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HomeBlogUkraine’s Forever War: Assessing the Domestic and International Barriers to Lasting Peace

Ukraine’s Forever War: Assessing the Domestic and International Barriers to Lasting Peace

Image credit: The White House

By David Carment and Dani Belo

Against the backdrop of Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy half a world away, eastern Ukraine was witness to a level of sabre-rattling the country had not seen since the spring of this year. In many ways, recent tensions on the border are familiar to observers of the conflict in Ukraine. But this time, the causes of escalation are more complex.

As an ally of Ukraine, Canada has been supporting Kyiv diplomatically as well as through the supply of war materiel and training. However, such support by Ottawa and other NATO members has contributed to more impulsive and misguided decision-making in Kyiv, making the conflict even more intractable. Instead, Canada and its international allies must focus on de-escalating military tensions with Russia and encourage the leadership in Kyiv to pursue a diplomatic route of conflict resolution. To this end, Kyiv and the NATO alliance must first become attuned to Russia’s long-term regional security concerns and demands for security guarantees. 

Designed for audiences both domestic and beyond the region, Ukraine has devised a strategy intended to direct attention towards Russian intransigence and away from Kyiv’s chronic ineffectiveness. Such attention ensures that the US remains concentrated on punishing Russia, in addition to mobilizing allies and supporting Ukraine’s weak leadership. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is facing increasing political backlash from local media and the public on a number of fronts. Whether it is to help Zelensky remain in power, or a way for Washington to contain Moscow and rally its allies, the narrative of Russian aggression has remained dominant over the course of this eight-year war.

A fair question to ask is whether recent tensions are different from those in the past. The answer to that question is yes and no. After all, this is not the first time that Kyiv has focused on the Russian threat prior to a major summit. On the one hand, a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine is not on the books. The original story of a Russian Forces buildup on the border with Ukraine was both inaccurate and misleading. Claims were made that some 90,000 Russian troops remained on the border with Ukraine following the scheduled Zapad-2021 exercises. In reality, troops were never adjacent to Ukraine. The closest exercise training ground for Zapad was some 300km from the Russia-Ukraine border. Moreover, the major exercise locations in Russia such as Dorogobuzh, Volsky, and Mulino are 400km, 900km, and 850km from the border, respectively. Even without reliable anonymous information, however, news stories intimated a renewed fear of Russian aggression and strengthened a subsequent improbable narrative of a Russian invasion of Ukraine by January 2022

On the other hand, like his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, Zelensky’s presidency has been tarnished by operational failures and scandals. These scandals are turning public opinion against the president. A president who won the 2019 election with some 73 percent of the vote has now lost the confidence of the public, with the latest polls indicating a 28 percent approval rating. That is better than where Poroshenko was just before he lost the election in 2019 but it is a significant drop nevertheless.

A major reputational disaster for the Zelensky administration was the failure to capture Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, who fought on behalf of the separatists in Donbas. Public revelations regarding the operation and the eventual repatriation of the fighters to Russia proved to be an embarrassment. At first, Zelensky and others in his cabinet denied the operation. Once it was revealed, the president became accountable and the public demanded answers which he could not provide. The advantage for Zelensky, however, is that his wish to maintain power aligns with Washington’s strategic interests to support him as a leader. 

Even though the US does not have treaty obligations with Ukraine, the country is still important for strategic reasons. Ukraine is the wedge that keeps Russia and Europe from closer economic integration and cooperation. A Europe on good terms with Russia portends a future which the US or at least its defence establishment cannot accept. Nor, however, can the US risk having a weakened Ukraine as an ally. That is why, despite all the sabre-rattling, for the foreseeable future the Biden administration will be scrutinising all aspects of its engagement in the conflict.

For example, the White House has ordered a major review of all American missions in the region with a heavy focus on those involving actions toward Russia. According to the Biden administration, there have been 3,000 close contact incidents between American and Russian forces over the past 8 years. These flashpoints need to be managed as they undermine the deterrence that has been in place for decades by creating room for military accidents, miscalculations and errors.  

Some of these incidents are quite worrying and include sending US strategic bombers carrying nuclear weapons within 12 miles of the Russian border. On November 23rd, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu pointed to two incidents of American planes, which rehearsed the delivery of nuclear weapons on targets in Russia. According to Shoigu, many such dangerous maneuvers have occurred in the Black Sea as NATO patrols increase. 

It is clear to both sides that close calls like these cannot continue in the absence of concerted diplomatic efforts. This became clear when US Secretary of State Blinken met with Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov on December 3rd to make diplomatic contacts in anticipation of another meeting between Biden and Putin. The key indicator that such a meeting would take place is the foreign ministers’ focus on the bilateral commitment to the Strategic Stability Dialogue, developed by the two leaders at the June 2021 Geneva Summit. Moreover, in a December 17th proposed agreement drafted by Russia, the Kremlin has made clear that the resumption of Russia-NATO dialogue is a core component of lasting regional peace.

Yet despite diplomatic efforts, a troubling wrinkle remains: the appeal from Zelensky’s Defence Minister to Canada, the US, and the UK to send troops in direct support of Kyiv’s war fighting in Donbas. This direct appeal amounts to an effort to circumvent NATO decision-making. However, following the virtual conference between Biden and Putin on December 7th, there was a clear indication that the US will not send troops to defend Ukraine. Nor will Canada for the foreseeable future. For now, the US will continue its shipment of heavy weapons though even that is not without controversy. The decision to arm Ukraine thus far created more insecurity than a lasting peace, as the move only emboldened Kyiv to take back the Donbas by force, rather than pursue dialogue with the separatists. 

Ultimately what matters for Canada is that NATO, an alliance in which Canada has invested considerable blood and treasure, is at risk of becoming increasingly fragmented over the question of how to support Ukraine. The current conundrum regarding Russia and Ukraine is a real test of resolve for Ottawa policymakers. Long before the long-term question of Ukraine’s accession to NATO can even be contemplated, Canada risks getting caught up in a rapid escalation of the conflict that need not happen. To address the recent rise in tensions, Canada’s efforts are best spent on diplomacy and direct talks with Russian leaders, trying to improve the quality of leadership in Ukraine and contributing to a de-escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

David Carment: IPD Senior Fellow, Editor of “Canadian Foreign Policy Journal” and Professor of International Affairs, Carleton University

Dani Belo: Assistant Professor of International Relations, Webster University

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