Canada needs more courage in its Ukraine policy

New Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinskiy, sworn in on May 20th after a landslide electoral victory, began his North American tour with a visit to Canada, underscoring the close ties between the two nations. His itinerary included meetings with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister and participation with 36 other countries in the Ukraine Reform Conference, co-chaired by Canada and Ukraine.

We are in Toronto this week because we are all committed to supporting the people of Ukraine in realizing their aspirations for the future. – Hon. Chrystia Freeland, P.C., M.P., Minister of Foreign Affairs Press statement

Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and FM Freeland reiterated their commitment “to stand with Ukraine against Russian interference and aggression.” In addition to new funding for reform efforts, Freeland then announced Canada was taking action to ensure that Russia passports issued to Ukrainian citizens in the Donbass region could not be used to travel to Canada.

In other words, Canada’s position regarding the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is unchanged despite the election of a new President with a refreshingly productive approach to that conflict. In a paper for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute entitled Zelinskiy’s Inauguration: A New Era in Ukrainian Politics, Andrew Rasiulis writes:

Zelinskiy did not say anything about joining NATO or the EU. What he did say was that his top priority is to open negotiations with Russia and to bring peace to the Donbass. This … is a clear break from the status quo, or stalemate policy that was the hallmark of the [previous] Poroshenko administration.

Rasiulis then enumerates the policy priorities outlined by Zelinskiy in his inauguration speech:

  1. Bring peace to the Donbass without losing Ukrainian territory;
  2. Exchange captives;
  3. Respect the Russian-speaking Ukrainians and always to consider them as Ukrainian citizens; and
  4. Pass legislation in the Rada to cancel lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution within two months of his taking office (part of his anti-corruption policy).

Rideau Institute President Peggy Mason is troubled by Foreign Minister Freeland’s silence over President Zelinskiy’s new approach:

Both Russia and Ukraine have been blocking the full implementation of the Minsk process. It is extraordinarily good news that the new Ukrainian President is already signalling his determination to remove impediments to progress on his side. This is an important diplomatic opening that Canada should be throwing its weight behind.

The position of the Conservative Party is even further off the mark. Seemingly oblivious to the requirement for impartial forces that are satisfactory to both sides, Andrew Scheer, in his recent foreign policy address, said he would push for Canadian leadership of a United Nations peacekeeping mission to secure Ukraine’s borders. In addition to our decidedly non-neutral status as a member of NATO, since 2015 Canada has also been providing military training and capacity-building to Ukrainian Security Forces through Operation Unifier.

For a commentary on some of the domestic political dimensions of this issue that might be sidetracking our Foreign Minister’s diplomatic peacemaking role, see: Analysis: ‘More like Rick Mercer’: Canada hopeful for Ukraine’s new president (Mike Blanchfield,, 22nd July 2019).

President Zelinskiy has shown tremendous courage in promoting a model for Ukraine that envisages “possible neutrality between Eastern and Western Europe”.  He deserves Canada’s unambiguous support in this endeavour.

Photo credit: Government of Canada (Ukraine Reform Conference)

Tags: Andrew Rasiulis, Canadian Global Affairs Institute, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, Donbass, EU, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, Minsk Agreement, Minsk II, Minsk Process, NATO, Operation Unifier, President Volodymyr Zelinskiy, President Zelinskiy, Russia, Ukraine, Ukraine Reform Conference