Ukraine, North Korea and Afghanistan: Canada can do better


Against a backdrop of further US troop movements to NATO countries in Eastern Europe, offers of mediation by Turkey and a meeting between President Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, we turn to a most welcome focus on diplomacy in the latest report of the International Crisis Group on Ukraine. It begins:

Russia’s ongoing troop build-up near Ukraine has spurred over a month of intense diplomacy as well as new U.S. military deployments to eastern Europe. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts discuss whether talks can avert war and what happens if they fail.

Of particular note, the report examines the Minsk Accords and offers reasons why Minsk implementation is unlikely at this time, while outlining other positive avenues for productive negotiations on key security issues in play.

On Minsk, Crisis Group cites a key disagreement between Moscow and Kyiv over the timing of elections in the breakaway regions, with Kyiv understandably disinclined to hold them while “Russian-backed separatist proxies retain control”.

RI President Peggy Mason comments:

This is not solely an issue of Russian interpretation but of unclear language in the overall sequencing of the constitutional amendments, the holding of local elections and the return of full control of the eastern border to Ukraine.

In any event, as Canadian expert Andrew Rasiulis has noted, this is an eminently solvable problem. He explains:

What is needed is a demilitarized zone and a robust peacekeeping force (not unarmed OSCE observers) to ensure security for a free and fair election and subsequent full withdrawal of foreign military forces.

The ICG report sees a way forward:

If Moscow comes to the table, it’s possible that more, including even constraints on NATO enlargement and agreements to disagree on Ukraine, could be placed upon it. But deals on these issues would take time to negotiate, and Western states are willing to have these conversations only if Russia recalls its forces from near Ukraine’s borders.

In the view of

In fact, these “conversations” have already begun, including in the Normandy Format on Minsk. It is time now for all sides to redouble diplomatic efforts to de-escalate military tensions and build on the modest progress already made on the substantive security issues before them.

Whither Canada?

In addition to the encouraging news that the Cabinet is still not inclined to send small arms to Ukraine, the Globe and Mail recently reported how Canada had used its influence with the Ukrainian government to stop the arrest of the former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.

Robert Fife and Mark Mackinnon wrote:

Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland made personal appeals to persuade the Ukrainian government to not arrest and imprison former president Petro Poroshenko when he returned home in mid-January, two sources in Ottawa and one in Kyiv say.

After the Canadian intervention, the Ukrainian leadership decided to de-escalate a burgeoning internal crisis at a time of heightened tension with Russia, the Ukrainian source told The Globe and Mail.

Putting aside this astonishing intervention in Ukraine’s executive and judicial affairs, surely this is tangible and powerful evidence of the influence that Canada wields with the Ukrainian government.

We reaffirm our call on Canada to assist Ukraine in fulfilling its obligations under the Minsk peace accords.

The pipeline connection

The world has become multi-polar and Nord Stream 2 is a fulcrum at the centre of the current crisis. – John Foster

For the further information we promised on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which adds yet another dimension to the Ukraine crisis, see Pipeline Politics Hits Multipolar Realities: Nord Stream 2 and the Ukraine crisis (Counterpunch, 3 February 2022) by Canadian John Foster, international petroleum economist and author of Oil and World Politics: The Real Story of Today’s Conflict Zones (Lorimer Books).

Yet more North Korean missile launches

Our last blog post on North Korea security risks, back in October, was precipitated by a North Korean ballistic missile test launch. We profiled the views of one of Canada’s foremost experts on North Korea, retired diplomat James Trottier.

In this update on North Korean security risks, we turn again to James Trottier, who wrote in a recent email exchange following a radio interview he gave (available here):

With all the news regarding Russian intentions in Ukraine, several North Korean missile launches in January 2022 are not getting the attention they warrant.

That turns out to be somewhat of an understatement, considering the scope and extent of those test launches, with seven rounds, beginning with a hypersonic missile on 5 January and culminating in the Hwasong-12 ballistic missile launch on 30 January, the first test of a possible “midrange ballistic missile” since 2017.

In response to the 30 January test, Farhan Haq, the deputy UN spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, stated:

This is a breaking of the DPRK’s announced moratorium in 2018 on launches of this nature, and a clear violation of Security Council resolutions.

In response, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called an emergency National Security Council meeting, while the United States sought a closed-door emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.

In the view of James Trottier, there are three key reasons for this latest flurry of North Korean tests:

  • to test enhanced/upgraded weapons systems;
  • to try to get on the Biden Administration agenda and prod the Biden Administration into substantive engagement; and
  • to negotiate from a position of strength, if and when negotiations resume.

Trottier predicted more such Korean launches in the coming weeks:

particularly after the Beijing Olympics, perhaps around the time of the South Korean presidential election in March 2022.

He further emphasized that these launches would be for the above mentioned three reasons and “not as a prelude to an actual conflict”.

He concludes:

For the time being, North Korea is carefully calibrating its actions so as not to cross what they perceive to be American red lines, namely nuclear tests or ICBM launches.

But this situation may not last indefinitely. Already the launch of the Hwasong-12 missile, with the capacity of reaching Guam, is a scaling up from the earlier launches.

For more in-depth background, see James Trottier’s policy paper: The Biden Administration’s North Korea Policy: A New Direction or Back to the Future? (, June 2021). As we highlighted in our October blog post, this paper includes discussion of the “useful role” that Canada could play should we make a decision to “seriously” re-engage on the North Korea file.


At a recent meeting in Oslo of a Taliban representative with Western diplomats and humanitarians, Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told reporters:

We cannot save lives as we should. So the West and the Taliban need to talk. And we need to have an end to sanctions hurting civilians.

