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Coercing Russia Has Failed – Canada Needs a New Approach to the Crisis in Ukraine

Image credit: Presidential Office of Ukraine

By Paul Robinson

As 2021 comes to an end, the prospect of war between Russia and Ukraine is again making headlines. Ukraine is pressing Canada to do more to help it. This week, the country’s defence minister Oleksii Reznikov urged NATO’s “Anglo-Saxon” members – the US, UK and Canada – to act outside the Alliance and send troops not just to Ukraine but right up to the front line of the country’s war with rebel Donbass.

Canada is not keen. After a flurry of speculation that Canada might send additional troops to Ukraine, the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Wayne Eyre, declared last week that it would not do so. According to Eyre, additional Canadian troops in Ukraine are more likely to provoke than to deter the Russians. Eyre’s statement is a sign of sensible caution in Ottawa. Still, his words suggest that the Canadian government does not understand the dynamics of the war in Donbass and remains ill-placed to pursue a sensible policy.

Talk of deterring or provoking the Russians suggests that the root cause of the war – which has wracked Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk provinces for the past seven years – is to be found in Russia. But while Russia certainly deserves a large amount of blame, the war is not just a matter of “Russian aggression.” It also has domestic causes for which the authorities in Kyiv are in large part responsible.

The threat of a full-scale Russian invasion is overblown. Not only would it be immensely costly, but it would permanently shatter Russia’s relationship with the West. Moreover, the Kremlin has made no apparent effort to prepare Russian public opinion for it. Such an invasion is therefore extremely unlikely. 

That said, there is one scenario in which it is not merely possible but likely. This would be if the Ukrainian government decided to solve the problem in Donbass by means of an all-out military assault on the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR), in effect attempting to repeat Azerbaijan’s recent success in recapturing lost territory from Armenia.

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he would not tolerate this, with Moscow hinting that an attempt to reconquer Donbass by force would result in the end of Ukrainian statehood. There can be little doubt that should Kyiv act in such a way, the Russian army would counter-attack with overwhelming force. The results would be catastrophic for Ukraine.

If Canada is truly interested in preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, it must bear this scenario in mind. It needs to be thinking less about deterring Moscow and more about restraining Kyiv. Sending additional troops to Ukraine would be entirely the wrong thing to do. So, too, would be the provision of new weapons, public statements of unconditional support, and the like. The danger is a repetition of what happened in Georgia in 2008, when Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili misread signals from the Americans and launched an ill-fated attack on South Ossetia that provoked a violent Russian response. It is important that Kyiv be under no illusions that the West will support it, let alone defend it, if it acts in a similar way.

This only reduces the immediate chances of a major war. It does not resolve the underlying problem, namely the rebellion in Donbass. The potential for large-scale conflict will remain as long as the war there continues. Ending it should therefore be a priority.

A solution exists in the form of the 2015 “Minsk 2” Agreement, which demands that Kyiv grant Donbass “special status” (i.e., political autonomy) and amnesty for those involved in the rebellion. It is almost inconceivable that any political settlement of the Donbass conflict could offer anything less. The DPR and LPR are not going to lay down their arms without getting something substantial in return. Nor will Moscow push them to do so. Autonomy and amnesty are the minimum concessions that Kyiv must make if it wishes to regain its lost provinces.

Unfortunately, Kyiv refuses to accept this and has failed to enact the promises it made at Minsk. Its refusal has had the full support of Western states such as Canada, who have made no obvious effort to induce Ukraine to fulfil its obligations. The diplomatic, economic and military support lent to Ukraine has deprived Kyiv of any incentive to do so. Indeed, the situation that has endured since early 2015, in which the war in Donbass continues but at a very low level, suits Kyiv just fine: it keeps Ukraine high on the international agenda, and so secures Western support, but does so at low cost.

In short, Western policy has encouraged Ukraine to act in a way that prevents a peaceful settlement of the war in Donbass. The current war scare involving Russia should focus minds in Canada and elsewhere on the dangers of this approach, and should be used as an opportunity to reconsider policy.

Support for Ukraine should be linked to Kyiv’s fulfilment of its obligations under the Minsk agreement. Only that way will Ukraine’s incentives change in a manner conducive to peace. Domestic political considerations mean that it will be difficult for Kyiv to grant Donbass autonomy, but at a very minimum Canada and its allies should be insisting on a complete ceasefire between the Ukrainian and rebel armies, as required in the Minsk accord. Ideally this would be enforced by international peacekeepers.

Such a plan would have the effect of freezing the conflict in Donbass, de facto leading to the independence of the DPR and LPR. As such, it would meet resistance in Ukraine. But a ceasefire enforced by international peacekeepers would remove the possibility of the war escalating in a way that might induce a full-scale Russian invasion. Indeed, it would eliminate any excuse Russia might have to invade Ukraine. As such, it is the best guarantee of peace in the region, and as such ultimately in Ukraine’s interests as much as anybody else’s. 

Putting such a plan into action requires a change in the West’s mode of thought. For the past seven years, it has been assumed that the path to peace lies through coercing Russia. This has failed, and will continue to fail, for the very basic reason that the solutions to Ukraine’s problems lie in Kyiv and not Moscow. It is time for Canada at last to understand this.

Paul Robinson is Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at IPD.


Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor