John Ivison: With war in Ukraine at a perilous point, now is not time for Joly to go off-script

Canada’s foreign minister left the impression that Canada is pushing for immediate NATO membership for Ukraine, a development that would have unpredictable consequences

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OTTAWA —  In January, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest the world has been to a nuclear apocalypse in its view, since it was set up by former Manhattan Project scientists in 1945.

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It is distressing to think how many seconds closer we might be now, given the success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Russia’s declaration that four Ukrainian regions are now sovereign Russian territory and Vladimir Putin’s pledge that he is not bluffing when he says he will use “all weapons systems available to us.”

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We are at the most dangerous phase of this deadly war and the moment calls for cool heads and judicious comments.

That was why it was surprising to hear Canada’s foreign minister, Mélanie Joly, say in Washington on Friday that this country believes Ukraine should be a member of NATO, without adding any qualification. Joly made clear that this has been Canada’s position for more than a decade, which is true. Canada was party to the 2008 summit in Bucharest that said Ukraine and Georgia “will” eventually join the organization that, under its Article 5, commits members to mutual defence.

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The issue fell off the table in 2010, when the then Ukrainian president said the country would remain non-aligned.

But at its Brussels summit in June 2021, NATO’s leadership reiterated the decision taken in Bucharest — fuelling Putin’s paranoia about NATO expansion and giving him the excuse to invade Ukraine.

In Washington last Friday, Joly and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken were asked about NATO because Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had just formally applied to join.

Blinken’s response to reporters’ questions added caveats: NATO’s door remains open, but there is a well-known process for application, he said. Sweden and Finland were “long-time partners and de facto allies,” so they were fast-tracked, he added. The invitation is not in the mail, he might as well have said.

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However, Joly was less equivocal — leaving the impression that Canada is pushing for immediate NATO membership for Ukraine, a development that would clearly have unpredictable consequences.

Previously, questions about support for Ukraine’s membership action plan have been ignored by Canadian officials, or met with vague comments about unwavering support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In the grand scheme of things, it may not matter. But unnecessary provocation is unhelpful, particularly on the issue that sparked the fire in the first place.

Nothing about the situation in Ukraine is manifest. The Russians claim there are new borders of their state, incorporating four Ukrainian oblasts, even though it doesn’t control parts of those regions. Not even the Kremlin appears to know the delineation of those borders. Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Russia will “continue to consult the population” in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

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What is clear is the current NATO strategy of supplying Zelenskyy the goods to get the job done without using Western troops directly has been more successful than anyone could have anticipated.

John Bolton, the Trump administration’s national security adviser, told the Financial Review that he does not think Putin is ready to use nuclear weapons yet but the four annexations bring him closer to that point than at any earlier time.

The Biden administration has promised a “catastrophic” response to any use of nukes. David Petraeus, the former CIA director and retired four-star general, said the U.S. would destroy Russian troops and sink their Black Sea fleet.

But what we do know about Putin is that he always escalates, and if he uses nuclear weapons once, can anyone imagine he would balk at doing so again, particularly if his conventional options were reduced further still?

Russia’s bloody invasion cannot be allowed to stand and future aggressors must be persuaded by a united front of determined nations to think twice. Following the horrors of Bucha, Izium and elsewhere, Ukrainians must be supported in their efforts to eject the barbaric Russian invaders from their territory.

We are kicking in a rotten door and it will give. But we need to be cautious about the amount of stress applied or the whole edifice could come crashing down on top of all of us.

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