Ukraine, nuclear risks and a Canadian foreign service up to the task


Keeping the nuclear threat in perspective

In our considered view, there has been too much intemperate talk about the potential Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. We, therefore, follow up last week’s measured commentary by the International Crisis Group with this assessment by American nuclear risk expert Michael Klare.

Entitled The War in Ukraine Is at a Decisive Turning Point (, 27 September 2022), Klare focuses first on

the war’s mounting costs in human and material terms – an assessment that deserves close attention, given the danger that these costs could grow substantially.

After reviewing the horrific state of death and destruction in Ukraine, and the huge losses and injuries sustained by Russian soldiers, he writes:

Now, with both Ukraine and Russia planning new offensives, the question thus arises: What new horrors can we expect from the fighting in Ukraine?

In Klare’s view, Ukrainian leaders are likely to increase the pressure on the Biden administration for the delivery of long-range missiles capable of striking Russian bases far behind the front lines. He explains that Ukrainian acquisition of the US Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS)

would enable … [Ukraine] to strike key Russian assets in Crimea and Russia itself.

Klare explains that, thus far, the Biden administration has resisted Ukrainian requests,

fearing that their use against targets in Russia could trigger dangerous Russian escalation—but pressure is growing in Congress for deliveries of the missile.

Klare then turns to the top-of-mind question:

And, if pressed to the edge of defeat, what sort of escalation does Putin have in mind?

Klare recalls the threat made by Putin, canvassed in last week’s post, that

In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.

Noting that most Western observers have interpreted Putin’s remarks as implying the use of so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons, Klare writes:

But Putin did not specifically threaten nuclear weapons use in his September 21 address, and it is possible that Moscow would resort to other extreme measures, such as multiple cruise missile attacks on Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure, with a resulting loss of human life.

In response, the USA would likely transfer ATACMS and other sophisticated US arms to Ukraine, leading, in Klare’s words, to

a further intensification of the violence and rising numbers of dead and wounded on both sides.

Klare then asks a fundamental question, so rarely raised to date by most commentators:

Can any of this [escalation] be prevented?

Conceding that there are “scant signs on either side of negotiating a cease-fire and a negotiated end to the war”, and that it “may be too early” to predict battlefield outcomes, in his view

it is not too early to consider the possible terms of a future peace agreement.

Taking into account Ukrainian advances on the ground but also Russian determination “to hold onto Crimea and the Donbas region … at any cost”, he outlines a possible “starting point for negotiations” that might include:

  • the removal of all Russian forces from Ukrainian territories occupied since the February 24 invasion;
  • the phased demilitarization of the Donbas region with international peacekeepers deployed there to keep the peace and,
    • in time, oversee a popular referendum on the region’s preferred political status; and
  • a Ukrainian pledge to stay out of NATO for an extended period of time.

He adds that despite the wishes of either side,

it is hard to imagine any peace settlement that diverges too far from these fundamental accommodations.

Role of the United States and European allies

Michael Klare next makes the obvious comment — but one which has been systematically rejected by the United States and its European — and Canadian — allies:

Until such time as Russian and Ukrainian leaders announce a cease-fire and commence negotiations leading to a mutually acceptable peace agreement, the United States and its European allies should do all they can to facilitate such an outcome and avoid steps that might make it more difficult to achieve.

In Klare’s view that means, in particular:

  • avoiding any escalatory steps and
  • encouraging the Turkish and Indian Presidents to continue their conversations with Putin and Zelensky about the terms of a possible peace settlement.

Klare concludes:

The fighting in Ukraine will not stop tomorrow, but it is vitally important that world leaders do whatever they can to reduce the level of violence there and lay the groundwork for a cease-fire and formal peace settlement.

Too many people have already died in the war, and without a greater international drive to stop the killing, many more are likely to perish.

For more reasons why the West should start taking negotiations more seriously, see Anatol Lieven’s commentary of 27 September in, where he writes:

With Putin mired in the Ukraine war and facing unrest at home, it’s time the west tried to negotiate a way back from the brink.

But events, since those commentaries were published, are moving us in entirely the opposite direction.

Escalation on both sides in wake of Russian annexations

At a ceremony described by the Washington Post as “patriotic pageantry” in the gilded Grand Kremlin Palace, President Putin on 30 September signed so-called accession treaties to absorb into Russia the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, the annexation of which had already been declared illegal and illegitimate by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, President Biden, and other world leaders, including Turkish President Erdoğan.

Reuters reports that Putin’s speech included the following statements:

I want the Kyiv authorities and their real masters in the West to hear me, so that they remember this. People living in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens. Forever…

We will defend our land with all the powers and means at our disposal.

