Trudeau’s Jeeps in action

‘An election is no time to discuss serious issues,’ former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell notoriously said. That, of course, is one of the reasons we supposedly value a free press – to hold politicians to account and make sure that they have to talk about what really matters. So given that we have a general election campaign going on at the moment, you’d imagine that when a major international news story breaks, and there’s shown to be a Canadian connection, our press would be on it in a flash. But for whatever reason that doesn’t seem to be the case.

A couple of days ago, news broke that the Houthi forces in Yemen had claimed to have inflicted a major defeat on Saudi forces near the southern Saudi of Najran. Subsequently, the Houthis released videos apparently proving their case. These showed large numbers of dead and captured Saudi troops as well as a significant amount of destroyed and captured armoured vehicles. That much attracted the attention of the our press, but it somehow failed to note that a lot of the vehicles were in fact Canadian.

Back in 2014, the Harper government struck a $15 billion deal to sell light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudi government. After this deal came in for public criticism, Harper’s successor as Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, said that there was nothing to worry about, as the contract was only for ‘jeeps’. That, of course, was nonsense, as this drawing from the National Post newspaper makes clear.


For comparison, here’s a picture of one of the Saudi vehicles captured by the Houthis in the recent battle:


My not-entirely forgotten military vehicle recognition training teaches me to look for things like hatches and wheels. So let’s do that. Note the position of the hatch in the photo, and compare it to the drawing above. Note also the positioning of the wheels of the captured vehicle – there’s a small gap between the front two, a large one between the middle two, and then a very small one between the wheels at the back. Then compare that to the drawing. I don’t know about you, but the two look pretty similar to me. I’m willing to be corrected on this, but I’d say that it seems that the Houthis now have a least one Canadian-built LAV in their possession.

Here’s some more evidence – a rather blurry photograph from the CBC, showing a Saudi-purchased Canadian LAV. The key item is the triangular piece of metal with two holes in it, which you can see in the bottom right of the vehicle.


Now compare that to this picture of one of the Saudi vehicles destroyed in the recent Houthi offensive. Look familiar??


Sadly, this isn’t the least of it. Those Canadian LAVs seem to have had a rather bad day, as you can see below:



Why does this matter?

The contract with the Saudis has been controversial from the moment it was first signed, with various activists in Canada complaining that we should not be selling weapons to a country with such a bad human rights record. The possibility that the armoured vehicles might be used in Yemen has also been raised as a reason why the contract should be cancelled. At one point it looked as if the Liberal government was having some pangs of conscience, and it announced that Global Affairs Canada (GAC), under the command of Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, would review the contract to see whether it should be terminated.  A spokesman for GAC declared that,

Canada does not export items destined for Yemen or that we suspect might be used in Yemen due to the impact on regional stability and security. Careful attention is paid to the potential for the diversion of Canadian exports to the conflict in Yemen. … If there is evidence that Canadian arms are being misused or have been diverted, Minister Freeland will suspend those export permits while an investigation proceeds, as she has done in the past.

Despite some compelling evidence that Canadian equipment had indeed been diverted to the war in Yemen, nothing ever came of that promise, however. Sales of Canadian military equipment to Saudi Arabia have continued apace and the government ‘review’ has disappeared without trace. Meanwhile, Canadian arms continue to fuel the war in Yemen, and as the pictures above show are now actually in the hands of both sides of the conflict!!

If the Canadian government publicly preached hard-headed realism, I wouldn’t mind so much. If our politicians just said, ‘business is business’, or ‘we back Saudi Arabia because we want to fight Iran’, or something like that, it would at least have the virtue of brutal honesty. But that isn’t how our politicians talk. Rather, Canadian foreign policy discourse is nothing if not an exercise in holy-than-thou sanctimonious moralizing. Yet when it comes to an opportunity to make some money, all that goes out of the window.

So why aren’t our media on this? As there’s an election going on, now’s the time to ask the politicians some hard questions. Someone needs to put Trudeau and Freeland on the spot, and get them to give them an answer about what they intend to do about arms sales to Saudi Arabia given the new evidence which has come to light. And someone needs to tackle opposition politicians about it too. Somehow, though, I doubt that they will. Some things are too serious to talk about at election time. There’s just no way to discuss them without looking bad.

