Former Canadian foreign minister denounces Putin as 'war criminal' for invading Ukraine

Lloyd Axworthy, who spent more than four years as Canada's top diplomat, is anything but diplomatic in his description of Russian President Vladimir Putin's full-scale invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.

Lloyd Axworthy doesn't mince words in slamming Vladimir Putin's 'delusional' vision of restoring Russian power

Former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, centre, denounced the actions of Vladimir Putin, who decided to invade Ukraine in a military offensive. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The Winnipegger who spent more than four years as Canada's top diplomat is anything but diplomatic in his description of Russian President Vladimir Putin's full-scale invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.

"To watch this kind of crushing assault by Putin, frankly, I think that he has got to be charged as a war criminal," said Lloyd Axworthy, who served as minister of foreign affairs between 1996 and 2000 under Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien. 

Russia launched its devastating assault of neighbouring Ukraine on Thursday after Putin's declaration of war. An estimated 100,000 people fled as explosions and gunfire shook major cities. Reports suggest dozens of people have died so far.

Axworthy has seen Russian meddling into Ukraine's affairs for himself while monitoring the country's 2019 election in an official capacity. 

He remembers a conversation at a Kyiv coffee shop where people were discussing the lengths the Russians were going to, in efforts to turn people against Ukraine. It also showed him the Ukrainian people's dedication in upholding their democracy, he said.

A distraught woman waits for a train trying to leave Kyiv, Ukraine. Thousands tried to flee the country as Russia launched its military action. (Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press)

Earlier in Putin's reign, he "started out not as a pleasant person but at least somewhat pragmatic," Axworthy said, but "he's increasingly become delusional and into this whole kind of history of great Russia, how they were responsible for Ukraine," he told CBC Manitoba's Up to Speed host Faith Fundal in an interview Thursday.

"He's now turning a fantasy into propaganda and, as a result, we're all paying a big price for his actions."

Putin threatening nuclear warfare: Axworthy

Axworthy, who currently chairs the World Refugee and Migration Council, doesn't hesitate when asked the meaning behind Putin's threat that any country's intervention into their war will lead to "consequences you have never seen."

"I don't think there's any confusion, I think he's talking about nuclear weapons," Axworthy said.

It "just shows just how far off the edge of the cliff he's gone," he added, suggesting Putin is living in a "kind of video game world" and is far removed from the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the Soviet Union and United States stepped back from the brink of nuclear conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addressees his country this week in Moscow, warning other countries that any attempt to interfere would lead to 'consequences you have never seen.' (Russian Presidential Press Service via The Associated Press)

Axworthy said Putin has never shaken his disgust that the Soviet Union was dissolved, which the Russian president once called one of the greatest geopolitical tragedies of the 20th century.

"After the last couple weeks, looking at Putin, I think he's a little deranged to begin with, but he came out of a culture of the KGB, which was all imbued with Soviet Union's power and strength," he said.

Putin's actions may classify him as a war criminal, as Axworthy suggested. War crimes, as defined by the Geneva Conventions of 1949, include "wilful killing" and extensive destruction "not justified by military necessity."

Axworthy said a takeover of Ukraine would put Russia within striking distance of NATO countries, such as Poland, Hungary and Romania. He noted NATO countries have an obligation to come to the defence of any members who are attacked.

Axworthy is convinced the sanctions put in place by other countries won't deter Russia, but he insists hope is not lost.

The former vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg urged Canada to provide the money, weapons and resources needed to bolster Ukraine's defences.

"I think there is a real hope and some good intelligence to suggest the Ukrainians are going to not only fight back, but even if the Russians take control of the government, they're still going to be guerrilla actions, insurgency actions," Axworthy said.

He recalled the Soviet Union pulling its troops out of Afghanistan in 1989, after an occupation lasting more than nine years.

Ostap Skrypnyk with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress said the humanitarian issues that arise from this war could take years to solve. (CBC)

"The Russians got kicked out of Afghanistan because people simply wouldn't accept the kind of governance they had. It's happened to other autocratic countries. And I think that's a lesson for all of us, is that if you live next door to an autocrat — a big, powerful one like Russia — then be wary."

Axworthy added Canada can also help by welcoming refugees, including the people who would be most threatened by a Russian takeover. In Manitoba, he said the province's minister of advanced education and immigration, Jon Reyes, wants to look at ways to support resettlements. 

He's encouraging Canada to also provide financial aid to Ukraine's neighbouring countries, which are already absorbing thousands of fleeing refugees

Ostap Skrypnyk, who is with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress's Manitoba provincial council, doesn't believe the worldwide outrage, nor the sanctions, will bring a swift end to the war, either.

Putin has already calculated the repercussions of his offensive, Skrypnyk reasons.

"He'll stop when he has a plan and then the rest of us will be left to pick up the pieces."

That will include addressing all humanitarian issues, from the many people already displaced to the destroyed infrastructure, he said. Skrypnyk said it would take years to address those issues. 

Anger felt by local Ukrainians, Russians

As someone of Ukrainian and Russian heritage, Taya Rtichsheva said the invasion is a "monstrous act of aggression" that's brought sorrow to everyone in Manitoba whose ancestry is linked to these two countries.

"It will lead to consequences for the economy, politics, international relationships and most importantly, it will make a negative impact on the relationship between the Russian people and Ukrainian people in every single corner of the world," said Rtichsheva, who founded U Multicultural, an ethnocultural television and radio platform in Manitoba.

"How can any of us feel safe today when this kind of aggression happens and the world is watching? How can we help?"

Canada's former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lloyd Axworthy, led a delegation to Ukraine three years ago. He tells Faith Fundal what he saw then that foreshadowed the attack by Russia.


Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at

With files from CBC's Faith Fundal, Cameron Macintosh, Peggy Lam, Thomson Reuters


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