Ukrainian President Zelensky for his part responded by applying for “accelerated accession” into NATO — in respect of which the Washington Post’s Mary Ilyushina bluntly commented:

It was a largely symbolic statement, however. Under NATO’s collective defense clause, admitting Ukraine would immediately require the alliance to send troops to fight Russia, making Kyiv’s membership bid a political and practical impossibility.

Others have interpreted Zelensky’s actions as a “forceful rebuttal” of the Russian moves, and one likely to “touch a nerve in Moscow”, given Putin’s view of the NATO bloc as a “hostile military alliance bent on encroaching in Moscow’s sphere of influence and destroying it”.

At the same time, Agence France Press reports that President Zelensky has declared that

Ukraine will not hold any negotiations with Russia as long as Putin is the president of the Russian Federation. We will negotiate with the new president.

Significantly, President Zelensky was also reported as saying that Kyiv remains committed to the idea of co-existence with Russia:

on equal, honest, dignified and fair conditions. comments:

In light of this marked increase in tensions between Ukraine and Russia, it is extraordinarily important to remember that, whether or not the annexed territories are considered by Putin to now be part of Russia proper, as he seems to have clearly declared, Russian military doctrine, last updated in 2014, on the use of nuclear weapons has not changed.

It states that:

The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened. [emphasis added]

Update by International Crisis Group

For the latest statement on developments in Ukraine from the International Crisis Group, see the Guardian opinion piece by Alissa de Carbonnel, deputy programme director for Europe and Central Asia, entitled Putin’s annexation of parts of Ukraine is a critical moment for the world (the, 29 September 22).

Her concluding words should be closely heeded:

Ultimately, western states must continue walking the tightrope between supporting Ukraine and perilous escalation. The more outrageous Russia’s provocations, the more important it will be to respond with the balance of prudence, unity and resolve that has marked the west’s response to date.

In the view of

We noted last week that, despite its recommendation for the West to “stay the course”, the Crisis Group statement of 23 September nonetheless made clear the importance of the West also supporting diplomatic openings for a negotiated solution. It is regrettable that Alissa de Carbonnel fails to do the same.

Arms Control Association on steps to reduce nuclear risks

Fleshing out the issue of “prudent” action by the West, the Arms Control Association, in an email sent to its mailing list on 25 September 2022, stressed the following points and urged the following steps:

  • Global leaders should reinforce Biden’s caution against Putin’s flirtations with nuclear weapons use and condemn any and all nuclear threats. They should underscore why everyone loses, especially Russia if Putin breaks the 77-year-long taboo against using nuclear weapons.
  • Modern short-range, “tactical” nuclear weapons are devastating and indiscriminate killing machines. Notions that nuclear war can be “limited” are fantasy.
  • Senior U.S. and Russian leaders need to be in regular dialogue to avoid miscommunication and miscalculation–a key lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Even as the war in Ukraine continues, U.S. and Russian officials should resume talks on a new nuclear arms control framework before the last treaty limiting their deadly strategic nuclear arsenals expires in 2026.

Good news regarding new START verification negotiations

In a small bit of good news on the nuclear front, Reuters reported on 29 September that Russia was studying the possibility of a face-to-face meeting between Russian and US negotiators on the new START treaty.

In a briefing in Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said:

The topic of resuming [the talks] is being considered.

The possibilities for holding a face-to-face session of the bilateral advisory commission are being studied.

For the Russian News Agency Tass’s report of this development, see Resumption of inspection activities under New START being considered – diplomat (, 29 September 2022).

RI President Peggy Mason comments:

Let us fervently hope that the events of 30 September do not derail this one positive step towards better management by Russia and the USA of nuclear risks in current circumstances.


Regular readers of our blog posts will know that has long championed a fundamental rebuilding of the Canadian foreign service, a prerequisite for a foreign policy agenda commensurate with the global challenges we now face — as the Ukraine conflict reminds us every day.

One of the consistent voices in support of fundamental, and long overdue, reforms has been that of Canadian historian and retired foreign service officer Dan Livermore.

His latest article, Reform of Global Affairs Canada: Version 2023 (, 10 August 2022) takes as its point of departure two studies on GAC renewal that are now underway, one in the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, launched in February 2022, and the other in Global Affairs itself, the latter announced by the Minister and Deputy Minister on 30 May.

While neither study was launched with a public announcement as to its rationale, in Livermore’s view:

the motivation should be obvious to anyone observing the under-performance of Canada’s foreign service over the past few years.

Simply put, years of tinkering, including the merger of GAC and CIDA, has created a costly, massive, and excessively bureaucratic department, with diminishing expertise and low-quality output, led by people who know relatively little about foreign policy or international affairs.

