THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 10, Season 12
Sunday, November 20, 2022
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister
Lloyd Austin, U.S. Secretary of Defense
Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee
Location: Halifax, NS
Mercedes Stephenson: A desperate plea from Ukraine to powerful military and political leaders who are gathered in Halifax.
I’m Mercedes Stephenson, here at the Halifax International Security Forum, where some of the world’s most important decision makers are getting together, talking about war, peace, democracies and our future. And one item more than any other, has dominated the agenda in discussions, and that is Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Ukraine says Russian missiles targeting its energy supply are leaving millions of people without power and heat, as winter approaches. A feature interview with Ukraine’s deputy prime minister about what the country needs right now from Western allies, including Canada.
And last week’s missile strike in Poland was a stark reminder to NATO about just how quickly it could be drawn into Russia’s war. I’ll ask NATO’s top military officer about what’s at stake and what’s next for Ukraine.
Ukrainians are preparing for a potentially brutal winter ahead, as Russia continues to weaponize things like food, heat and power. I sat down with Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna, to ask her what Ukraine needs from Western allies now to make it through this winter and this war, and how to stop Putin.
Here’s that conversation:
Mercedes Stephenson: Deputy Prime Minister Stefanishyna, thank you so much for joining us today, and welcome to Canada.
Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: Thank you so much and thank you for having me here today.
Mercedes Stephenson: Can you describe for us what the situation is like right now for the people of Ukraine?
Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: Well, we got used to live in darkness, both being affected severely by multiple crimes committed against people, but also the first thing I noticed when I landed to Montreal is that there’s so much light around you. This is not what we have. But I think that what is more important is the spirit. This is the spirit which cannot be undermined by any measures of demoralization Russia tries to put on Ukraine, whether it’s destroying critical infrastructure, attacking residential buildings, massive torturing of population in the occupied areas, or any failure on the battlefield, which forces them to use the hybrid warfare as a major method of their aggression. So I think that the major spirit in Ukraine is that there is no way to surrender. There’s only a way to victory and this leads to a permanent failure of Russian federation, although, of course, the suffering and the losses among population are really, really serious.
Mercedes Stephenson: And you talked about that lack of light. It’s powerful because we take here for granted. You’re right, the street lights are on. Our power grids are going. Ukraine, like Canada, is a cold country in the winter, and the Russians are attacking your power, your energy. That is such a danger for the civilian population. How do you deal with that?
Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: Well, I think that the most important thing that we have not been dealing with that only by ourselves. After the first massive shelling, counting around 90 rockets like four weeks ago and the shelling are taking place on a weekly basis with the same massive missile attacks for all the area of Ukraine. We have not been standing alone. As president, already said publicly, it’s around 40 per cent of the elements of the critical infrastructure throughout the Ukraine, mostly the central part of Ukraine which is not affected by military warfare, has been damaged and it’s really important that we are restoring back the infrastructure in a very fast and a prioritized way. Basically all our technicians are also the heroes, apart from the fact that they are not with a gun on a battlefield, but it would not be possible without a strong mobilization from our partners across European Union and a wider group of allies. But it’s also a very important sign that Russians have also failed to attack Ukrainian elements of the critical infrastructure through hybrid or cyber-attacks. This has left no room for them but to try to physically destroy what we have.
Mercedes Stephenson: What does Ukraine need right now from the West and from countries like Canada? What can we do?
Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: In terms of supporting the restoration of the electricity grids, of course we have shared the least of our needs and we encourage the companies operating in the electricity market to mobilize their efforts, to provide us with everything which is needed. This is a very precise list of technical needs. Of course, we all need generators and the more generators that we have, the better. It could ensure the security and stability of the networks. It can ensure the stability of the light in the residential buildings, but it also can ensure the stability of functioning of the state itself, because connection and electricity and energy are the basis of functioning of the country itself. So making sure that we have enough generators and we have enough technical elements which we need to make sure that we can address and be resilient over this attack is important. But, it’s not as important as the ability to close the sky and to save our people, to save our lives and to save our infrastructure. We need more anti-air defence systems, which would enable us to restore the damaged infrastructure, to regain the sustainable reconstruction throughout the war and to make sure that we save the lives of our people.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do you feel that NATO countries are willing to give that to you? Are they listening?
Mercedes Stephenson: Is that frustrating when you know what you need and you know your allies have the ability to give that to you and you’re watching people who you know and care about die around you, but they’re worried. They’re worried about potentially escalating with Russia. They’re worried about NATO being pulled into that. I’m wondering what that’s like for you as you try to balance competing priorities but stand up for your people?