Meanwhile the US Special Representative for Afghanistan, Thomas West, in a press briefing, received the following question:

There are a lot of people out there, as you well know, who are calling the U.S. to do more not only on humanitarian aid but questions of unfreezing billions of dollars in reserves as well as … allowing things like the World Bank and the IMF to deliver actual salaries to the Afghans ahead of what is going to be a catastrophic winter in terms of the humanitarian situation.

In response he stated:

Look, when it comes to salaries of civil servants and so forth…. The United States has not taken a position on this matter.

Canada, was inexplicably absent from the Oslo meeting, but the Globe and Mail reports that Global Affairs spokesperson Christelle Chartrand said:

David Sproule, Canada’s senior official for Afghanistan, has conveyed Canada’s conditions for official engagement with the Taliban. Those conditions include that the group allow safe passage for Canadians and Afghans trying to travel to Canada, that it permit full and free access for delivery of humanitarian assistance to Afghans, that it meet international human-rights obligations, that its government be inclusive and that it not shelter terrorist groups.

Crisis Group Report sounds the alarm in strongest possible terms

We turn now to a December 2021 International Crisis Group report (ICG), which begins:

International donors cut off all but emergency aid to Afghanistan after the Taliban’s takeover in August. Months later, the state is collapsing and a humanitarian disaster is looming. Donors should work with the state to restore basic public services and mitigate the population’s suffering.

We also include the report’s principal findings verbatim:

Principal Findings

What’s new? The Afghan state is collapsing after the world responded to the Taliban takeover by freezing state assets, cutting aid and offering only limited sanctions relief for humanitarian purposes. Government employees lack salaries, basic services are not being delivered and the financial sector is paralysed. The economy is in freefall.

Why does it matter? Economic strangulation is unlikely to change the Taliban’s behaviour but will hurt the most vulnerable Afghans. The rising number of people fleeing the country could provoke another migration crisis. State collapse would mark a terrible stain on the reputation of Western countries, which is already tarnished by chaotic withdrawal.

What should be done? Donors agree on sending humanitarian aid, but emergency relief is not enough. If they wish to avoid state failure and mass starvation in Afghanistan, the governments that battled the Taliban must decide to help state institutions provide essential services, including health care, education and a basic financial system.

To summarize:

The Afghan state is teetering on the edge of full collapse, as the UN warns that the country is fast becoming the world’s worst humanitarian disaster…. [D]onors’ decisions to cut off all but emergency aid is the biggest culprit.

International actors must revisit that fateful choice, finding ways to work with the Taliban in restoring crucial public services, if they are to stave off a calamity for which they would shoulder much of the blame.

This stark warning from the ICG could not be clearer.

Yet, in the face of the possibility of “hundreds of thousands or even more deaths, and unspeakable scenes of deprivation” over the winter months, Canada continues to parrot its smug, black and white, all or nothing position on official recognition when the real issue is pragmatic cooperation.

Do we really think this is the way to protect human rights in Afghanistan?

Horrific impact on women and girls

Consider this excerpt from the report:

The disappearance of basic services disproportionately affects women and girls. Shutting clinics increases the risks of women dying in childbirth, after decades of medical advances that reduced the danger to new mothers by more than half….

More and more young brides would be sold off to cover household debts.  Electricity blackouts and the shutdown of internet services would leave millions of women largely confined to their homes in the dark, literally and figuratively.

No agreed international position on how to move forward

The ICG report demonstrates the lack of any common approach by the international donor community in relation to going beyond humanitarian relief to support essential government services.

It also details the likely consequences of state failure in Afghanistan, beyond the truly unimaginable human cost already referenced above. These include:

  • risks for other countries including:
    • increasing emigration
    • a heightened threat from transnational jihadist groups operating from Afghanistan and a
    • greater outflow of illegal drugs including opium.

And regarding the impact on the Taliban, Crisis Group writes:

The chances of the Taliban losing power if the economy falls apart and their opponents gain traction should not be dismissed entirely, but for the time being they are secure in their victory.

The government of Canada must heed the clarion call from the International Crisis Group and myriad humanitarian agencies on the ground, as must other western donors, and immediately begin pragmatic cooperation with “the state apparatus” in Afghanistan to preserve its basic functions.

In this regard, the ICG reminds us that, beneath the Taliban ministry heads:

in the middle ranks of the Afghan civil service, many officials remain in their posts and could quickly resume working, with donor support.

They argue convincingly, in our view, that the best available option is to “preserve state functionality”.

Main impediment to functional cooperation is domestic political fall-out in donor countries

The report states bluntly:

The main challenge is the political climate in Western capitals. For some governments it will be impossible to sell parliamentarians and voters on a head-spinning course reversal from battling the Taliban to helping the former insurgents provide services to millions of people.

In the view of

If this is indeed true, then what greater condemnation could there be of Western democracies, and their championing of human rights, than the fact that they would rather let millions of innocent Afghan men, women and children starve, than risk having to explain to their respective electorates what saving them actually requires.

For the full report, an absolute must-read for anyone interested not only in Afghanistan but in the capacity of Western democracies to actually lead when it really matters, see Beyond Emergency Relief: Averting Afghanistan’s Humanitarian Catastrophe (, December 2021).

Whither Canada?

We call on Canada to follow the lead of Germany and Italy in support of pragmatic, operational donor cooperation with the Taliban government to provide urgently needed basic services to millions of ordinary Afghans.


Recording now available for Project Ploughshares webinar on the Ukraine conflict

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons (Parwan province, Afghanistan)


Tags: Afghanistan and famine, Afghanistan and state failure, Afghanistan donor nations, Andrew Rasiulis, Crisis Group and Afghanistan, Hwasong-12 ballistic missile launch, International Crisis Group (ICG), James Trottier, John Foster, Minsk Accords, Minsk agreements, missile test launches, Nord Stream 2 pipeline, North Korea, Ukraine