Bruised but not broken

Those of you who speak Russian can now have the pleasure of reading my latest article, which has recently been published in the Russian journal Neprikosnovennyi zapas. In English the title is ‘Bruised but not broken: the international order in the 21st century’. It is available online here. Numerous commentators argue that the international order is in crisis, maybe even on the verge of collapse. Others, though, are more optimistic. The point of the article is to determine who is right. For those of you who don’t speak Russia, here is a brief summary of what I have to say.

The international order has been defined as ‘the body of rules, norms, and institutions that govern relations among the key players in the international environment.’ This may be seen as consisting of three sub-orders. The first is the ‘security’ or ‘political-military’ order. This promotes international peace and security. Its centrepiece is the Charter of the United Nations. The second element is the economic order. This regulates and encourages international trade, and is founded on a large number of international laws, institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), etc), and treaties. The third element might be called the ‘values-based’ order. This promotes good governance, democracy, and human rights, and is based on a body of international human rights law dating from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To determine whether the overall order is in good health, I therefore look first at inputs (i.e. the level of participation in the order) and second at outcomes in each of the three sub-orders (what are the results – is the world becoming more peaceful, more prosperous, freer, etc?).

Inputs: I note that while some treaties have recently been abrogated, most notably those to do with US-Russia arms control, states as a whole continue to bind themselves together with more and more agreements and through membership of more and more multilateral institutions. Specifically, there were around 10,000 international organizations in 1980, and 30,000 in 1992 when the Cold War came to an end. There are now nearly 70,000. States also continue to submit their disputes to international organizations (e.g. WTO) for resolution, and generally abide by the decisions. The nations of the world are therefore more intertwined that ever before. In terms of inputs, the international system seems quite healthy.

Security outcomes: A simple way to measure whether the international order is achieving its objective of international peace and security is to look at statistics concerning conflict. These show us that from 1992 to 2007 the magnitude of armed conflict worldwide fell by 60%. Since then it has been on the rise, but is still well below 1992 levels. Moreover, it is highly concentrated geographically (as is terrorism), with recent increases being primarily due to wars in the Middle East and North Africa. The conclusion we can draw is that we face a regional crisis not a global one. It is true that the situation worldwide is worse than it was 10 years ago, but it’s a lot better than 30 years ago. So, one’s opinion on whether the situation is getting better or worse in large part depends on one’s reference point.

Economic outcomes: International economic integration has stalled in recent years, with the collapse of the Doha round of WTO negotiations and with the United States returning towards protectionism in its relations with key trading partners. However, numerous regional economic institutions have recently come into being (e.g. Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank), no major country is showing any interest in abandoning or reducing international trade, and worldwide rates of economic growth remain fairly high. International trade has yet to recover from the 2008 financial crash, and thus remains below its 2007 peak, but is still high by historic standards. Thus compared to 2007, things  are little worse, but compared to 20, 30, or 40 years ago, they don’t look so bad.

Values outcomes: After 1992, the number of states deemed ‘democratic’ increased sharply, while the number considered “autocratic” declined proportionally. The Global Report 2017 concludes that, ‘the global system … is more democratic than it ever has been.’ Likewise, the Global Peace Index 2018 comments that, ‘Over the past 100 years, democracy has spread, reaching a 100-year high.’ Viewed through a long-term lens, the values-based order seems to be in good shape. In the short-term, though, there has been some backsliding.  Freedom House has recorded a constant decline in global freedom over the past 10 years. The Global Peace Index measures ‘positive peace’ (i.e. factors such as well-functioning government, low levels of corruption, and acceptance of others’ rights), and concludes that, ‘The average level of Positive Peace increased steadily between 2005 and 2013 … However, this trend levelled out in the two years to 2015, after which Positive Peace deteriorated in 2016.’ Once again, the conclusion is much the same as with the security and economic orders – something of a deterioration over the past ten years, but a substantial improvement over the last 30.

Conclusion: From this I conclude that the short term trends across the three elements of the international order are largely negative. In the past decade, there has been an increase in violence (albeit mostly in just one part of the world), a slowing, or slight reversal, of economic integration, and some regression in terms of democratization and human rights. However, these negative phenomena have only slightly dented the positive progress made in previous decades. Compared to the Cold War era, the current international system appears to be doing fairly well. The international order, in other words, is bruised, but far from being broken.

