How Canada’s support for NATO expansion contributed to Ukraine tragedy

By Yves Engler

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been condemned. The suffering of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers is horrible. Righteous fury has been aimed at the primary architect of this crime against humanity. But save some anger for those who will use the invasion to push other agendas that are bad for humanity and other life on our planet.

Predictably, the invasion has bolstered those calling for more military spending while fossil fuel interests also see an opportunity to push their agenda. “The West’s anti-carbon obsession fuelled Putin’s war against Ukraine”, blared the National Post’s editorial on Saturday while another story in that paper excitedly reported that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussed LNG exports with German chancellor Olaf Scholz.

And, while Moscow’s violation of international law must be condemned, that doesn’t mean we should stay quiet about Canada’s contribution to the troubling situation. As I detailed here, Ottawa played an important role in the 2014 coup that partly precipitated today’s crisis. Alongside that coup and Washington ripping up arms control measures, a trigger for today’s crisis is NATO enlargement across eastern Europe.

Ottawa has led the charge for NATO expansion despite promises made to Soviet/Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of the Cold War. In 1990 Gorbachev agreed not to obstruct German reunification, to withdraw tens of thousands of troops from the east and for the new Germany to be part of NATO in return for assurances that the alliance wouldn’t expand “one inch eastward”. A 1990 Ottawa Citizen article quoted West Germany’s foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, saying, “the West is agreed that with a unification of Germany, there will not be any eastward extension of NATO”, which was ostensibly a defence arrangement against the Soviet Union.

But Canadian officials immediately ignored those promises. Soon after taking office in 1993 Prime Minister Jean Chretien began promoting Poland’s adhesion to NATO. A 1994 Edmonton Journal article about a forthcoming summit of the alliance noted that Canada wanted a statement “that NATO is open to the admission of new members”. The Journal reported, “Prime Minister Jean Chretien said Sunday the U.S. plan doesn’t move fast enough to incorporate Poland and some other countries into the 16-member NATO military alliance.” But the article also recognized the possibility of rekindling Cold War tensions, noting “how does NATO, for example, admit new members when Russian President Boris Yeltsin has publicly opposed such a move?”

Two years later the Toronto Star published “Poland, Ukraine get PM’s backing. Chretien favors their NATO bids”. Again, Canadian officials acknowledged Moscow’s opposition. Derek Ferguson reported, “officials said Chretien will spend much of his time assuring [Russian Prime Minister Viktor] Chernomyrdin that NATO’s expansion is not meant to come at Russia’s expense.”

The next year Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were granted a path to membership in the North Atlantic alliance. Ottawa pressed for Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia to also be admitted, but Washington objected. Without so much as a debate in Parliament, Canada was the first NATO country to approve the enlargement of the alliance in 1998.

In flagrant disregard of the promise to the Russian leadership, Chretien called the initial enlargement of NATO “a historic day” and said the alliance was finally fulfilling its “moral obligation” to the former Warsaw Pact nations. Canadian papers again mentioned “opposition from Russia” to the expansion, which formally took place on the 50th anniversary of the alliance in 1999. A Vancouver Sun story headlined “NATO’s big leap east: The western military alliance welcomes former Warsaw Pact lands into its fold today – an act that continues to earn the enmity of Russia” quoted that country’s foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, calling NATO expansion “perhaps the worst mistake in Europe since the end of World War Two.”

Russians weren’t the only ones making this point. In 1998, the Globe and Mail quoted the architect of US containment strategy towards the USSR, George Kennan, calling NATO expansion “the most fateful error of American foreign policy in the post-Cold-War world.” Taking a slightly different tone, the owners of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream financed an initiative opposing the expansion. The Globe and Mail reported that their group took out ads in numerous newspapers stating: “Hey, let’s scare the Russians! Let’s take NATO and expand it toward Russia’s very borders. We’ll assure the Russians we come in peace.”

In 2000, Vladimir Putin floated the idea of joining NATO. I was unable to find any indication of Canadian officials expressing support for Russia joining the alliance.

As Ottawa took advantage of Russian weakness during the 1990s to expand NATO, Canada spurred the breakup of Yugoslavia through diplomacy and peacekeeping. Then, in a final blow to multiethnic Yugoslavia, NATO bombed Serbia in 1999, a violation of the UN charter. Eighteen Canadian CF-18 jets dropped 530 bombs during the 78-day assault, which deepened Kosovo’s separation from Serbia. The former Yugoslavia’s division into ethnic states was attractive to NATO because it diminished Russian influence in the Mediterranean. Canada continues to provide logistical support to NATO’s Kosovo Force.

Canada also played a significant role in NATO’s subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Libya. During the 2000s Canada supported Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania and Croatia’s adhesion to NATO (as well as Montenegro and North Macedonia in 2017 and 2020). Between 1999 and 2020 NATO went from 16 to 30 members.

In 2008, Stephen Harper expressed “strong support” for Ukraine to join NATO. “I call upon our NATO partners to agree that we should keep Ukraine moving forward toward full membership in the alliance”, declared the Canadian prime minister. The Canadian Press story about Canada’s promotion of Ukraine’s NATO membership noted, “Russia strongly opposes NATO’s eastward creep, warning it would spark a new East-West crisis. ‘What’s happening with this artificial, and completely unnecessary, expansion of NATO… will not go unanswered (by Russia), I assure you,’ Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told his country’s parliament.”

Amidst growing tensions, in January Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly reiterated that “Canada’s position has not changed… We believe that Ukraine should be able to join NATO.” Canada’s military training mission there is partly designed to help “modernize the Ukrainian Armed Forces”, noted former defence minister Harjit Sajjan, so the country could join NATO. (‘Modernize’ means buy NATO built weapons and systems.) To support Ukraine’s possible accession to the alliance, Canada has supported the NATO-Ukraine Joint Working Group on Defence Reform and Canada shared the role of NATO Contact Point Embassy in Kyiv.

Canada supported the 2002 creation of a NATO Response Force and a Canadian vessel regularly participates in Standing NATO Maritime Group One, which operates near Russia in the Baltic Sea, North Sea and Norwegian Sea. The Canadian Navy also participates in three other NATO Standing Naval Forces operating in the Black Sea, Mediterranean and elsewhere.

In the past five years the number of Canadian troops participating in NATO missions in Eastern Europe has steadily increased. CF-18 fighter jets and pilots have been stationed in Poland and Romania. Alongside similar US, British and German forces in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland, Canada took charge of a NATO battle group in Latvia in 2017. More than 500 Canadian soldiers are semi permanently stationed on Russia’s border with Canada completing a new $19 million headquarters in Latvia last year.

A few days ago, the government boasted that 1,260 Canadian troops are part of NATO efforts to contain Russia in Eastern Europe. They also put 3,400 more Canadian troops on standby to be deployed to Europe as part of NATO’s Response Force.

NATO expansion has led to what Professor of Russian and European politics Richard Sakwa has labeled a “fateful geographical paradox”. Sakwa says NATO now “exists to manage the risks created by its existence.”

Remarking on NATO’s expansion in 1998, George Kennan told the New York Times “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.”

But the threat of war has always been good for militarists and their associated businesses. And expanding NATO has always been about that.

On March 4 I will be participating in a panel on “Cutting through the Spin: Russia’s invasion, NATO’s provocation and Canada’s complicity”.