Mercedes Stephenson: Are you worried about the potential for a nuclear strike?
Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: Of course we are and we’re extremely worried of the fact that this nuclear threat could be materialized through a massive provocation on the Ukrainian nuclear objects like the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, like Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Russians would never act bluntly by simply shelling the nuclear bomb to Kyiv. They would do the hybrid methods and for us it’s really important that first, international partners and leaders would have the equal reaction to any nuclear blackmail or nuclear threat which will be posed by Russia, even if it’s done through using Ukrainian nuclear objects like the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. But from the other hand, we understand that this nuclear threat will be hanging over all of us. Regardless of the fact whether we react strongly or not strongly, there will be such a threat. As long as Putin is in power, as long as the war is there, as long as Russia has any hunger for any aggression, whether in Ukraine or Poland or any other country around the world, this threat will be there. The thing is what we are doing. If we are acting in a way that we do not want to irritate Russia, this nuclear threat will always be there and this hunger for being unpunished will always be there. So we anyway, call upon action to stop Russia, to end the war and we should do it fast. We should do it in a coordinated way and I think that it is us, Ukraine and partners, who should make the decision when the war is over, not the Russians.
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Mercedes Stephenson: And how do you make that decision?
Mercedes Stephenson: Deputy prime minister, thank you so much for joining us today.
Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: Thank you. Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, I sit down with Admiral Rob Bauer. He is NATO’s top military officer to talk about Russia and the future of the alliance.
Mercedes Stephenson: The perilous situation created by Russia in Ukraine has been the talk of the forum, and it’s top of mind for those who have to make life and death military decisions. Among those people, U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, who was here at the forum and addressed those who were present. Not just countries that surround Ukraine he says who face a risk, but also NATO and allies, including those of us here at home in Canada.
Lloyd Austin, U.S. Secretary of Defence: “The outcome of the war in Ukraine will help determine the course of global security in this young century. And those of us in North America don’t have the option of sitting this one out.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Austin said Russia’s aggression is a clear and historic challenge, and he again vowed to defend every inch of NATO territory.
Admiral Rob Bauer serves as NATO’s most senior military officer. I sat down with him here in Halifax to talk about NATO’s response to Russia’s war on Ukraine and what’s at stake.
Mercedes Stephenson: Admiral Rob Bauer, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate your time.
Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee: Well, great to be here, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: It is quite a time to be in your position at NATO. People thought the Cold War was over. Some still say it is, but the world and the way that the alliance works has changed tremendously. What do you believe the biggest threat to NATO is right now? Is it Russia?
Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee: Yes. It is Russia and the terror group still because that was the sort of threat that we thought would go away with operations far away from home, but that’s not true. It is still there. So we have two threats defined for NATO. And that’s what we are working on, all these plans to make sure that we deter and deter those threats in principle, and if it’s necessary to defend against them.
Mercedes Stephenson: How concerned are you that Russia is willing to cross the line into a NATO country?
Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee: We have not seen any evidence of the Russians intending to do that, but it is important to be prepared for it. That’s what we’re doing and so the message Russia is that we’re not part of the war in Ukraine as NATO and at the same time, we are ready to defend ourselves. And that readiness has gone up. Our ability to do that has gone up. We have placed eight battle groups along the Eastern flank after the start of the war as a result of the changed posture of Russia, because it’s not only Russia in Ukraine, but it’s also Russia in Belarus and it is about a more aggressive intent from President Putin. So we need to be ready to defend ourselves more than a couple of years ago.
Mercedes Stephenson: What does your intelligence say about Putin’s calculus on that? Is he worried about confronting NATO? Is that something that he thinks there’s a low chance of? When the Russians are doing their calculations for targeting, we all know they don’t have great accuracy so accidents can happen. But in terms of deliberate provocations or testing of limits or testing of responses, what are you seeing about how Vladimir Putin is thinking this through?
Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee: We don’t see that there is intent in terms of trying to test NATO other than what he has done in terms of our unity and our ability to remain united in response to what he did on the 24th of February. I don’t think President Putin expected a united NATO the way we were and still are. I don’t think he expected a united European Union the way that it was and still is. So he didn’t expect a united United States and Europe the way it is. So in many ways, he made the wrong calculations and I think he thought that if he was able to basically kick our President Zelenskyy and take over Ukraine in a matter of less than two weeks, then he would get away with it. And he hasn’t.