Liberal illiberalism

This is turning out to be a good week for hearing from top-level Russian ministers. First Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov penned an article for Russia in Global Affairs, and then Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu gave an interview to Moskovskii Komsomolets. The latter has got the most publicity so far, in large part because it’s the first interview Shoigu has given in many years, but I didn’t find much of interest in it. The main takeaway was that Russian soldiers now all have access to a washing machine. The fact that this is considered such a great thing makes it clear just how terrible conditions in the Russian army were until very recently. Beyond that, the interviewer tried occasionally to ask Shoygu personal questions, but the defence minister generally refused to be drawn, except to say that ‘I have great nostalgia for the Soviet Union’ and to inform us that his mother comes from Ukraine and that he himself was baptised, aged 5, in a church in Stakhanov in Lugansk Oblast. That last revelation drives home the point that the war in Donbass is quite personal to many Russians. Is someone like Shoigu going to let the Russian state abandon Lugansk?? Somehow, I doubt it.

Beyond that, Shoigu’s perspective on world events was pretty much what one would expect. The world is ceasing to be unipolar, he argued, ‘And naturally, the West doesn’t like this, and it’s exerting every effort to regain its monopoly of influence in the world.’ To this end it’s doing what it can to overthrow potential rivals, ‘And of course this is done under the pretext of spreading democracy.’

This is pretty much the consensus viewpoint in Russia as far as I can tell, and it should come as no surprise, therefore, that in his article Sergei Lavrov says pretty much the same thing. But what makes Lavrov’s article interesting from my point of view is where he goes from there. The main theme of the article is the failings of Western liberalism. Again, this is hardly something new. But what I found revealing was the logic that Lavrov used. This is what he had to say:

The West’s reaction to what is happening allows one to judge the true principles of its wordview. The rhetoric on the themes of ‘liberalism’, ‘democracy’, and ‘human rights’ are accompanied by the promotion of approaches based on inequality, injustice and egoism, and conviction of their own exceptionalism.

‘Liberalism’, which the West claims to be defending, gives centre place to the person, his rights and freedom. And that raises the question: how does this correspond with the policy of sanctions? … Sanctions directly strike ordinary people, their well-being, and destroy their social-economic rights. How do you reconcile the imperative of defending human rights with the bombardment of sovereign states, and the deliberate effort to destroy their statehood, which leads to the death of hundreds of thousands of people? …

As for Europe, the zealots of the liberal idea get on fine with massive breaches of the rights of the Russian speaking population of the European Union. …

And what’s ‘liberal’ about the visa and other sanctions imposed by the West against those living in Russian Crimea? They are punished for the democratic expression of their will to rejoin their historic motherland. …

Liberalism in its healthy, undistorted meaning, was traditionally the main constituent of world, and Russian, political thought. However, the multiplicity of models of development do not permit one to conclude that there is no alternative to the Western ‘basket’ of liberal values. …

[The West] has developed the concept of a ‘rules-based order’. … Its aim is to undermine internationally agreed legal instruments. …

In the economic realm, protective barriers have become the norm. …

What’s the result? In politics, the shaking of the international legal foundations, the growth of instability … in the realm of security, the washing away of the boundary between coercive and non-coercive methods of achieving external political goals … in the economic world – increased volatility, and fierce competition for markets.

Much has been said of late of Russia’s alleged ‘conservative turn’. Lavrov’s assault on liberalism will no doubt be added to the evidence in support of that. But read it closely. How does Lavrov attack Western liberals? By reference to liberal ideals! He appeals to human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and free trade. In short, it’s a homage to classical liberalism – liberalism in its ‘healthy, undistorted meaning’ as Lavrov puts it, liberalism which is, in his words, ‘traditionally the main constituent of … Russian political thought.’

In other words, the complaint is that Western liberals are hypocrites and have ceased to practice what they preach. They claim to be liberal, but they’re not. But there’s nothing here which challenges the ‘liberal international order’. If anything, it’s a call to return to the liberal international order.

I fully appreciate that this is a controversial interpretation of Russian thinking. Again and again we are told that the Russian government is illiberal and hell bent on destroying the ‘liberal international order’. I think that makes the mistake of taking radical geopolitical thinkers like Aleksandr Dugin and assuming that the Russian state shares their ambitions. But, as I see it, the Russian state is actually far more cautious. Far from wanting to destroy the international system, it would rather like to preserve it, but considers that the West is undermining it. For all the talk of a ‘conservative turn’, I don’t see that Russia actually has an alternative to offer to the liberal international order. I don’t see that it has any different political vocabulary to offer the world other than that of liberalism – human rights, democracy, free trade etc. Even when criticising liberalism, the Russian state uses its language. In his book Frontline Ukraine, Richard Sakwa noted that, ‘Russia makes no claim to revise the existing international order, but demands that the leading powers abide by the mutually established rules.’ I think that Lavrov’s article backs that conclusion up.


