Canada, U.S. need to draw red line on nuclear, chemical attacks in Ukraine, says former president

The former president of Ukraine is urging Canada to get behind a U.S. representative's initiative to authorize military force to defend the embattled eastern European country if Russian forces escalate to chemical, biological or nuclear attacks.

A Republican wants to give President Biden clearance to use military force if Russia crosses that line

Former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv on May 2, 2022. He is urging Canada and the U.S. to draw a red line for Moscow on the use of chemical, biological and tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

The former president of Ukraine is urging Canada to get behind a U.S. representative's initiative to authorize American military force to defend the embattled eastern European country if Russian forces escalate to chemical, biological or nuclear attacks.

Petro Poroshenko, who was president from 2014 to 2019, made the remarks in an interview with CBC News.

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On Sunday, Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger, of Illinois, introduced a resolution that would, if passed, authorize U.S. President Joe Biden to use American forces to respond in the event weapons of mass destruction are deployed in Ukraine.

He unveiled the proposal on the CBS network political program Face the Nation. He said the measure is more about warning Moscow and signalling resolve than it is about joining the war.

Poroshenko said that would be precisely the right signal to send at this stage in the war — when Russian troops are making what appear to be limited gains on the conventional battlefield in the eastern and southern portions of Ukraine. 

As one of Ukraine's earliest and staunchest backers, Canada needs to get behind Kinzinger's proposal, he said.

"I definitely need support of this initiative of Adam [Kinzinger] from the Canadian parliamentarians and Canadian government," Poroshenko said during an interview at his European Solidarity party headquarters in Kyiv.

Republican Adam Kinzinger says his bill would send a warning to Russia. (Kevin Dietsch/The Associated Press)

He said that while Ukraine does not "want Canadian soldiers fighting here for us now," it does want political support to "stop a nuclear war" and prevent the use of other weapons of mass destruction.

Russia has shown no overt signs of preparing to unleash chemical, biological or tactical nuclear weapons. A U.S. defence official, speaking on background last week to Reuters, suggested a nuclear strike is not in the cards at the moment, even though Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised the readiness level of the country's nuclear forces. 

But there is a persistent fear in the intelligence community and among military experts, inside and outside of Ukraine, that some kind of escalation is imminent because of Russia's limited gains in its war on Ukraine.

Canada's House of Commons last week unanimously passed a motion to label Russia's attacks in Ukraine as "genocide." Many members of Parliament said there was "ample evidence" of war crimes on a massive scale, and of crimes against humanity.

Anna Shevchenko, 35, rescues some of her belongings from her house in Irpin, near Kyiv, Tuesday, May 3, 2022. The house, built by Shevchenko's grandparents, was almost completely destroyed by bombing in late March. (Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press)

The motion listed war crimes alleged to have been committed by Russian forces: mass atrocities, systematic killings of Ukrainian civilians, the desecration of corpses, the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children, torture, mental harm and rape.

It's not clear how much support there is for Kinzinger's authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) bill.

Similar legislative mechanisms were used to enable the U.S. war on terror following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. U.S. lawmakers only recently repealed those authorizations, which gave the president broad powers to wage war.

Both Republicans and Democrats argued last year that those specific authorizations had been enlarged beyond recognition. Both the Obama and Trump administrations blocked previous attempts over a decade to repeal the measures.

WATCH | Russian foreign minister warns West's weapons supply to Ukraine risks escalating war:

Russian foreign minister warns NATO risks 'World War III' with weapons shipment to Ukraine

1 year ago
Duration 4:16
Russia's top diplomat warned Ukraine against provoking a third world war and said the threat of a nuclear conflict 'should not be underestimated.'

Would Moscow care?

For that reason, critics in Washington have suggested Kinzinger's initiative may get a lukewarm response.

Kinzinger said his resolution would establish "a red line" for Russia.

A Canadian expert in Ukrainian affairs said he doesn't think Moscow would pay attention to such warnings and doubts the Canadian government has an appetite for such a bold statement.

"Listen, there's been a lot of lines that were crossed [by Russia]," said Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa.

Russia crossed two red lines by launching a full-scale invasion and targeting civilians — something many observers had not expected, Arel said.

Photos provided by Maxar Technologies show the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol on March 14, before the Russian bombing, left, and on March 29, right. The bombing occurred on March 16 and stands out as the deadliest known attack on civilians to date in the war in Ukraine. (Maxar Technologies/The Associated Press)

Canada, he pointed out, was among the last countries to ship weapons and munitions to Ukraine, even after it became clear an invasion was imminent. He said he wouldn't discount the possibility of Canadian parliamentarians getting on board with Kinzinger's idea, but he questions the effectiveness of such a political signal from the allies.

"We're in the territory now that the Canadian Parliament has been calling genocide — a political statement," Arel said. "But with nuclear weapons, listen, that's the complete unknown.

"So I'm not sure there's a value, politically, that there might be a bill in Congress. I'm not sure the bill will actually pass because the greatest strength here is, to me, strategic ambiguity.

"So you don't actually say what you're going to do, such as sending the soldiers to Ukraine, but you make it clear that this is an absolute taboo and you cannot cross that line."

WATCH | Investigators gather war crimes evidence in Bucha:

Building a case for war crimes amid horror, loss in Bucha

1 year ago
Duration 2:09
Warning: This story contains graphic details | The bodies of civilians killed in Bucha are still being processed in a morgue as survivors recount the horror of Russia's takeover and officials continue to build a case for war crimes.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.