Former general Hillier says Russia may take 'encouragement' from decision to return sanctioned turbines

·5 min read
Retired General Rick Hillier, then chair of Ontario's COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task force, responds to a question during a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on December 11, 2020. On Tuesday, Hillier criticized the Canadian government's decision to send natural gas turbines back to Europe, saying Russia might see it as a sign that sanctions will weaken. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Retired General Rick Hillier, then chair of Ontario's COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task force, responds to a question during a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on December 11, 2020. On Tuesday, Hillier criticized the Canadian government's decision to send natural gas turbines back to Europe, saying Russia might see it as a sign that sanctions will weaken. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Canada's former chief of the defence staff (CDS) Rick Hillier said Tuesday that Canada should not have agreed to return six turbines to Germany needed to keep Russian natural gas flowing into Europe — a view his American colleagues Wesley Clark and David Petraeus do not share.

Hillier, a retired general who was CDS from 2005 to 2008, said Russian President Vladimir Putin may see the decision as a "sign of encouragement" and a signal that Western sanctions in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine will weaken going forward.

"This decision to send the turbines back would be seen in hindsight ... as the straw that broke the camel's back, and we may start to see a relenting of pressure from NATO, from the West in general," he said.

Russia says the turbines are needed to increase natural gas output on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to northeastern Germany. They were in Montreal for repairs but the Canadian government has announced a temporary and revocable suspension of sanctions on Russia so that they can be sent back to Europe.

Federal government ministers have defended the decision, saying it was necessary to meet Germany's energy needs. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has slammed the government over the move, warning Putin would see it as a sign of weakness.

At a news conference Tuesday in Bowen Island, B.C., Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the decision by blaming Russia.

"Russia is choosing to weaponize energy policy as a way of continuing with its assault on Ukraine, but also as a way of dividing western allies amongst ourselves, as well as undermine public support for our strong stance in favour of Ukraine and against Russia," Trudeau said.

He said the tactic won't succeed and Canada and its allies will remain united in opposing Russia.

"This decision was a difficult one, but it was the right one to ensure that we continue to all stand together against Putin's illegal war in support of Ukraine," Trudeau said.

Hillier said that after Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, NATO allies failed to sustain sanctions pressure on Russia. He said he fears something similar will happen to the sanctions arrayed against Russia now.

"I worry that the turbine might be the decision that starts that occurring now," Hillier said.

Hillier made the comments at a news conference to discuss his new role as chair of the Strategic Advisory Council to the Ukrainian World Congress.

The council also includes two high-profile former U.S. generals — Clark, a former supreme allied NATO commander in Europe, and Petraeus, who commanded American forces in Afghanistan and was briefly the director of the CIA. The council will advise the international Ukrainian advocacy organization on procurement and delivery of military kit to the Ukrainian military.

Hillier said his position on the Canadian government's turbine decision is "a slight bit more harsh" than those Clark and Petraeus expressed at the event.

NATO must preserve unity against Russia: ex-generals

Clark said the decision to return the turbines was an example of how sanctions on Russia need to be flexible.

"You have to have resilience, you have to bend but not break," Clark said. "It does require the art of diplomacy and compromise."

But Clark criticized the German government's decision to "cozy up" to Russia in the years preceding the war in Ukraine by buying Russian natural gas.

He added the debate over the turbine decision has distracted governments' attention away from what he says is a more important matter — the war on the ground in Ukraine.

Petraeus agreed with Clark. He said depriving Germany of energy would have threatened the cohesion of NATO's approach to Russia.

"I'm in broad agreement with Canada's decision. It was a very tough one," Petraeus said.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Lucas Jackson/Reuters

"I think Canada weighed all of the options, the information, the pros and the cons, and ultimately made a decision that was in the best interest, really, of all involved."

Petraeus pointed with optimism to the broader trend of NATO expansion and of countries critically examining their economic relationships with Russia.

"I'm quite heartened that the direction forward is that of continuing to make these sanctions more difficult for Russia," he said.

"But there will have to be, from time to time ... prudent exceptions to the rule, because you could lose that unity that is so critical going forward."

Council will provide advice on equipment, fundraising

The retired generals said they will not be offering the Ukrainian military operational counsel in their new roles.

"We're not going to be providing advice to commanders on the ground on a day-to-day basis around strategy and tactics," Hillier said.

Instead, the council will focus on providing the Ukrainian World Congress with advice on purchasing equipment and delivering it to Ukraine's Territorial Defence Units. The generals also plan to assist the congress with fundraising.

Hillier said the council's priority is getting protective and medical equipment, like ballistic eyewear, protective vests and first aid kits, to members of Ukraine's militia. He estimates it will cost $2,500 to equip one person and said the council's goal is to equip 100,000 people.

Hillier, who recruited the other generals to the council, said he was inspired to take on the role after he visited Ukraine last month and heard about Ukrainians going into battle with civilian cars against Russian tanks and armoured vehicles.

"I'm convinced we can do much better, and at the very minimum, we can give them that protective equipment," he said.

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