The Narcissism of the West

Yesterday I was given a copy of a recent report published by the London School of Economic’s !deas think tank. Entitled ‘Five Years after Maidan: Toward a Greater Eurasia’, its foreword (by LSE Emeritus Professor Michael Cox) begins with this provocative, but I think rather penetrating, statement:

The West’s increasing self-absorption verging on the narcissistic … has made many of us ‘over here’ forget that there is another very different world ‘out there’ about which most of our leaders know very little and think about even less. … other people in other places have other, rather more important things to worry about than the comings and goings of western politicians and pundits.

I’ve been wondering for some time about Russiagate, America’s inability to end its ‘forever wars’ in the Middle East, and other phenomena of the modern era, and trying to puzzle out what explains it all. It seems to me that Cox has found an important part of the puzzle – the narcissism of the West. Boosted by victory in the Cold War, believing that our systems represent the ‘end of history’, we in the West have come to see ourselves as ‘masters of the universe’. We are all that matters. And so it follows that we must be at the top of everybody else’s agenda, and that whatever anybody else in the world does, it must somehow be about us.

Take the paranoid stories I’ve been covering on this blog about how the Russians are bound to ‘meddle’ in Canada’s upcoming general election. Why on earth do people here think that this is so likely, given that the choice is between a governing party whose foreign minister is banned from entering Russia and an opposition party whose leader is banned from entering Russia? The answer lies in our strange belief that we’re actually really important. Canada is a G7 country after all. Of course the Russians will target us. We matter! Except that in reality we don’t. As was mentioned in the report by Sergey Sukhankin which I critiqued a week or so ago, Russians who study international affairs don’t look at Canada as a truly independent country. To most of them, we’re just an appendage of the United States. Our belief that the opposite is true – that we’re a big player, that our elections really matter to foreign countries, that they’re bound to try to undermine us because ‘WE’RE IMPORTANT!’ – is narcissism pure and simple.

Canadians aren’t the only one guilty of this. Americans have a similar problem. It’s why they had such a huge problem understanding what Saddam Hussein was up to after his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War. Faced with apparent Iraqi obstruction of US demands, they assumed that this meant that Saddam was plotting some sort of evil revenge against the United States. In fact, it turned out that he wasn’t thinking of the Americans at all; his real concerns were to do with Iran. You can find lots of examples like that. Americans are told that they must fight the Taleban because of the danger that terrorists might again use Afghanistan to strike the United States. But is the average Talebani really thinking about America? Or is he thinking about his home, his family, his village – all things local? If the Iranians are helping the Syrian government, is it because they view the war in Syria as part of a global struggle against the United States, or is it because Syria is next door to Iran and what happens there is of direct importance to Iran’s own security? The answers, I think, are pretty clear.

To put it another way, states (and non-state actors) have their own interests unconnected to us. The fact that their pursuit of their interests sometimes makes them clash with Western states who are pursuing different interests doesn’t mean that they’re doing what they doing because of us. Moreover, as the balance of power in the world shifts, it’s likely that more and more often the West will become less and less of a factor in non-Western states’ calculations. As Derek Averre says with reference to Russia in another part of the LSE report:

We are in danger of missing the fact that European norms are becoming less important as a reference point against which Russia’s political elite measures its policy. Indeed, Ted Hopf’s argument – that Russia constructs its identity in relation to the US/Europe as ‘significant others’ – should be subject to appraisal at this time of far-reaching change in Russian foreign policy.

In short, it’s not all about us, and becoming less and less about us with every passing day. But arrogance and narcissism prevent us from seeing this. As a result we stumble from foreign policy blunder to foreign policy blunder. Unless and until we are able to come off our high horses and recognize that we’re not the centre of the universe, we’re going to keep getting things horribly wrong.

