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Playing it too safe

Back in 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war, Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and U.S. President John F. Kennedy were not getting along.

Diefenbaker viewed Kennedy as arrogant, JFK saw Dief as dithering and uncommitted.

So when Canada failed to ramp its military to high alert in lockstep with the Americans, the quote was created in the White House that Canada was willing to give America “all aid short of help,” when the going got tough with the Russians.

That crisis passed and years later the Cold War ended.

But once again the world is dealing with an aggressive, expansionist Russia. Armed Russian insurgents staged-managed the annexation of Crimea and others created unrest in the eastern sections of the country, to destabilize Ukraine’s elections coming this weekend.

This time, Canada is far from alone in standing up to Russian aggression armed with news reports and sound bites.

Along with Europe and the U.S., we will bring Russian President Vladimir Putin to heel with economic sanctions. Foreign assets owned by a list of Russian businesses have been frozen and travel bans have been imposed on individuals close to Putin, to stop the inflow of money that it takes to mobilize an armed piecemeal annexing Ukraine.

Sort of.

Nobody really wants to poke the Russian bear, at least not too hard. In a world economy that is far more integrated than it was in the Cold War years, it’s difficult to freeze out an economic giant without shooting your own economy in the foot.

Especially for those parts of Europe that get their natural gas from Russia.

But Visa and MasterCard accounts issued by Bank Rossiya were blocked, for one thing. Cardholders could only access their money at bank ATMs, leading to long lineups and mass conversions of foreign accounts back into roubles.

Boston University professor Alya Guseva explained in an interview with the online publication Professor Voices that these sanctions do indeed hurt. Only someone with insight into Putin’s brain can tell if they will change his behaviour, but for now, it seems unlikely.

Before this weekend, he announced that troops massed on Ukraine’s borders will be withdrawn, in a step to reduce tensions in advance of the Ukraine elections.

But NATO announced over the weekend that no movement has yet occurred. The first casualty of any public relations war is indeed the truth.

That’s why some people are saying economic sanctions should be stepped up.

Canada, ever the willing provider of aid, has left out at least three prominent Putin associates from the sanctions list.

CBC News reports that while the United States has sanctioned Sergey Chemezov, who runs industrial and military corporation Rostec, and Igor Sechin, CEO of oil company Rosneft, the two have not been banned from travelling to Canada or had their assets frozen. CBC says both are reported to have significant business ties to Canada.

For instance, Rosneft owns 30 per cent of a major oilfield in Alberta, along with Exxon Mobil.

Rostec has close ties with Bombardier, with a joint venture lined up to build 100 short-haul aircraft in Russia, for Russian use.

Meanwhile, Vladmir Yakunen, president of Russian Railways, is persona non grata in the U.S. but is still welcome in Canada.

A few months ago, these connections were all positive things. It’s hard now to make them negative. Not without paying a price. And Canada seems to be dithering on the price.

From this perspective, it does not appear Canada enjoys the same “honest broker” global reputation it built during the Pearson and Diefenbaker era. “All aid short of help,” seems closer to the truth.

Our government seems willing to talk tough for the folks at home. But we will never stand up to a determined Russia if we cannot even stand up to the lobbyists who got their employers’ interests excluded from the sanctions list.

What price is democracy in Ukraine worth to Canadians? Is is worth risking a slowdown of oil development in Alberta? Is it worth a drop in the share price of Bombardier or other Canadian firms with international interests?

We cannot guarantee that the world will be made more safe by always playing it safe, and letting others take the risks.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email

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