John Baird compares Russia's actions in Ukraine to Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has compared Russia's troop presence in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula to Hitler's invasion of Sudetenland, a part of the former Czechoslovakia, in 1938.

Russian troop presence in Crimea compared to what Germans did in Sudetenland in 1938

John Baird on Ukraine

9 years ago
Duration 10:43
Foreign affairs minister discusses Canada's role in the efforts to de-escalate tension between Ukraine and Russia

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has compared Russia's troop presence in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula to Hitler's invasion of Sudetenland, a part of the former Czechoslovakia, in 1938.

Baird, speaking to host Evan Solomon on CBC News Network's Power & Politics, accused Russia of invading and occupying Crimea, a part of Ukraine. "If it's not war, it's akin to war," he said.

At first, Baird said the situation was "right out of the Cold War." When Solomon pointed out Putin claims he is protecting Russian rights in Crimea, which has a majority of Russian-speaking citizens, Baird said, "The Sudetenland had a majority of Germans. That gave Germany no right to do this in the late 1930s."

Asked by Solomon if he was making a comparison to the Nazis, Baird replied, "When you have one country invading one of its neighbours, and using this type of outrageous and ludicrous rhetoric, it's hard not to."

Baird noted that no Russian in Crimea has been killed during the protests in Ukraine.

In 1938, Hitler sent in troops to occupy Sudetenland, a region on Germany's border populated largely by Sudeten Germans. The takeover was one of the precursors of the Second World War.

Government monitors Ukraine crisis

Baird's comments came after a series of events that show the Canadian government is actively monitoring the crisis in Ukraine, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaking to Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the interim prime minister of Ukraine, this morning.

The Prime Minister's Office released a statement about Harper's phone conversation. "He expressed to Prime Minister Yatsenyuk that Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected and that the Ukrainian people must be free to determine their own future."

Harper was referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to send Russian troops to Crimea, part of Ukraine, and surround its military bases.

Pointedly referring to the G7, rather than the G8, which includes Russia, the statement said Harper assured Yatsenyuk, "Canada is working closely with partners and allies and drew attention to the strong statement issued by G7 leaders on March 2 on this matter. He reiterated Canada's continuing offers of assistance to Ukraine during this important period of transition, including related to the upcoming elections."

Elections are scheduled in Ukraine for May 27.

Meanwhile, Canada is considering taking part in a special observer mission to Ukraine to determine whether Russia's claims that Ukrainians are at risk there are actually true, according to a Canadian Press report.

Moscow has insisted that Ukrainians want Russian troops present in the Crimea for their protection. The claim has been used to justify the massing of Russian soldiers in the mainly Russian-speaking and semi-autonomous region.

But Ukrainian Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko told the Canadian Press that Canada is in talks to examine the situation in Crimea and "take this pretext from the Russians."

At a mining conference in Toronto Monday afternoon, Harper talked briefly about Ukraine before sitting down for an interview with a conference spokesperson about the economy.

"Canada has suspended our engagement in preparations for the G8 summit planned in Sochi. We have also recalled our ambassador to Russia. [We] cancelled any government representation at the Paralympic Games and I've instructed officials to review all planned bilateral interaction with Russia," Harper announced.

Harper has also spoken to U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, but has not yet had a conversation with Putin.

'Does a G8 actually exist?'

In question period Monday, Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale asked about the status of Russia in the G8. "Does a G8 actually exist at this time?"

The parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, Deepak Obhrai, did not directly answer. When deputy NDP leader Megan Leslie asked about what the government is doing to help Canadian citizens in Ukraine, Obhrai said they are being asked to contact the embassy to ensure their safety.

Conservative MP Ted Opitz introduced a motion in the House of Commons, jointly supported by Goodale and NDP MP Peggy Nash, condemning Putin's actions in Ukraine and supporting the government's recall of the Canadian ambassador in Russia. The motion was adopted unanimously.

In the foyer of the House of Commons, Opitz, whose background is Polish but whose Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre is heavily populated with Ukrainian-Canadians, said "there are other embassies on the ground," when asked by reporters whether it would be useful to retain an ambassador in Moscow to gather information.

Opitz said Putin's actions are "all out of the old Soviet playbook," dismissing Putin's claim of protecting Russian minority rights in Ukraine.

Opitz has just returned from Ukraine, where he was part of a delegation accompanying Foreign Minister John Baird. The Liberal Party has just sent MP Chrystia Freeland to Ukraine, where she will attempt to meet with members of the transitional government.

Freeland, who speaks Ukrainian and Russian, plans to stay with her uncle in Kyiv.

Harper consults with NDP's Tom Mulcair

Harper also called Opposition leader Tom Mulcair about his decision to recall Canada's ambassador and pull out of  the G8 summit. On Sunday, speaking in Toronto, Mulcair described his conversation with the prime minister.

"He called me and gave me a very detailed briefing on the current situation. We're of one mind. The world community has to come together and use whatever diplomatic tools at our disposal to show Russia that this is not an acceptable form of behaviour."

Baird, who had just returned from a visit to Ukraine, told reporters Sunday he had met with members of the interim government while he was in Kyiv on Friday.

"What we want to do is de-escalate this situation, and we want Putin and Russia to back down from their actions. Obviously we'll take this one step at a time and see where it goes. We are in close contact with friends and allies and will continue to do so," Baird said.

Go-between role?

Jeff Sahadeo, the director of European, Russian and Eurasian studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, said in a phone interview, "Canada's role in the end, if it were to be productive, might be to act as a go-between with the U.S. and the European Union to make sure that all the Western powers are on the same page, because that's a problem now."

The EU and the U.S. have different interests, he explained. Europe is heavily reliant on Russia for natural gas exports whereas the interests of the U.S. are "geopolitical." He suggested Canada could use the experience gained in its free trade negotiations with the EU and act as an intermediary with the U.S.

Sahadeo also said that Putin is probably happy with the "stalemate" situation he has precipitated by surrounding military assets in Crimea, with the Western powers anxious not to provoke anything.

"Where I see the danger is in unpredictable events. Say, a shot fired at a base, somebody retaliates, more shots are fired, all of a sudden all these western Ukrainians decide 'We're going to fight for the motherland.'"

Vadym Prysaitko, the Ukrainian ambassador in Canada, told CBC News his country is pleased the G8 nations have condemned Russia's actions. He acknowledged Ukraine has mobilized its 100,000 troops, and that citizens are signing up to enlist in the reserves.

"We don't want anybody to get hurt, we don't want to spark any war," he said.