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Why Putin's Attempts to Annex Crimea Would Never Fly in Canada

03/03/2014 12:18 EST | Updated 05/03/2014 05:59 EDT

Robertson Davies once quipped that while there are "some countries you love" and "some countries you hate" Canada is merely "a country you worry about." Modify that slightly, and you've got a great axiom for Canadian foreign policy: it won't love or hate you (and certainly won't do much of substance to help or hurt you) but it willworry about you.

The Canadian editorial pages have been worrying themselves something fierce lately in response to all the brutal goings-on in Ukraine -- specifically Mr. Putin's widely-perceived-to-be-imminent efforts to annex the country's disputed province of Crimea.

Crimea, as we all know by now from reading authoritatively-written articles in important magazines, is a peninsula-like territory connected to the Ukraine by a tiny land bridge, but otherwise completely surrounded by the black sea. The Soviet Union made it a bureaucratic region of Ukraine back when Ukraine was itself a bureaucratic region of the USSR, and following the USSR's collapse, its residents voted, after some hemming and hawing, to remain citizens of a newly-sovereign Ukraine. But that union has always been uneasy; about half of Crimea's population is ethnically Russian, and thus pro-Russian politically in typical eastern Ukrainian fashion; a quarter is ethnic Ukrainian, and another quarter is what we in Canada might call "aboriginal," which is to say the Crimean Tatars, whose presence predates everyone else.

Anyway, from Moscow's perspective, the Russian-Crimeans need liberating in the aftermath of the popular overthrow of Russian-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, which Kremlin propaganda characterizes as some manner of neo-Nazi coup d'etat.

"As Ukraine's crisis plays out, Moscow is risking an international one by fanning flames of division," warned the Toronto Star editorial board this weekend. "Nursing a grudge over the demise of Yanukovych's unpopular and bloodstained regime won't get Moscow far," they scold, and "occupying Crimea and destabilizing the region will only leave everyone the poorer."

Indeed, what we are seeing here is "an attempt by Mr. Putin to use 19th-century style military imperialism to try and battle 21st century Ukrainian aspirations" agrees noted U of T poli sci prof Aurel Braun in the pages of the Globe and Mail. The Russian president's "sordid military adventure in Ukraine is likely to bring nothing but grief for everyone, including the people of Russia."

Over at the National Post, meanwhile, George Jonas sees Hitler analogies, because, you know, someone has to.

The "received wisdom" of World War II, reminds George, is that it was a Bad Thing for Prime Minister Chamberlain to allow the Nazi regime to annex a German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia, since this bout of appeasement didn't stop Hitler from marching on to annex more -- it "only whetted his appetite." Is the Crimea situation any different? Power-mad tyrant, pretext of ethnic liberation -- the real question is whether this mess will prove to "repair the historic reputation of Britain's Neville Chamberlain," since it appears the west is now pretty okay with following his playbook.

The language of outrage in the Canadian press is typically Canadian in style -- hostile to dictators, sympathetic to human rights, skeptical of armed intervention, and twinged with a little lingering Cold War Russophobia. What's interesting, however is how few editorialists seem willing to make explicit links to Canadian interests.

This idea that ethnic enclaves deserve political liberation by the armies of ethnically-similar foreign nations is one that's entirely alien to the conventional multicultural Canadian understanding of how countries should work. In my own province of British Columbia, for instance, the city of Richmond could be said to be a Crimea-style ethnic enclave by some standards, housing, as it does, the largest concentrated population of ethnic Chinese in North America. Proportionately speaking, in fact, Crimea is no more Russian than Richmond is Chinese. And, who knows, maybe someday the Chinese-Richmonders will feel oppressed by their town's chronically white-dominated city council -- perhaps after they finally decide to ban Chinese-only signage or something. Would any Canadian think the People's Liberation Army would be justified amassing warships on the coast of Vancouver to forcibly install a puppet government and "liberate" their ethnic brethren? I would certainly hope not.

You can argue -- as I do -- that Canada's too immigrant-friendly and too multicultural, but the reality remains that ethnic diversity is now a basic Canadian fact of life. Upholding this nation's territorial and political integrity therefore requires a staunch commitment to the principle that national governments have a right to govern multicultural populations, and even stauncher opposition to any notion that foreign nation-states possess a right to infringe the sovereignty of others in order to protect "their" people living abroad. This is a conflict Canadian governments had to fight directly during the DeGaulle era, when French meddling in the Quebec separatist cause was at its most brazen, but it's one that's no less worth fighting today simply because the battleground is foreign, and the stakes more abstract.

Canada is a country that worries about foreigners. But it's also a country that has a right to worry about itself.

Sometimes the two are closely intertwined.

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