Meddling schmeddling

You may have missed it in the all the excitement around the world, but Canada has a general election coming up in October. As you know, elections equal Russian meddling. They’re when our Eastern friends pull out all their computer bots, fire up their trolls, and start spreading shedloads of disinformation in order to confuse and disorientate us, so that we lose our faith in democracy  and then we … we … well I’m not sure what we’re meant to do then; the ultimate aim of it all rather defeats me. We vote for one party which is 100% anti-Russian rather than for another party which is 100% anti-Russian? Is that the point? Because here in Canada, that’s basically the choice on offer. Those pesky Russkies can confuse us all they like with their dezinformatziia, active measures, and maskirovka, but at the end of the day we’re still going to end up electing somebody determined to prove that he or she is more anti-Russian that the next guy or girl. Meddling, schmeddling – it’s not going to make a blind bit of difference to the result.

None of this stops the fearmongers, however, and so it was that yesterday the Canadian press was happily quoting a new report from the University of Calgary, saying that, ‘Russia could meddle in Canada’s election due to “growing interest” in Arctic’. Now, I’ve been saying for a while now that these worries are exaggerated, but for some reason ‘Professor at University of Ottawa says it’s a load of nonsense’ doesn’t generate any headlines, whereas ‘part-time lecturer in Calgary says it’s so’ is national news. Well, so be it. We all know that the press has its biases. So rather than rely on the media, I thought I’d better check out what the report in question actually has to say, and it turns out that it’s not quite what you’d imagine, at least not entirely.

The report is written by one Sergey Sukhankin who is said to be ‘a Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation’ in Washington DC, and to be currently ‘teaching at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University (Edmonton)’. According to his Linkedin page, he has a 3 month contract to teach a single course at the former, and a 9 month contract as a lecturer in the latter. He’s also listed as an ‘Associate Expert at the International Center for Policy Studies (Kyiv).’ Anyway, he starts off his report encouragingly enough by declaring that he aims ‘to give a more balanced and nuanced picture of the situation, particularly with regard to Canada’, and it is a ‘tactical error … to label as disinformation or propaganda every news item emanating from Russia. This creates the perception of a Russian disinformation machine that is much more powerful than it really is.’ Personally, I would say that it’s not a ‘tactical error’, it’s just plain wrong, but at least Sukhankin isn’t trying to overdo things. But this praiseworthy restraint doesn’t mean that he wants us to let down our guard. No, he says, ‘the peril is real’, ‘the West … must stick to confronting the Kremlin’, and (and this is the bit which got the headlines):

The Kremlin has a growing interest in dominating the Arctic, where it sees Russia as in competition with Canada. This means Canada can anticipate escalations in information warfare … Perceived as one of Russia’s chief adversaries in the Arctic region, Canada is a prime target in the information wars, with Russia potentially even meddling in the October 2019 federal election.

There’s a leap of logic here which I must admit I failed to understand. Why does ‘competition’ in the Arctic ‘mean’ that Canada ‘can anticipate escalations in information warfare’, let alone ‘meddling’ in the election? Why does the one necessarily lead to the other? I don’t see it.  It would only make sense if the second part (the meddling) helped achieve some objectives in the first part (competition in the Arctic) but Sukhankin doesn’t show how they would. He just connects two unconnected things. But we’ll get back to the Arctic a little later. For now, let’s return to the report.

This essentially has two parts. The first is a fairly standard summary of the general argument that Russia is engaged in some sort of information war designed to undermine the West from within. It makes reference to the normal vocabulary of Soviet active measures and the like, as well as to the conventional list of sources, such as Peter Pomerantseve, Michael Weiss, and Edward Lucas (not the most reliable types in my opinion). In short, it doesn’t add anything new. By contrast, the second part, which specifically focuses on alleged Russian information operations against Canada, is much more interesting.

Russian disinformation about Canada, says Sukhankin, is centred on four themes:

  1. ‘Canada as a safe haven of russophobia and (neo)fascism.
  2. ‘Canada as part of the colonial forces in the Baltic Sea region’.
  3. ‘Canada as Washington’s useful satellite’.
  4. ‘Canada as a testing ground for the practical implementation of immoral Western values.’

The extent to which these could all be called ‘disinformation’ is debatable (‘Canada as Washington’s useful satellite’ doesn’t seem entirely inaccurate to me). But the key point Sukhankin makes is that these themes reflect the Russian government’s own internal, domestic political priorities – i.e. its desire to convince its own citizens that its policies are right, by means of discrediting others. In general, says Sukhankin, Russian propaganda targets ‘the following audiences, prioritized from the greatest to the smallest’.