On the merger of GAC and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in 2013 by the Harper government, Livermore writes:

The GAC-CIDA merger was perhaps the straw that finally broke the back of old “External Affairs”.  It mixed the two agencies in a blend that doesn’t work.

Noting that the Trade Policy Branch “still works because the vocation is clear and the lines of authority are well established”, Livermore’s judgment of the Justin Trudeau government’s much-vaunted Feminist Foreign Policy is scathing:

that policy has proven to be a thin reed that can’t cover the absence of serious policy work in many areas of foreign policy, including China and Eastern Europe.

Studies do not guarantee reforms

Livermore also warns that, given past government inaction,

The issuance of two studies in 2023 will not guarantee that a reform effort will ensue.

He also urges work in the meantime to continue on

other essential reforms that are already inching forward, like re-constructing an annual recruitment exercise for all streams of the foreign service.

Looking forward to the results of the two ongoing studies, Livermore projects the following recommendations:

  • A “global” Canadian foreign service requiring a significant increase in embassies, high commissions, and missions to multilateral organizations;
  • Reversing the decline in expertise – subject matter, linguistic, regional – which, in turn, means posting more foreign service officers abroad;
  • Reinvesting in cultural and Canadian studies programmes abroad; and
  • Increasing development spending.

Two recommendations often made before — but yet to be actioned — concern the need for GAC to

slash its huge senior management complement [and] to completely re-vamp its outmoded administrative and personnel structures.

Livermore wisely reminds us that long overdue reforms to enable GAC to offer governments “sound advice on foreign policy” are no guarantee future governments will be interested in that advice.

Nonetheless, as Livermore also points out,

a well-conceived, well-structured foreign service is a necessary condition for a sensible, rational, long-term approach to Canadian foreign policy.

Why do we need a foreign policy anyway?

Dan Livermore ends his article with two essential points:

Foreign policy is about having the international influence to help shape global events in support of our values and interests.

The foundational instrument for attaining that goal is a capable, effective Canadian foreign service, empowered with the right tools.

More on the issue of specialist expertise

For more on the specific issue of developing within Global Affairs Canada the specialist expertise that is now so urgently needed to address complex global issues of climate change, public health, migration, and cyber security — to name but a few — see the new CIPS report by Ulric Shannon entitled Competitive Expertise and Future Diplomacy: Subject-Matter Specialization in Generalist Foreign Ministries (, August 2022).

Shannon writes:

The purpose of the new CIPS report is to highlight the best practices that other foreign ministries have developed, and which could be adapted to the needs of the Canadian diplomatic service as part of a future reform agenda.

Citing first the international trend toward ‘incubating’ greater subject matter expertise among their diplomats, Shannon highlights an important impediment to Canada adopting the same approach:

Although there are certainly pockets of expertise within the Canadian foreign service, the organizational culture of Global Affairs Canada often discourages specialization by treating it as incompatible with advancement into senior leadership.

Shannon continues:

This phenomenon is not unique to Global Affairs. It reflects a broader trend toward ‘managerialism’ within the Canadian Public Service in the last two decades, which has devalued the role of subject-matter knowledge as an attribute of leadership.

Shannon, like Livermore, makes a powerful case for why this misguided preference for management devoid of knowledge must be discarded:

If it expects to remain competitive with its peers and adversaries in the fight for global influence, Canada will need a credible foreign service.

This means being represented worldwide by people who can speak authoritatively by exhibiting broad knowledge of a range of global issues and deep subject-matter knowledge of priority regions and themes.

Whither Canada?

If Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly is really the “rising star” in the Liberal Party that media pundits are now making her out to be, she can perhaps win over some of the many doubters — included — by heeding what Livermore and Shannon so powerfully argue.

We call on the Government of Canada to act expeditiously in the rebuilding of Canada’s foreign policy expertise, commensurate with the global challenges we now face.


For the latest — utterly depressing — news on the state of talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, see Iran Nuclear Deal Talks Stall Again (Kelsey Davenport,, 28 September 2022). comments:

The only glimmer of hope is that a positive outcome for the Biden administration in the upcoming Congressional mid-term elections may re-energize its efforts in support of a meaningful deal.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (Lester B. Pearson Building) is a public outreach project of the Rideau Institute linking Canadians working together for peace.

Tags: Anatol Lieven, Arms Control Association, CIPS,, Dan Livermore, escalation, Global Affairs Canada, Mary Ilyushina, Michael Klare, New START, nuclear risks, President Putin, President Zelensky, Russian annexation, Ukraine, Ulric Shannon, US Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS)