The West Block – Episode 18, Season 11

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Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – Feb 27, 2022 – Feb 27, 2022


Episode 18, Season 11

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Mélanie Joly, Foreign affairs Minister

Charles Kupchan, Former Senior Advisor, Obama Administration

Bob Rae, Canada’s UN Ambassador 

Location: Ottawa, ON


Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Russian declares war on Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin launches a full-scale invasion on three sides, but defiant Ukrainians battle back.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “This is a brutal, needless attack on a sovereign, democratic country.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Tough talk and heavy sanctions. Allies put pressure on Russia and Putin’s inner circle. But without western troops and weapons, is it enough to change anything?

We’ll talk to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly.

U.S. President Joe Biden: “Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war and now he and his country will bear the consequences.” 

Mercedes Stephenson: U.S. President Joe Biden sends a warning to President Putin as NATO invokes a historic escalation, activating thousands of troops in Europe to deter Russia.

We’ll speak to a former senior advisor in the Obama administration about what’s at stake in the volatile face-off between Russia and Europe.

And the search for a diplomatic solution…

We’ll talk to Bob Rae, Canada’s UN ambassador.

Bob Rae, Canada’s UN Ambassador: “It’s never too late to make a turn to diplomacy, to dialogue and to negotiation.”

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, February 27th, and this is The West Block.

Thanks for joining us today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

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Russian troops continue their all-out assault on Ukraine this weekend. Explosions and artillery blasts rock cities across the country, forcing nearly 120 thousand Ukrainians to flee their homes and thousands more volunteers are taking up arms to fight. Ukraine and the West are saying that Vladimir Putin plans to topple the democratically elected government of Ukraine by force.

Joining me now to talk about this is Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly. Minister Joly, thank you for joining us.

My first question to you is about arms shipments. We are seeing the Ukrainian government saying they plan to stand and fight, and many Ukrainian civilians, the Netherlands and Germany both making decisions to send anti-tank weapons. Is Canada going to make a decision to send something similar beyond the guns that have already been supplied?

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Thank you, Mercedes, for the question. Obviously, we’ve been in contact with the Ukrainian government. I’ve been in contact with the deputy prime minister, the minister of finance and the minister of foreign affairs, and obviously, we’re looking also at many options in the table. I’ve been in contact with Anita Anand, the minister of defence, and Canada has already played its part in delivering, successfully two times, ammunitions to the Ukrainians, but we know that we can do more and obviously, we will do more.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well and what we sent were guns, which is helpful but not so helpful against tanks. So I think the question would be whether we would not consider that when even Germany has lifted their export ban on weapons to do this, and whether we might commit to providing those weapons as well, to the Ukrainian resistance after the conventional conflict is over.

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: As I mentioned, obviously my colleague Anita Anand, the minister of defence who is in charge of this, and I have been contact. And we’re looking at many options right now as we speak, but we know that time is of the essence. And that’s exactly why I spoke to my colleague, the minister of foreign affairs for Poland, which is extremely important. Why? Because any form of delivery needs to go through Poland. We’ve been able to secure passage for the last delivery and we need to do that obviously, in the coming days, and that’s why it was important for me to have that conversation with him and get the warranties that were linked to any form of delivery in the future.

Mercedes Stephenson: The French have authorized their naval forces to intercept ships that come underneath the sanctions. In fact, they did intercept one and boarded it. Does Canada have the same policy if there is a ship that the Canadian Navy or the Canadian Coast Guard comes across that is connected to Russian sanctions, will they be detained and authorized to board that ship?

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well, there are different things that we have done. First and foremost, as mentioned this week, we came up with a lot of sanctions, very important sanctions, one of the biggest packages of the entire West, including sanctions in President Putin himself. And we came up with export controls, making sure that Russia could not finance itself through Canadian markets, nor the entire West. And so our goal, Mercedes, has been really, to make sure that are suffocating the Russian regime. We’re looking at many other things. We are in close contact with our allies. I have a G7 meeting very soon and we’ll be looking at different ways to continue, to really make that we’re imposing maximum pressure on Russia.

Mercedes Stephenson: That doesn’t really answer the question of if we have the same policy, but do have limited time so I want to move on. Is Canada prepared to ban the importation of Russian oil and gas to Canada, because we do import some now? Are you ready to cut that off and say no, we already have oil and gas in Canada; we’re going to find a way to use that?

