Michael Bociurkiw is an Atlantic Council senior researcher and global affairs analyst.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was right when he said Ottawa’s decision to circumvent its own sanctions law and ship Nord Stream 1 gas turbines back to Russia via Germany was “absolutely unacceptable”.
The six Russian turbines that the German company Siemens Energy maintained in Montreal, but which found themselves blocked due to sanctions against Moscow, had for some time been a bilateral irritant between Ottawa and Kyiv. The Russian government had claimed missing equipment was the reason it cut the flow of natural gas to Germany via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, prompting Berlin to pressure Justin Trudeau’s government to release the turbines . But this week, Canada actively changed its own sanctions laws to send them back to Germany – which will then hand them over to Russia.
Mr. Trudeau probably had to do a lot of calculations before making a decision. Among its likely interests: protecting the reputation of Canadian companies as reliable trading partners and the country’s reputation as a predictable place to do business. But in the end, the most important thing is that the turbines will now serve as a cog in the Russian war machine.
Oil and gas exports average more than US$100 billion a year for the Kremlin, which in turn helps fund its invasion of Ukraine. “Russia is incredibly insignificant in the global economy, except for oil and gas,” Jason Furman, an economist and Obama’s White House adviser, told The New York Times. “It’s basically a big gas station.”
Ottawa’s decision therefore not only sends a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he can continue to play fast and loose around the sanctions imposed for his invasion of Ukraine – it also calls into question the very commitment of the Canada to assist Ukraine during an existential period in its history.
Russia is using the turbines as an excuse to lift some of the sanctions, said Olga Khakova, deputy director for European energy security at the Atlantic Council’s World Energy Center. “It’s almost like a game for them because they have enough technology and alternative turbines. They are testing the waters.
The Russian government is using the turbines as an excuse to lift some of the sanctions, said Olga Khakova, deputy director for European energy security at the Atlantic Council’s World Energy Center. “They are testing the waters by pressuring Europe to grant future sanctions waivers.”
Russia’s demand for the return of the generator is a classic example of its “gray zone aggression,” Elisabeth Braw of the American Enterprise Institute told me. “It was not an overtly aggressive decision. But people know instantly that it’s not right and you’re probably going to get away with it.
It is to be expected that when the sanctions begin to harm the economies of those who apply them, “unity will begin to wear thin”, she added. But friends who say they “stand with Ukraine” are meant to do just that: stand with the country, even if it may cause them pain from time to time.
Ukraine didn’t mince words in its reaction to Ottawa’s decision. On his Telegram channel on Monday evening, Zelensky said he had summoned Canada’s charge d’affaires in Ukraine over the sanctions exception. “This is not just a Nord Stream turbine that Canada shouldn’t have, but decided to give up anyway. … Every concession under such conditions is perceived by the Russian leadership as an incentive for additional and stronger pressure. Russia has never played by the rules in energy and won’t play by the rules now unless it sees power.
During the conflict, Mr. Zelensky was quick to name and blame Western countries for not supporting Ukraine, but this harsh language was still surprising given our historical ties; Canada was the first Western country to recognize Ukraine’s independence in 1991.
Yet Ottawa’s misguided decision is consistent with its failed approach to the war in Ukraine, as overseen by Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly. It was late to approve the supply of lethal weapons to Kyiv earlier this year; he was one of the first to withdraw our diplomats from Kyiv and one of the last to send them back to their offices. And then there was the inexplicable appearance of a senior Global Affairs official at a party at the Russian Embassy in June.
As a middle power, Canada cannot rely on its military or commercial prowess to project its reputation on the world stage; only his adherence to principles and his track record as a guardian of democratic values can do that. Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Joly must therefore ask themselves: what does it say about us when we choose to harm an emerging democracy like Ukraine?