  • The Russian domestic audience
  • The post-Soviet area (including the russophones in the three Baltic States)
  • The Balkans and east-central Europe
  • Western and southern Europe
  • The U.S.
  • The rest of the world

Canada, therefore, falls into the lowest priority of targets. This reflects the fact that, as Sukhankin says, ‘Russians don’t see Canada as a fully independent political actor’. To be frank, we’re not high on Russia’s information war hitlist. The Russian government doesn’t care that much about us, and it cares even less about our internal politics. Consequently, says Sukhankin, while the Russian media and social media do publish anti-Canadian stories, the point of them isn’t to ‘meddle’ in Canadian internal affairs. Rather, he says, in what to me is the most crucial statement in his report:

Russia’s anti-Canadian propaganda, which still plays a marginal part compared to other theatres, is primarily tailored for domestic Russian consumption – it is not designed for a Canadian audience. [my underlining]

Here, therefore, we run into a huge problem. We’re told to fear the genuine ‘peril’ of Russian disinformation, and Russian ‘meddling’ in Canada’s election, but we’re also told that Russia doesn’t actually care very much about Canadian internal affairs and that in any case Russian disinformation isn’t targeted at Canadians. It seems to me that you can’t have it both ways. If it’s not targeted at Canadians, then it doesn’t constitute meddling, interference, or anything else of the sort. The logical conclusion of Sukhankin’s analysis is that we should calm down a little and stop worrying so much.

That, however, would not fit with the current zeitgeist. Although his logic points him in one direction, Sukhankin apparently feels a desperate need to nonetheless throw in something about the dangers of Russian interference in Canadian internal affairs. So all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, and unconnected with anything else, in his final paragraph he suddenly throws in a quotation from the head of that most neutral of trustworthy academic sources, the head of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Alexandra Chiczij, saying that, ‘The Kramlin’s propaganda machine will increasingly target our country with anti-Canadian fabrications in an attempt to sow discord, conflict, and to undermine our democratic institutions.’ Sukhankin then adds that this might happen ‘during the 2019 Canadian federal election.’ No evidence to support this claim – which is entirely at odds which everything which preceded it – is produced. Why would Russia suddenly become so interested in Canadian internal affairs? Sukhankin thinks he has an answer, ‘from this author’s point of view, Moscow’s next theme could be the Arctic’, he says. But since this is his last paragraph, he doesn’t have time to develop this thought. As I said, it just comes out of the blue.

It’s also rather odd. As I said earlier, it’s not at all clear why interfering in Canada’s election (exactly how, Sukhankin never makes clear) would promote Russia’s interests in the Arctic. But more than that it ignores the nature of Russian-Canadian Arctic politics. In my conversations with both Canadian and Russian officials, the Arctic is always mentioned as a zone of cooperation rather than competition. In an era when Canadian and Russian diplomats barely talk to each other, the Arctic is the one subject they both think it’s actually possible to discuss in a constructive manner. Conversations about how to improve Canada-Russia relations generally take the form of something like, ‘Let’s not aim too high. Let’s just take little steps, and focus on areas where agreement is possible, especially the Arctic’. To pick on the Arctic as the subject likely to provoke Russia (for purposes unknown) to ‘meddle’ in Canada’s oncoming election (by means and to effect unknown) seems to me to completely misread the situation.

In short, what we have here is a report which tells us that Canada doesn’t matter much to Russians, and that to date Russians have shown little or no interest in targeting Canadian public opinion, let alone interfering in Canadian politics, and yet which nonetheless concludes that we face the ‘peril’ of Moscow ‘potentially even meddling in the October 2019 federal election’. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make any sense to me.

Whitewashing collaborationism

Has it really come to this? As we mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, we discover that members of the Canadian Armed Forces, successors of those who fought against Nazi Germany, attended the unveiling last week of a monument to Nazi collaborationists. The head spins. It’s really quite hard to know what to make of this, except that contemporary geopolitics have combined with historical ignorance to produce a rather shameful outcome.

The monument in question is in the town of Sambir in Western Ukraine. It is dedicated to 17 members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists’ (OUN) military wing – the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) – said to have been executed in Sambir by the German Gestapo in 1944 (although whether this is actually what happened is apparently contested). As Radio Canada International reports,

The monument is a large granite cross erected on the grounds of a derelict Jewish cemetery, where more than 1,200 Jews were shot and dumped into mass graves in 1943 by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators.