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: We’re ready to do many things, Mercedes. Going back to your last question, it is important for us to play a role, including in our ports, including in our air space, including when it comes to our imports. But when we will do so, we’ll do that at the same time as our allies because first and foremost, that’s the best way to have a lot of impact at the same time. Second, we don’t want to create a loophole. Canada won’t be the loophole in this entire strategy. So that’s why I’ve been in contact with my colleagues from the G7. I spoke to Secretary Blinken on Friday with my colleague from Germany on Thursday and that’s why also, I’m having this conversation and this meeting with the G7. It is very, very important that people watching us right now know that the best way to be really imposing a lot of pressure on President Putin right now, is by being united and we are.

Mercedes Stephenson: It doesn’t seem like the sanctions have in any way slowed down or stopped Vladimir Putin, though. So what else do you need to consider?

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Well I’ve mentioned [to] you many things. I must commend all the businesses in Canada that have decided to play their part and make sure that there were no goods that would be sold in their own businesses that would have a link to Russia. I must commend also the cultural sector around the globe, the entertainment sector. So that’s the best way. By creating this movement, this anti-war coalition through different countries but also this movement of everybody across the country and across the West, and that’s how we will be able to make sure that we have a lot of pressure on the Russian regime, but also that Russians themselves understand what’s going on a couple of hundred kilometres from where they live, because they’re under a lot of propaganda right now and the best way to make sure that they understand what’s going on is definitely in creating this movement, this pressure and by all the cancellation of the important venues, important F1, for example, and any other form of association when it comes to soccer federation, of hockey, etc.
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Mercedes Stephenson: We just have a couple of seconds left so I’ll ask you for a yes-no answer. Are you prepared to expel the Russian ambassador from Canada?

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: My goal right now, is to make sure that he knows what we think. That’s exactly why I summoned him. My goal also is to make sure that there is a diplomatic link because the hope we can all have right now is that the Russian people in Russia, know what’s going on and that they have a lot of courage to go in the streets and to protest. To understand what’s going on in Russia, we need somebody, we need our ambassador. And that’s why, right now, I’ve been in close contact with our own ambassador because I think there is light at the end of the tunnel, because I think Russians are really getting to understand that it is completely outrageous what Putin is doing right now.

Mercedes Stephenson: Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, thank you so much for joining us today.

Mélanie Joly, Foreign Affairs Minister: Thank you, Mercedes.

Up next, as Russia advances in Ukraine, we’ll speak to a foreign senior advisor in the Obama administration about Putin’s next move.

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U.S. President Joe Biden: “But this aggression cannot go unanswered. If it did, the consequences for America would be much worse. America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.” 

Mercedes Stephenson: U.S. President Joe Biden has joined with allies in NATO and the European Union in condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Biden is sending more troops to Europe to shore up NATO forces. And he’s joined with allies in imposing stiff economic sanctions. But can the West’s united front and Russia’s increasing isolation save Ukraine’s democracy?

For more on this, I’m joined by Charles Kupchan. He served as the senior director for European Affairs in the Obama Administration. Thank you so much for joining us today, Mr. Kupchan. Nice to see you.

Charles Kupchan, Former Senior Director for European Affairs, Obama Administration: Good to be with you.

Mercedes Stephenson: What is Vladimir Putin’s end-game in all of this? What do you think he hopes to do?

Charles Kupchan, Former Senior Director for European Affairs, Obama Administration: Judging by the scope of the attack, the things that he said in the days before Russia launched the invasion, it’s pretty clear to me that he wants to effect regime change. He wants to topple the Ukrainian government. He wants to install a Russian puppet, and as a consequence, try to pull Ukraine back into a Russian sphere of influence through coercion. I think it’s very difficult to do. It’s an uphill battle. I think in some ways he’s deluded himself into thinking that behind every Ukrainian is a want-to-be Russian. Not so. Right now, he’s going to be looking at 44 million seething Ukrainians. It’s going to be very hard for Russia to keep its thumb on a country that wants nothing to do with Russian rule.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think this was a miscalculation by Mr. Putin?

