The question, after the unthinkable invasion of Ukraine: What was Vladimir Putin thinking?
Here’s a related question: What were Canadians thinking during their own conflict of the last few weeks?
Amid the Russian mystery, any clarity here in Canada? For this is a fateful time to reflect on questions of sovereignty, democracy and “freedom.”
What do these values really mean? Or are they now meaningless — devalued by disinformation and dissembling?
Consider the front page of Thursday’s Toronto Star, which juxtaposed Canada’s recent domestic conflict versus the larger battle for the soul of Europe. Here’s how the two developing stories looked side by side:
Canada “revokes emergency measures,” declared the headline on the right-hand column, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave the all-clear.
Ukraine “declares state of emergency” announced the left side of the front page, in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion.
Two countries, two realities, two emergencies. One internal, one external.
In democratic Canada, a contorted cry for “freedom” from the fringe. In democratic Ukraine, a desperate quest for freedom in the face of a totalitarian invasion.
On the same day, on the same front page.
At the very time Ukraine was buttressing its frontier against the threat of outside invaders, Canada was securing its own undefended border from within. Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford declared his own state of emergency to liberate a bridge — and an economy — held hostage.
It is easy enough to belittle the blockade at the bridge, to understate the occupation of Ottawa, and to exaggerate the danger of emergency declarations in Canada. But that would be a misreading of what happened here, how events are unfolding elsewhere — and where freedom truthfully fits in.
The special powers proclaimed by both federal and provincial governments succeeded where regular measures failed (someone had to compel the tow trucks that went AWOL). When the disruptions were removed, the declarations were rescinded.
Despite dire warnings of damage to democracy from limiting the “freedoms” of fringe leaders who flout laws and public health measures enacted by elected leaders, both levels of government did as promised: They dialed back their special powers ahead of schedule.
Once normality was restored, they returned to democratic norms.
Those democratic norms are the cornerstone of a democracy. When they are upended — as in Donald Trump’s America in the aftermath of the last election — no clauses in the Constitution or Charter of Rights will protect us.
That reality is worth repeating as we witness the dismantling and dismemberment of Ukraine’s democracy by an army commanded by a Russian dictator. For most people, where they stand on this international crisis depends on where their national interests lie.
The fault lines of democracy and disunity run deep. Not just across our country but around the world.
Under Trump’s successor as president, Joe Biden, America leads the way with the toughest economic sanctions and biggest military aid. Canada and the rest of the West are falling into line, more or less.
But other countries, and some other democracies, are finding their own balance between diplomacy and clarity:
India, the world’s largest democracy, made its decision early on. It chose to remain in the Russian camp, mindful of its military ties to supply lines dating to the Soviet era.
Israel, which styles itself the Middle East’s sole democracy, was also walking a fine line for fear of offending the Russian dictator who also calls the shots in neighbouring Syria. Turkey, which imagines itself a bulwark in the region, kept its distance.
While one democracy after another lost its voice, China’s autocracy was quietly clearing its throat. National sovereignty and territorial integrity are the bedrock of China’s foreign policy edifice — its rulers insisting that outsiders refrain from meddling in internal matters such as the so-called “renegade province” of Taiwan, or the supposedly autonomous regions of Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang.
But after Putin dropped in on his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, breaking the diplomatic boycott over the Winter Olympics, Beijing now is looking the other way on sovereignty, and going its own way on sanctions. China is poised to profit from expanded trade with Russia, dealing a fatal blow to the West’s economic retaliation.
All that said, the unspoken reality is that sanctions were always symbolic. For all the Western unity, there is no international unanimity and thus no efficacy.
Sanctions were a deterrent, but they were discounted by a dictator who is not accountable to his people, and therefore impervious to pressure. He has already taken into account the benefits and costs of conquest, built up his financial reserves, rebuilt his military, and made his calculation in advance.
Canada, the first western country to recognize Ukrainian independence in 1991, has now joined in the sanctions and added to the condemnations. Canadians of Ukrainian descent, who make up the world’s largest diaspora outside of Eastern Europe, will be watching the death spiral of democracy in their ancestral land.
Amid the calamity, clarity emerges: Ukraine’s genuine struggle for sovereignty puts the lie to the false clamour for “freedom” from a fringe group at home.
Canada’s emergency has ended and its democracy endures. The same cannot be said for Ukraine’s emerging democracy and enduring emergency.
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