million who live in poverty for a military build-up. Like other dictators, he maintains power through control, corruption and a mafia-like system of vassals who do his bidding and enrich him.

Mr. Putin aligns with other rogue regimes, including Syria and Iran. Now he’s using fake news and propaganda to move on the United States. If Mr. Putin has the audacity to penetrate the stronghold of democracy in order to directly influence America, how far is his reach into democratic institutions worldwide?

Russia’s advances are chilling.

The only military pushback is coming from Ukraine. It has been the finger in the dyke since 2014. It is winning on the front, but Russia’s war is exceeding Ukraine’s capacity. Some 10,000 have been killed, 40,000 wounded and nearly 2 million displaced.

Pushback is needed now, but America is pre-occupied with the peccadilloes of its Russia-leaning leader. Following Mr. Trump’s recent meeting with the Russians in the Oval Office, the laughter at America’s expense from the Kremlin, and the cheering, has been heard around the world.

Russia understands force. The present economic sanctions are not forceful enough. Mr. Putin, the main offender, is not on the list. Most importantly, the tough move that would make Russia understand that the West means business has not happened: members have failed to admit Ukraine into NATO.

Membership should be an obvious deterrent to the aggressor, the adversary who considers NATO a key enemy. Yet there’s no political will among NATO members to act. Very likely – as appears in Washington – pro-Russia lobbyists have penetrated the process. Now members rationalize that Ukraine’s corruption and Russia’s war on its territories are deterrents to membership.

Above all, they use the Russia-offered threat: Ukraine’s membership in NATO is tantamount to a declaration of war.

This Chicken Little’s the-sky-is-falling tactic is working by giving Russia time to become stronger. It is still not as tough as NATO’s forces, coming from a nearly 1-billion-strong alliance, but Russia’s military is revving up.

Alliance members must not treat Russia’s threats as if they were real. This prevents NATO leading with strength; just what Russia wants. Tough pushback is needed now.

Perhaps Canada can help. It is respected globally for standing up for what is right even when it’s difficult. It needs to do so again in these most troubling times.

At the NATO summit, which begins May 25, Canada must speak out against Russia’s disregard for the world order and international law. Canada must put forward a tough ultimatum to Russia: get out of Ukraine by a firm date, or Ukraine will be admitted into NATO.

It is highly likely that Russia will find a way.

As yet, it is in no position to do otherwise. The result is a win for all. Canada will have offered NATO a way out of a difficult situation. NATO will have a clear position for dealing with a most serious threat. Ukraine will have peace.

And Putin’s Russia? If he truly wants Russia’s greatness, he will proceed to build a fine country for its citizens rather than bully them and the world.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, history is watching.


Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, former director with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, is a founding member of the Canadian Group for Democracy in Ukraine. The commentary above is reprinted with permission from the Ottawa Citizen, which posted it on May 23.