Economic and non-lethal military aid comprise Canada’s cautious approach — but that could soon change
From the start of the Ukraine crisis, Canada has been one of the country’s staunchest supporters. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has condemned, in turn, the killing of protesters at Maidan, Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea, its move into eastern Ukraine, and its “slow motion” invasion which continues to this day.
Harper was thrust into the international spotlight in November for telling Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Australia to “get out of Ukraine.” He also said it was important to keep the pressure on Russia, no matter how long it takes, until Crimea is returned to Ukrainians. Failing to do so, he added, would only whet Russia’s appetite for similar aggression. While he has vowed to “never accept the illegal occupation of Ukraine by Russia,” Canada’s prime minister has been tight-lipped about whether Canada could give Ukraine weapons and other lethal military aid to fight Kremlin-backed insurgents in the Donbas and its surrounding area. This, however, could change, as Minsk-2 continues to unravel owing to infractions by Russia and the rebels it arms.
Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister says the country is preparing for a full-scale war against Russia and wants Canada to help by supplying lethal weapons and the training to use them. Vadym Prystaiko, who until last year was Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada, says the world must not be afraid of joining Ukraine in a fight against a nuclear power.
In an interview Feb. 21 with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Prystaiko said the ceasefire brokered by Germany and France is not holding. “We see that they are not stopping,” he said, suggesting the fight was heading south to the port of Mariupol. “They are taking more and more strategic points.”
Jason Kenney, Canada’s Minister of Defence, said in response that Canada doesn’t have large stockpiles of weapons to give, though it could acquire some from other vendors and then supply Ukraine. The backrooms will be buzzing with contingencies and scenarios, while pollsters will soon be gauging public support for such action. At the same time, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council is appealing to the United Nations and European Union to deploy a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s southeast region. Given its strong reputation in peacekeeping, having pioneered the concept during the Suez Crisis of 1956, Canada could also assist in this way. When the United Kingdom, France and Israel invaded Egyptian territory, Lester Pearson, as Canada’s ambassador to the UN, suggested the creation of a UN Emergency Force to police that area, thus permitting the invading nations to withdraw with a minimum loss of face. For his efforts, Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.
But given Russia’s initial refusal to permit peacekeepers in the region, it appears the more likely course for the West is that of providing lethal defensive weaponry to help Ukraine repel rebel/Russian advances and increase the cost to Russia of continued aggression. In November, Canada provided $11 million in non-lethal aid including cold weather clothing, night vision goggles, and medical training, including a mobile field hospital, aid welcomed by soldiers on the front lines. Last fall, President Petro Poroshenko thanked Canadians while visiting Ottawa for their support, but also came seeking sophisticated surveillance aid for his army. This was declined.
The United States has also been declining Ukrainian requests for lethal military aid, providing last November $52 million in materials similar to those of Canada, and since then the total has risen to $120 million. Europe, likewise, has been reluctant to go the lethal aid route, focusing instead of diplomatic efforts, which now appear exhausted.
In “What the West Can And Should Do For Ukraine,” the European Leadership Network argues for a “broader effort” beyond military aid and sanctions, which have failed to deter the Russian decision-makers but hurt the Russian people and Europe. Further sanctions, it fears, could create a failed state with nuclear weapons. Also in need of attention and help, it says, are reforms, economic development and anti-corruption efforts.
This is consistent with Canada’s multi-pronged policy on Ukraine. Most recently, Canada’s Trade Minister Ed Fast on Jan. 26 in Kyiv announced plans to provide $52 million to support dairy and grain production. And talks about a free trade agreement between Canada and Ukraine continue. “We discussed the outlook for signing a free trade agreement between our countries,” said Ukrainian Economic and Development and Trade Minister Aivaras Abromavicius, an investment banker. “A few sensitive aspects remain. Signing this agreement would help to increase trade with Canada and help increase investment.” The volume of bilateral trade between the two countries increased sharply in 2014 over 2013. According to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine, it amounted to $218.6 million USD, representing a 41 per cent surge in goods from Canada, while Ukraine sent 32 per cent more product to Canada in 2014 than in 2013.
