Canada’s decision to import and repair Russian government-owned turbines for up to two years in circumvention of sanctions against Moscow could undermine the West’s resolve to keep pressure on the Kremlin, retired general Rick Hillier said Tuesday.
Mr. Hillier, who once presided over Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan, says he fears Ottawa’s decision to allow a Montreal company to import and repair up to six turbines for a key natural-gas pipeline in Europe may be “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” and usher in a “relenting of pressure from NATO, from the West, in general.”
The former chief of the defence staff was speaking alongside retired U.S. generals Wesley Clark and David Petraeus on a webinar Tuesday organized by the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC), a group that advocates for Ukraine’s global diaspora. The men are part of a new strategic advisory council for the UWC that also includes Dick Lodewijk Berlijn, a retired Dutch general.
Mr. Hillier said Western countries quickly lost focus after Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. “In very short order, the pressure from the West started to relent and Russia was not paying the severe price it had prior. And in this case, I worry in hindsight the turbine decision might be the trigger that causes that to start occurring now.”
Canada’s July 9 decision was backed by the U.S. State Department, which called it the right move because it would allow Europe to fortify its natural gas reserves in the short term.
Mr. Clark and Mr. Petraeus supported Canada’s call during the webinar.
“I think Canada weighed all of the options, the information, the pros and the cons, and ultimately made a decision that I think was in the best interests of all involved,” Mr. Petraeus said.
Russian state-controlled natural-gas producer Gazprom last month cited the delayed return of natural-gas turbine equipment, which Siemens Energy had been servicing in Canada, as the reason it decided to reduce the flow of natural gas through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
The pipeline, which ships gas to Germany from Russia, was cut to 40-per-cent capacity. It has since been shut down for annual maintenance.
And Gazprom last week warned European customers it cannot guarantee future gas supplies, even after Canada released one gas turbine used to ship Russian gas to Germany. The firm told European customers in a July 14 letter it cannot guarantee gas supplies because of “extraordinary” circumstances. The letter said Gazprom was retroactively declaring force majeure on supplies dating from June 14. Also known as an ‘act of God’ clause, force majeure stipulations are standard in business contracts and spells out extreme circumstances that excuse a party from their legal obligations.
Critics of Canada’s decision to release the Russian-owned turbine say Gazprom’s warning demonstrates how futile it was for Ottawa to bend sanction rules in the hopes that Moscow would supply more gas in good faith.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday stood by his decision to create a sanctions loophole so Nord Stream 1 turbines can continue to be repaired in Montreal for two years. He has previously justified the circumvention of sanctions by saying he didn’t want Canada’s sanctions policy to block the delivery of gas to Europeans.
When asked how breaking Canada’s sanctions was justified given Gazprom has warned customers it cannot guarantee future gas supplies, Mr. Trudeau accused the Kremlin of trying to drive a wedge between allies.
“Russia is choosing to use energy as a tool to divide the West, to undermine public support for Ukraine and to continue to advance its military goals in its illegal invasion of Ukraine,” the Prime Minister said during a visit to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.
A parliamentary committee is preparing to hold hearings on Mr. Trudeau’s decision after MPs last week voted to call on Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to explain Canada’s conduct.
Mr. Hillier said he fears the West’s attention is drifting from Ukraine after more than four months of war.
“We’re in the middle of summer. Inflation is rearing its ugly head in the West. People are coming out of the pandemic wanting to travel. The focus is anything but Ukraine.”
The retired general has previously urged Canada to double its promised military aid to Ukraine to $1-billion and send hundreds of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to help Kyiv push back Russian forces. “I understand the army wouldn’t want to lose 200 LAV IIIs but, hey, we’re not sending the army anywhere in the short term,” he told The Globe and Mail in April.
Canada has so far only pledged dozens of armoured vehicles for Ukraine.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is pushing for further isolation of Moscow, recently repeating her call for Russia to be expelled from the Group of 20 major economies.
Separately, a draft document obtained by Reuters showed the European Union is preparing to amend its sanctions on Moscow Wednesday by allowing the unfreezing of some funds of top Russian banks that may be required to ease bottlenecks in the global trade of food and fertilizers.
The move comes amid criticism from African leaders about the negative effect of the sanctions on trade, which may have exacerbated shortages chiefly caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its blockading of ports in the Black Sea.
With files from Reuters and The Canadian Press