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The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, like the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Georgia and Moldova before it, is the latest phase in the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century: between countries governed by the rule of law, in favour of building and maintaining a rules-based international system, and lawless states that seek to revert to an anarchic world order “where the strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must”. As a stable country blessed by geography, this contest bestows the burden of leadership upon Canada while providing it with the opportunity to become a global soft power.

Canada must first break free from the shadow cast by its allies. Yes, it is imperative that Canada continue strengthening NATO’s eastern flank because this is an instance where our strategic objectives intertwine with that of our partners.  Notably, defending our sovereignty and safeguarding our common values. Nevertheless, there are also instances where interests and objectives diverge between partners.  For instance, when Canada chose to maintain diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba despite U.S. disapproval.

When it comes to Russia, Canada has followed in the footsteps of the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States for far too long. For a rich and multicultural country of 38 million people, pursuing a policy of “follow the leader” is strategically ambiguous and shortsighted. Although strategic ambiguity provides Canada with the flexibility to pivot as soon as its partners request, it also renders the government incapable of responding to international crises because our short and long-term objectives are not clear – let alone our own. This shortsightedness and lack of strategic clarity undermines Canadian credibility and prevents Canada from becoming a global soft power.

To illustrate one example of Canada’s shortsightedness and strategic incoherence, consider the House of Commons’ decision to condemn Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine as the genocide of the Ukrainian people. This was, undoubtedly, the correct assessment of Russia’s conduct in Ukraine. However, given Canada’s strategic ambiguity and lack of clear objectives, the Canadian government did not follow through with the next logical course of action: severing diplomatic relations with Russia. Maintaining a relationship with a regime that commits genocide sets a disturbing legal and political precedent for the Canadian government. It weakens Canadian credibility by tarnishing Canada’s reputation as a champion of the rules-based international order and a proponent of human rights while laying the foundation for “never again” to become “again” and “again” and “again.”

Canada’s strategic ambiguity has further implications for Canadian credibility, both domestically and internationally. In June, Canadian diplomats were reprimanded by their superiors and chastised by Canadian media for attending an event at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa. In July, the Ukrainian World Congress announced it was suing Canada for carving out a sanctions exemption to return a repaired turbine so Russia can continue exporting gas to Germany. The list goes on and on, but one thing is certain: Canada’s strategic ambiguity has weakened Canadian credibility while emboldening Russia to extract further concessions from the West.

If safeguarding Canada’s credibility wasn’t important enough, the case for severing diplomatic relations is strengthened by examining Canada’s economic relationship with Russia. Economically, Canada’s bilateral trade with Russia is valued at $1.1 billion USD – equivalent to less than 0.2% of our total GDP. If $1.1 billion USD is the value that the Canadian government places on the genocide of the Ukrainian people, cities like Mariupol and Volnovakha being reduced to rubble, and the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War 2, then shame on Canada.

Our allies have a different set of interests and objectives at stake. On the one hand, Germany is energy dependent on Russia and their bilateral trade is valued at more than $40 billion USD. Thus, decoupling the Berlin-Moscow relationship is complicated. On the other hand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, like Russia, are nuclear powers. Besides needing their intelligence agencies to continue operating out of their respective embassies and consulates to gather intelligence, they must also collaborate on multilateral issues such as nuclear disarmament and reviving the JCPOA. Unfortunately, Canada does not have a seat at any of those tables. And contrary to Canada, our partners have not passed a motion qualifying Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine as genocide.

Canada has determined that Iran and North Korea do not meet the ethical threshold required to maintain diplomatic relations with them. For all their brutality, the repressive regimes in North Korea and Iran pale in comparison to the carnage unleashed by Russia in Ukraine. What’s more, neither North Korea nor Iran is committing genocide. Why, then, does Canada continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Russia? How far must Russia go for Canada to re-evaluate the behavior that it will tolerate from other states before severing diplomatic relations? If Canada takes itself seriously, then Russia, like Iran and North Korea, does not meet the ethical threshold required for Canada to have a relationship with it.

To become a global soft power, Canada must break free from the shadow cast by its allies, abandon its policy of strategic ambiguity, clarify its short and long-term objectives, and re-evaluate the behavior that it will tolerate from other states before severing diplomatic relations. As relates to Ukraine, there are two concrete ways in which Canada can lead from the front. First, by sanctioning the 6000 people who constitute the backbone of the Putin Regime. Second, by expelling the Russian Ambassador to Canada, Russian intelligence operatives, and the rest of their diplomatic corps from Canada. Resumption of diplomatic relations must be contingent on Russian withdrawal to the February 24 status quo. Until then, we have nothing to discuss with them. The stakes are high, and other revisionist powers are watching.

Originally published by National Newswatch on August 17, 2022 and The Hill Times on August 22, 2022.

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