WASHINGTON — Canada’s decision to allow newly repaired turbines vital to a key natural gas pipeline in Europe to be sent back to Germany risks undermining a united global effort to punish Russia for its war in Ukraine, retired general Rick Hillier said Tuesday.
Hillier, the outspoken former chief of the defence staff, said he fears the controversial decision could be “the straw that broke the camel’s back” when it comes to weakening the West’s united economic front against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Russia is going to see this as a sign of encouragement, that there will be decisions made that will benefit them as we go along the route,” Hillier told an online panel hosted by the Ukrainian World Congress.
Hillier is heading up a new advisory council for the congress comprising three of his former “battle buddies”: retired U.S. generals Wesley Clark and David Petraeus, as well as Dick Lodewijk Berlijn, former chief of defence for the Netherlands.
The federal government in Ottawa agreed earlier this month to grant a temporary exemption to its sanctions in order to send back the turbines, which are critical to the operation of the Russian state-owned Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
That conduit is a vital source of natural gas for Germany, which is how Canada justified the decision in the face of a concerted an ongoing effort in the western world, led by the U.S., to boycott Russian energy.
Hillier said he fears the war in Ukraine is gradually fading from view amid other public priorities, including record levels of inflation and summer vacation plans after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In hindsight, it may be seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back, and we may start to see a relenting of pressure from NATO and from the West in general,” he said.
He cited the example of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, a show of force that was initially greeted by a similar outcry, as well as a campaign of economic punishment that eventually faded away.
“In this case, I’m worried in hindsight that the turbine decision might be the trigger that causes that to start occurring now,” Hillier said.
“Instead of going upwards and onwards with more and more sanctions, that this might be the straw that causes it to turn downwards.”
Canada’s July 9 decision was backed in convincing fashion 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.
That may be why both Clark and Petraeus, while doing their best to navigate a diplomatically fine line, supported Canada’s call.
“I think Canada weighed all of the 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,” Petraeus said.
“If a major country like Germany is deprived of its energy, the cohesion … (and) the unity that has been truly extraordinary since the invasion of Ukraine is going to be a potential casualty, as well.”
Clark, too, suggested that the greater danger would have been do to something that could have threatened the unity within NATO in particular and Europe in general — something Putin hadn’t counted on when he launched the invasion in February.
“The key to this is to understand that you have to have resilience, you have to bend but not break, you have to endure the bumps in the road and still keep the pressure on Russia for the long term,” he said.
“It does require the art of diplomacy and compromise.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has defended the decision on the basis that Germany, an important NATO ally, relies on the natural gas the pipeline provides.
Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy has denounced the move as “absolutely unacceptable.”
Germany’s biggest importer of Russian gas has been notified by Russia’s Gazprom claiming “force majeure” — events beyond its control — as the reason for past and current shortfalls in gas deliveries, a claim that the importer rejected.
Gazprom reduced gas deliveries through Nord Stream 1 to Germany by 60 per cent last month, citing alleged technical problems involving the turbines Siemens Energy sent to Canada for overhaul.
German politicians have dismissed the decision as a political gambit by the Kremlin to sow uncertainty and further push up energy prices, insisting that the turbine in question wasn’t earmarked for use until September anyway.
Nord Stream 1 shut down altogether for annual maintenance on July 11. German officials are concerned that Russia may not resume gas deliveries at all after the scheduled end of that work Thursday, using technical reasons as a pretext.
Trudeau stood by his government’s decision Tuesday, even as he avoided directly answering questions about what good it may have done considering that risk.
“Russia will not succeed in either weaponizing its energy or dividing our allies amongst ourselves,” he said.
“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.”