What, you might ask, is a monument to the OUN-UPA doing in a Jewish cemetery which marks the site of a Holocaust-era massacre? The answer lies in local politics. For some time, the Ukrainian Jewish community has being trying to renovate the cemetery and create a memorial for the Jews murdered in Sambir, but it has been unable to do so ‘because of fierce opposition from modern-day Ukrainian nationalists in the area.’ In the end, therefore, the Jewish community agreed to a compromise: it would be allowed to build its own monument if it gave away some of the land for a memorial to the OUN-UPA.

This ‘compromise’ has come in for a lot of criticism, as it is not unreasonably seen as giving into blackmail. Eduard Dolinsky, head of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, told Radio Canada that it was ‘a blatant insult to the memory of the Jewish victims’, and ‘like erecting a monument to murderers on the graves of their victims.’ However, I’m not interested in criticising the Ukrainian Jews who agreed to this ‘compromise’. I’m neither Jewish nor Ukrainian, and ultimately it’s not my decision to make. If they felt that this was necessary given the current political climate, and that it was the only way to get what they wanted, that’s a matter for them. What pertubes me, though, is the fact that the Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine attended the unveiling of the two monuments (one to the Jewish victims, the other to the OUN-UPA) along with several members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the latter of whom were photographed next to the memorial to the Ukrainian nationalists. I have to assume that these Canadian soldiers had no idea what they were doing.


Currently I’m reading a book entitled Hitler’s Collaborators by British historian Philip Morgan. Morgan draws a useful distinction between collaboration and collaborationism, collaborators and collaborationists. Collaboration with German occupiers in the Second World War took many forms and was driven by many motives. At its most basic, it could mean simply carrying on doing exactly the same job as one was doing before the occupation – for instance, a Belgian railway worker who kept on working the railways after 1940 was in a sense ‘collaborating’ because he was now working for the occupiers and so enabling their war effort. Such collaboration might willing, but it also might be reluctant, or even coerced. Collaborationism was something else – it was deliberate, completely willing, and often associated with an affinity for Nazi ideology. Oddly enough, says Morgan, the Germans tended to prefer collaborators to collaborationists, because the latter had nationalist agendas which clashed with those of the Nazi Party. But as the war turned against Germany they increasingly overlooked this and proved more and more willing to give collaborationists full rein.

So what was the OUN-UPA, whom Canadian soldiers are now honouring with their presence? According to Morgan’s definition, they weren’t collaborators, they were very much collaborationists. That is to say that they worked alongside the Nazi occupiers of Ukraine willingly and zealously and shared certain key aspects of their ideology, including anti-Semitism. They also shared many of the occupiers’ methods, attempting to ethnically cleanse Ukraine of ‘foreign’ elements, most notably through massacres of Poles and Jews. Defenders of the monument in Sambir state that there is no evidence linking the 17 OUN-UPA members commemorated there with any murders. One can view them as ‘victims’ of the Nazis, and there is therefore nothing wrong in erecting a monument to them. This, however, ignores the nature of the organization to which they belonged, an organization which not only committed terrible atrocities but also fought alongside Canada’s enemies in the Second World War and which Canadian soldiers therefore have absolutely no business celebrating.

Canadian politicians continually like to say that they are unwavering in their support of Ukraine. In reality, what they are unwavering in their support of is a certain image of Ukraine, and the specific political and cultural program of a very specific group of Ukrainians, which includes rewriting history so as to portray Nazi collaborationists as victims. The aggressive pursuit of this program has proven to be deeply divisive, has plunged Ukraine into civil war, and is preventing it from making the compromises necessary for peace. ‘Supporting’ Ukraine in this way is not supporting it at all.

From a purely Canadian perspective, I find it staggering that the Canadian Armed Forces should get involved in such a morally dubious affair. As I said, I don’t wish to judge whether the ‘compromise’ in Sambir was worthwhile. That’s for Ukrainians to decide. But that’s the point. It’s for Ukrainians. Canadians should have nothing to do with it. We shouldn’t be disgracing ourselves by laying wreaths to those who collaborated with our enemies and participated in some of the greatest crimes of the twentieth century.

I don’t blame the soldiers who attended the ceremony in Sambir personally for what they did – I assume that they are simply ignorant of the historical context. Nevertheless, as a former Canadian army officer, their actions make me cringe in embarrassment. The colours of our regiments bear the names of the honours won by our forebears in the war against Nazi Germany. However unintentionally, those who attended the ceremony betrayed their past. So too did those who put them there.