A former Canadian chief of defence staff is warning Ottawa’s decision to return turbines to Russia’s Gazprom could be the start of western economic pressure easing on Moscow.
“This decision to send the turbines back … may be seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back, and we may start to see a relenting of pressure from NATO, from the West in general,” Retired Gen. Rick Hillier said, speaking to reporters Tuesday during a virtual news conference.
“Instead of going upwards and onwards with more and more sanctions, this might be the straw that causes it to turn downwards.”
Hillier, who served as the head of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) from 2005 to 2008, also said that Russia may see the federal government’s move “as a sign of encouragement” that other decisions will be made in the future that benefit them.
Ottawa has faced harsh criticism over its decision earlier this month to return six turbines to Gazprom for the Nord Stream 1 pipeline that sees Russian gas flow to Europe.
The turbines had been in Montreal for repairs since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Canada and its allies have imposed severe sanctions on Moscow in an effort to cripple Vladimir Putin’s war effort, and the return of the turbines has been complicated by those sanctions.
However, recent pressure from Germany for their return to Europe was enough for Canada to make a “very difficult” decision to return them, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on July 13.
“Canada remains one of the strongest allies and friends to Ukraine (and) we’re not alone: countries in Europe, particularly Germany, have stepped up massively in their support of Ukraine as well, and we need to hold together — particularly (when) faced with the attempts by Russia to weaponize energy policy, to divide us among ourselves,” Trudeau said.
Ottawa’s call was backed by the U.S. State Department, which said it will allow Europe to fortify its gas reserves in the short term while working out ways to shift its energy reliance away from Russia.
However, the Ukrainian government called the move a “dangerous precedent” at a time when the international community needs to show resolve against Russian threats and its invasion of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian World Congress (UWC) and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress have been urging the federal government to reconsider its decision to return the turbines. The UWC is seeking a judicial review of the decision with the Federal Court. The federal foreign affairs committee has called for two senior Liberal ministers to explain the reasoning around the delivery at an upcoming meeting.
Russian gas flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline are seen restarting on time on Thursday after the completion of scheduled maintenance, two sources familiar with the export plans told Reuters.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing European Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn, that the European Commission did not expect the pipeline to restart after the maintenance.
Reuters reported on Monday that Russia’s Gazprom had told customers in Europe it cannot guarantee gas supplies because of “extraordinary” circumstances, adding to fears that Moscow may not restart the Nord Stream 1 pipeline on Thursday.
While Hillier, who heads a new advisory council of retired military commanders formed by the UWC, fears Canada’s decision could be the first break in the united economic front, other members are less critical.
As the Ukraine war continues, the West will have to make tough calls, and the turbine return is one of them, said retired U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of coalition forces in Iraq during the Surge.
“We clearly have to be on the side of Ukraine in this particular situation. … That said, there are going to be very difficult calls. … Canada weighed all the options, the information, the pros and the cons, and ultimately made a decision I think was in the best interest for all involved,” he said during Tuesday’s news conference.
“If a major country like Germany is deprived of its energy, the cohesion, the unity that has been truly extraordinary since the invasion of Ukraine, is going to be a potential casualty as well. “
Their comments came on the heels of the formal UWC announcement, which saw Hillier, Petraeus and two other retired military leaders come together to form a strategic advisory council to support and advise the UWC’s “United with Ukraine” campaign.
“This accomplished multinational group of retired military leaders, which is expected to grow, will provide strategic advice and assistance to ensure that the right kit is sourced and provided to the defenders of Ukraine,” the organization said in a news release.
“Efforts will be focused on supplying the recently formed Territorial Defence Force with the protective gear they need to survive, such as helmets, body armour, ballistic goggles, and medical kits. Additionally, the SAC will provide guidance to assist in purchasing an ‘army’ of 200 reconnaissance drones that can report life-saving information back to Ukrainian field commanders.”
— with files from The Canadian Press and Reuters