Mercedes Stephenson: With the incident in Poland, take us inside those discussions. How close were you to Article 5?
Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee: I would say what was extremely important after it happened is the calm and measured and professional response from the Polish authorities and they were basically saying, you know, we have to investigate this. It is a serious thing. There’s two people killed. There’s an explosion and so we have to find out what happened. But before we make any assessment or any conclusion, we will have to find out what happened. And basically, of course it happened in the dark. It was raining, so it took a while. But then in the early hours of the next morning, it became clear that it was the result of a Ukrainian missile that actually was defending, was used in defence of its own—of Ukraine as a result of the huge missile attacks by the Russians that day. And so the announcement or the press conference from secretary general after the North Atlantic Council convened the next morning, at 10 o’clock Brussels time, and I think his press conference was like quarter past twelve, the statement was this is the result—this is not a deliberate attack from Russia. This is the result of a defensive action from Ukraine and Russia still is to be blamed for this because if they didn’t start the war on 24 February, this would have never happened. So I think Poland has to be commended for the way they responded. There was no panic. It was very, very professional and I think as an alliance as a whole, we never panicked and we were measured, professional and calm.
Mercedes Stephenson: So it sounds to me like you’re saying the red line there perhaps is not a strike, it’s being sure that it’s a deliberate strike. How hard is that, though, when you’re talking about the fog of war, as you just illustrated it and how things are happening in real time? There’s pressure to respond. People are frightened. How do you handle that?
Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee: It’s exactly as you said. It’s the fog of war. So what you need to do when you’re driving around in a fog is to reduce speed a little bit, to make sure that you’re not hitting anything unintentionally. And I think that is what the alliance has done to not jump to conclusions, but to actually look at it, to investigate it, to find out the facts and then based on those facts, to take a decision. And that will happen in any situation. So if the outcome would have been a deliberate attack, the outcome of the discussions might have been different. So I think it is very important to know the facts, then to have the discussion and then the decision. And that’s exactly what happened. So even with a deliberate attack, there will be an investigation. There will be a discussion and then there will be mostly likely, if it’s a deliberate attack, a different outcome. So I think as a result of the fog of war, as a result of the fact that in many cases you will have to take a little bit of time, unless there is a massive attack like the invasion in Ukraine from there directions, then it’s not like is this a deliberate attack? This is then—then that is immediately clear. But if it is something like this, then we will take some time, not a lot, but some time to find out what it was and then take a decision.
Mercedes Stephenson: NATO officially is not involved in this conflict, but NATO countries are contributing significant amounts of arms and other military supplies, including Canada. What is at stake for the Ukrainians in being able to maintain access to those sorts of abilities? And what happens if Ukraine loses this war?
Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee: If Ukraine—to start with the most important one—if Ukraine loses this war, it’s not the end of hostilities. It’s not the end of instability. It is the start of more instability. If Ukraine loses this war, we will see based on the Russians intentions, which is to restore the Russian empire, to go back to the Soviet Union type of—size of the Soviet Union. If that is the case, then the next nation might be Moldova. The next nation might be Georgia. But that’s not the end of hostilities, but it is the start of the next hostility somewhere else. So it is therefore very important that Ukraine does not lose this war with Russia. It is important that if people think that if we would stop supporting Ukraine now because it is becoming too expensive for us, then actually that is not true, because the Russians will still use in other times and in other conflicts maybe food, energy, migration as a weapon. So that is not connected only to the war in Ukraine. It is connected to their intent to use everything they have to destabilize Europe and to break our unity. And I think they have not been successful. I don’t only think it; I know they have not been successful. I see unwavering support. There is not the start of a crack in that unity. So I’m impressed by what has happened so far, but it is extremely important that we continue.
Mercedes Stephenson: Thank you so much for joining us today, Admiral Bauer.
Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee: Well, it’s a great honour and a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: As the Halifax International Security Forum wraps up; we cast our eyes back to Ottawa.
Up next, we’ll talk about what’s expected to happen in a very big week for the Emergencies Act Inquiry.
Mercedes Stephenson: As the Halifax International Security Forum wraps up, discussions here about defence and security will change the discussions in Ottawa about national security.
Looking at the invocation of the Emergencies Act, we’re expecting to hear from eight cabinet ministers and the prime minister himself, as they argue that they were justified in using the Act. We’ll take a look at that and all their testimony next week, here on The West Block.
For now, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Have a great week and we’ll see you right back here next Sunday.