Charles Kupchan, Former Senior Director for European Affairs, Obama Administration: I do think it was a miscalculation. You know, up to the present invasion, Putin has generally taken small bites: South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia; Crimea and a small chunk of Eastern Ukraine; Nagorno-Karabakh; Transmistria in Moldova. These were relatively low-risk, low cost aggressions: going into Ukraine, trying to topple the government, trying to install a government. This is an enormous undertaking and I’m guessing that we will see a long-running Ukrainian insurgency that will make life very difficult for Putin. And I also think we’re going to start seeing growing opposition in Russia itself. Yes, Putin controls the media, he controls the narrative. But when the body bags come home and Russians see their own soldiers killing their Ukrainian brethren, I don’t think this is going to play well in the long run.

Mercedes Stephenson: What do you think led to Putin changing his approach here from the small bites to a full-scale invasion that took a lot of people by surprise?

Charles Kupchan, Former Senior Director for European Affairs, Obama Administration: Well I think that many Russians never thought he would do this. Many Ukrainians didn’t think he would do this. It’s a little bit out of character with Putin, who he’s aggressive, he’s coercive but he, up until now, seemed to be a shrewd tactician. My sense is that he has basically gone off the deep end. He has been ranting about Ukraine doesn’t deserve to be an independent state. He wants to roll back the post-Cold War order. He wants NATO to pull its military capability out of those countries that joined the alliance a long, long time ago, 15 new members of NATO. So he really seems to have this deep grievance that the West has mistreated him. He cannot tolerate the idea that Ukraine is drifting away from the mother land, and he’s decided he’s going to do something about it. It’s a huge risk. It’s a leap into the dark for Putin.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think he’s just kind of lost it? Has he gone insane?

Charles Kupchan, Former Senior Director for European Affairs, Obama Administration: You know, some people think that he’s been very cloistered, that the pandemic has not gone over well in Putin’s mind, his psychology. I can’t speak to that. We know that Putin is a tough customer. We’ve seen him deploy forces in Chechnya, abroad in Syria and Libya. So he’s go this in him. Why he’s rolling the dice like this now, is difficult for me to say. I think we actually have to take him at face value. He believes that Ukraine belongs attached to Russia and he thinks he’s going to do something about it.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think that means there’s potentially a risk of nuclear weapons, if we’re dealing with someone who may not be a rational actor?

Charles Kupchan, Former Senior Director for European Affairs, Obama Administration: Well, I’m guessing that this is a conflict that will be contained to Ukraine. But if he’s reckless enough to try to invade and occupy Ukraine, maybe he’ll test NATO somewhere else, perhaps in the Baltic region. The bigger concern that I have is what if, as I expect to happen, he succeeds in toppling the government, but NATO members continue to funnel weapons into Ukraine, probably from Poland. There are four NATO countries that border on Western Ukraine. I’m guessing we already are seeing arms come across those borders. What if Putin tries to stop the influence of arms? What if he launches an air attack against a convoy that’s moving through Poland? That would constitute an attack on NATO. Then we’re potentially looking at a war between Russia and NATO forces. That’s obviously a sobering prospect.

Mercedes Stephenson: If you were advising President Biden right now in the West, what advice would you be giving western leaders for how to deal with the situation?

Charles Kupchan, Former Senior Director for European Affairs, Obama Administration: I think they have more or less gotten it right. Biden said early one that we’re not going to go to war with Russia for Ukraine. In my mind, that’s the right call. I think the strongest suit of the United States, of Canada, of our European allies, is solidarity. One of the reasons I think Putin moved when he did, is he thought he could crack us. He looked at the United States, polarized. Canada has been dealing with this convoy and the shutdown of your capital. Britain has left the EU. There’s a new chancellor in Germany. I think he said the West is weak, I can crack it.  Our best comeback to that is to stand shoulder to shoulder on sanctions, on reinforcing NATO’s eastern frontier, on giving Ukrainians the moral, political and military support that they need. We need to show Putin that the West is prepared to stand up to him, and this has been coordinated with the G7. Some two thirds of the countries around the world are criticizing Russia. He’s really isolated.

Mercedes Stephenson: Certainly very concerning, but perhaps some hope there in that strength of the alliance. Thank you so much for joining us today, Mr. Kupchan.

Charles Kupchan, Former Senior Director for European Affairs, Obama Administration: It’s been my pleasure.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a threat for the world order. We’ll speak to Canada’s UN Ambassador Bob Rae.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations Bob Rae calls the attack on Ukraine, a grotesque war crime, saying what is happening is brutal thuggery, unprovoked evil and aggression. But beyond stern words for Russia, what exactly can the United Nations do about what is unfolding in Ukraine?

