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Domestic politics and Ukraine

Christopher Sands

Global media coverage of the crisis in Ukraine has conveyed the urgency of the situation. In the past week, expert commentators have gradually added valuable context showing how and why this country that Bloom­berg BusinessWeek reported was “as poor as Paraguay and as corrupt as Iran” matters so much to the world.

U.S. and Canadian coverage has been more complicated. Alongside the news that the rest of the world has been talking about, Americans and Canadians have had plenty of coverage of the domestic political implications of developments in Ukraine.

In the 2006 census, 1.2 million Canadians claimed to be of Ukrainian ethnic origin. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated nearly one million Americans have Ukrainian origins. Through marriage and friendship, even more in both countries feel a connection to Ukraine.

Canada has been a leader in the international community when it comes to Ukraine, particularly since the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. Canada was the first NATO member to recognize Ukraine’s independence, and has supported Ukraine’s aspiration to join the alliance. Canada was a vocal proponent of Ukraine’s successful bid to join the World Trade Organization.

Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, Canada has sent election monitors and contributed democracy assistance and training to the country’s parliamentarians, political parties and civil society groups. And Ottawa has sustained this engagement through every twist and turn in Kyiv’s recent history of political corruption and civil unrest. Ukraine is one of Canada’s top 20 “countries of concentration” internationally. Canada’s sustained commitment to Ukraine, expressed in words and action, gives Canada powerful credibility on Ukrainian issues within the international community.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration reacted cautiously to the Ukrainian crisis at first. U.S. foreign policy has treated Russia gingerly since the end of the Cold War, seeking to avoid escalating confrontations with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Iran, Georgia, Syria and elsewhere. Concern over how Russia might react predominates in Washington’s strategic calculus globally, but particularly for Ukraine, a country of historic importance to Russia.

President Obama might take note of the forthright and principled stand that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Minister John Baird have taken on Ukraine, notwithstanding Moscow’s objections. European Union leaders have done so, seeking Canadian advice in recent weeks and co-ordinating sanctions targeted against ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his government’s officials

Of course, Washington is a political place. Anything the Obama administration says or does on Ukraine is instantly analyzed and criticized by Republican and Democratic partisans. Ukraine has become part of a broader debate about U.S. foreign policy that will be echoed in attack ads and candidate talking points between now and the November congressional midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race beyond.

Ottawa is just as political. Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau’s Ukraine-related gaffe and apology made headlines. Stephen Harper’s supposed master plan to make use of Canada’s foreign policy response to Ukraine in a 2015 election campaign is the subject of widespread speculation.

Unfortunately, with Washington’s taste for gossip, the domestic politics of Canadian foreign policy on Ukraine are read in the United States with cynicism. All politics are local, and Harper must be playing to the cameras. The principles behind Canada’s positions are quickly discounted by U.S. commentators, and the depth of Canada’s engagement on Ukraine remains unknown. The chance to learn from Canada about a situation that Canadian diplomats know better than most is being missed.

Asking for media coverage to ignore the domestic determinants of a country’s foreign policy would be unrealistic. But domestic considerations do not invalidate the principles that diplomacy advances abroad.

All of us who care about the Ukrainian people and their struggles today should keep this in mind. Domestic political cynicism should stop at the water’s edge.

Canada deserves praise for its leadership on Ukraine, even if that helps Harper to some degree. President Obama should be given the benefit of the doubt as he tries to respond to the complex situation, and even praised by Republicans if he chooses to follow Canada’s lead.

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