In addition, Canada has been working on bilateral assistance to help Ukraine create a computerized land registry, both to assist the development of agriculture and to discourage illegal land transfers. This $1-million program is a skills and information transfer from professors at Vancouver Island University to those at the University of Kyiv and the Institute of Geography and the National Academy of Sciences. Staff there would then pass along the mapping techniques to the Ukrainian civil service. After nine years as prime minister, Harper is a respected member of the Group of Seven, while Canada is a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which took part in the fight for Kosovo, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Libya. Winston Churchill called Canada the “aerodrome of democracy” during the Second World War because of its network of training facilities for Allied pilots (one of whom was the author’s father, a Halifax bomber pilot who flew 34 operations over Nazi Germany and occupied France in 1944).
With a population of 35 million, only a tenth the size of the United States, Canada is a middle power, more known for its “honest broker” image than its military clout. But this similarity to Ukraine’s population of some 40 million, plus its vast plains, snowy winters and 1.2 million people of Ukrainian descent, make it strongly similar to Ukraine in many key ways, and sympathetic to the struggles of Ukrainians.
Canada’s public life boasts many stars of Ukrainian heritage, such as musician Randy Bachman, astronaut Roberta Bondar, politicians Ray Hnatyshyn (former governor general) and Roy Romanow (former premier of Saskatchewan), TV show host Alex Trebek and hockey players Bill Barilko, Mike Bossy, Dale Hawerchuk and Wayne Gretzky.
Ukrainian immigrants came by the thousands in the early years of the 20th century to clear and farm the rugged land in central Manitoba and Saskatchewan which today boasts proud and successful ethnic-Ukrainian communities such as Dauphin. Without such strong and skilled farmers, Canada would not be the prosperous and successful country it is today, since agriculture was a foundation stone of its early development and continues to be an important part of its economy, with the grandsons and granddaughters of those early settlers continuing, in many cases, to work the land.
The blood is thick, therefore, between Ukraine and Canada, as it is between the U.S. and Canada.
If the U.S. decides, as is possible and even likely, to follow the advice of Steven Pifer and other foreign policy experts to provide defensive weaponry to Ukraine, then Canada and some European states such as Poland are almost sure to follow. Such weapons as anti-tank and anti-mortar systems are not an offensive threat to Moscow but would be of assistance to the Ukrainian army in its bid to prevent the loss of further territory, following fall of Debaltseve in mid-February.
Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a former Ambassador to Ukraine, supports providing $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine this year and each of the next two. He, Strobe Talbott and six other security experts collaborated to produce the recent study Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do. “For the West,” Pifer wrote in the Washington Post, “the issue goes beyond Ukraine. Russia has torn up the rule book that maintained peace, stability and security for almost 70 years, and it has now used force to change borders. If the West does not push back, it could face challenges, even armed challenges, from Russia elsewhere that require far more costly responses,” referring to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, NATO’s Baltic states.
The danger is that such action could trigger an escalation on the Russian side as well. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and others warn of escalation and a possible nuclear war, if the West slides further into the conflict and confronts Russia directly. Russia has thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at Western Europe and the U.S., while the U.S. could devastate Russia with Trident II missiles from a few of its Ohio-class submarines. This stand-off called MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) kept heads cool during the Cold War; whether it will continue to do so remains to be seen.
Pifer is concerned that continued inaction carries more risks to the West in terms of conventional war than the measures he supports. He encourages the U.S. to approach fellow NATO member states about helping Ukraine, though this has almost certainly been done. It is in Canada’s military and political tradition to assist democratic states facing military invasion, as its roles in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War attest. Canada is currently active in fighting Islamic extremists, with jet fighters deployed to help combat ISIS, while Canadians fought and 158 died as part of the West’s long effort in Afghanistan. Boosting aid to Ukraine isn’t out of the question, and would fit into this foreign policy paradigm.
Prime Minister Harper was the first Group of Seven leader to visit Kyiv after the crisis began and only one to attend Poroshenko’s inauguration last June. As Harper told the Ukrainian president during his visit to Canada in September, “For Canadians, with our deep connections to the Ukrainian people, this is not to us just a matter of international law or political principle, this is a matter of kinship, this is a matter of family, this is personal and we will stand by you.”