Ambassador Bob Rae joins us now from New York. Good morning, ambassador. Thank you for joining us.

Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations: Good morning, nice to see you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Ambassador Rae, I was speaking to the Ukrainian chargé d’affaires here in Ottawa a couple of days ago and he said that one of the things Ukraine would like to see is Russia removed from the Security Council at the United Nations, because it is obviously paralyzing any kind of UN action against Russia. As Canada’s ambassador at the UN, do you think that Russia should be kicked off the Security Council?

Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations: I’m not sure that’s going to be easily done, and I’m not sure it can be done quickly. But the main point is that historically what the UN has been able to do, is to get around a Russian veto by once the veto has happened, which it happened on Friday, we can then move the scene of action very quickly to the General Assembly, where the General Assembly can actually take charge and authorize action. And there’s quite a lot of precedent for this. We did some quite useful work on the Syrian crisis six years’ ago, but even long before that in the Korean crisis. It was the UNGA which stepped up in uniting for peace that made the difference. So right now, we’re all battle stations at the General Assembly, drafting a resolution and working with our allies to get a common ground that we can take into the General Assembly and then building up the level of support that we’re going to need to take the kind of action that’s required.

Mercedes Stephenson: You’ve dealt a tremendous amount in your career with human rights. You were looking at war crimes. You were tweeting about this. Can you tell us a little bit about what your concerns are, in particular, on war crimes in Ukraine right now being committed by Russia? I saw you tweeting about thermobaric weapons, concerns that those could potentially be used in the conflict. What are we seeing so far and what are the risks here?

Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations: Well even in war time, we have rules. And the key rule in war time is proportionality and avoiding any unnecessary on civilians. And what we’re clearly seeing in the Ukraine is no proportionality. We’re seeing attacks on civilians. We’re seeing attacks on people sleeping in their beds in their apartments. We’re seeing attacks on kindergartens. But overall, the overall crime is a crime of—against a nation. First of all, Mr. Putin has denied the existence of the Ukrainian nation. He’s denied the legitimacy of the people. And it’s important to remember that all—every historical record of a genocide starts with words. It starts with thoughts and words. And Mr. Putin is articulating those thoughts and words. So when it comes to building up a case, they have to be systematic in building up a case, but we need to understand just how bad what Russia is doing is. And we have to—it’s hard sometimes to find the words and it’s not about just sort of trying to be as creative in speaking adjectives as you can. But we need to understand the horror of what is being inflicted on the Ukrainian people. It has no justification whatsoever.

Mercedes Stephenson: There is concern as well that Russia’s actions could embolden China, for example, in Taiwan. And I know that’s something you’ve been carefully considering. What are your thoughts about the implications here for our whole geo-political order?

Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations: Well, I think unless we’re able to really send a very clear message to the autocrats in the world that they cannot conduct themselves in ways that directly have such a negative impact on their own people and on the impact of their neighbours. And if we’re not able to stop it in its tracks, and I think we know what will happen, it will simply be a license for others to do the same. So that what’s at stake here is not just Ukraine. Although Ukrainian democracy is very precious and I think President Zelensky has been an absolute role model of courage, of eloquence, of determination and frankly, of challenging the world in ways I think that might have made some people uncomfortable. But personally, I welcomed it because I think he’s challenging all of us to respond more effectively. China is interesting. It’s interesting. Despite the meeting between President Xi and President Putin in the Beijing Olympics and where they looked like they were sort of embracing in a brutal friendship, I think China’s actually being very careful. They abstained in the vote yesterday, which might not make a big deal for some people. It might signal that’s just a UN nicety. But actually, China deciding not to vote with Russia on this question is important. I think it does send a signal. And they’ve been sending other signals as well about what they’re prepared to do or not prepared to do. And if our banking sanctions are effective enough, and if we can be tough enough to really follow through, then Chinese banks are going to look very carefully at what they’re prepared to finance in Russia. And Russian doesn’t have all the assets in the world. So we need to understand that if we can squeeze as effectively as we can get ourselves to squeeze, knowing that some of it is going to hurt us, which it will, then I think we can have a pretty serious impact on the Russian economy. And that’s what we want to do.

Mercedes Stephenson: Ambassador Rae, thank you so much for sharing your time with us. We appreciate it.

Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations: Thank you. It’s good to talk to you, Mercedes. Take care.

Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thanks for watching. We’ll see you right back here next Sunday. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

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