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Justin Ling is a freelance investigative journalist who writes the Bug-eyed and Shameless newsletter.

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Kyiv residents take cover in the subway from missiles during a nighttime air raid on March 24.Olga Ivashchenko/The Globe and Mail

The “banalization of the air raids,” as a Kyivite friend referred to it over tea, is a uniquely Ukrainian phenomenon.

During the day, when the air raid sirens sound in the capital, Ukrainians quickly mute the blaring warnings emanating from their phones and go about their business. At night, when Russia launches its more intense attacks, many reach for their phones to determine whether the threat rises to the need to seek shelter or climb down into the city’s metro. I joined this unnerving ritual earlier this month, just as Russia stepped up their bombardment of the country.

As a wave of cruise missiles, hypersonic rockets and suicide drones flew at targets across the country – power stations, water facilities, peoples’ homes, schools – I sat in the shelter under my hotel in downtown Kyiv in the wee hours of the morning and sipped tea with a mix of locals and foreigners. We made sparring small talk and tried to catch a few minutes of sleep. We listened to the air defence batteries rolling above and checked updates on messaging platform Telegram, and waited for a phone app to give us the all-clear. There is a strange normalcy to it.

The disquieting fact, however, is that this strange status quo is made possible only because of the capital’s robust air defence system. Ukraine regularly intercepts upward of three-quarters of these air attacks. To the east and south, in cities such as Kharkiv and Odesa – where their proximity to Russian airfields and missile cruisers make self-defence much more difficult – there is no banality of the air raid. They have been pummelled in recent weeks, as Russia tries to regain the initiative in its brutal war.

The difference between a degree of regular life – where Ukrainians can go about their days, where kids can attend school, where industry can continue working to produce the tools of its own defence – are these air defence systems, running on aid from Kyiv’s NATO allies.

That aid, however, has ground to a halt. More than US$60-billion in American support to Ukraine, including critical air defence missiles, has been held up in Congress since last year, and its future remains uncertain. Last year, Canada tried to step up to shoulder some of this burden – it pledged to finance a “high priority” $400-million air defence system. Today, more than a year later, it remains tied up in red tape.

It is estimated that Ukraine could run out of anti-air ammunition in a matter of days. If that happens, the devastation is going to be severe: And it will be our fault.

A failure to deliver this critical aid is emblematic of how blasé some NATO countries have become about the state of the war. From the very beginning of the conflict, we have transferred enough aid to help Ukraine defend, but not enough to help it win. Today, however, we are failing to fund even its defence.

Last year, Canada donated around $4-billion in total assistance to Ukraine – that’s actually down 20 per cent over the year prior. Last month, Ottawa announced it was planning on just over $3-billion in aid this year, another 25-per-cent cut. As we slow down, Russia has ramped up its military spending by 60 per cent over the past year.

But, to hear our government talk about it, we’re already firing on all cylinders.

“We have stepped up on significant military contributions,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told me during an interview earlier this month. “There are areas in which we’ve been particularly effective,” he continued. “We didn’t have a lot of tanks to send, but we sent them quicker than just about any other country.” Indeed, Ottawa has shipped eight Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. He also highlighted that Canada has also shipped 800 high-quality surveillance drones, and 50 Canadian-made light armoured vehicles. “We’re going to continue to be there with whatever we can,” Mr. Trudeau added.

In a real sense, though, we haven’t stepped up. Since the start of the war, Ottawa has committed around $4-billion in military equipment to Ukraine, putting us near the bottom of the list of Kyiv’s partners. The European Union has transferred more than $100-billion – on top of billions more in transfers from its composite members. Canada has donated less than Sweden, which has a GDP a fifth of ours and which only recently joined NATO.

Mr. Trudeau suggested the right man to explain the problem is Bill Blair, his Defence Minister. So, on my last day in Kyiv, I reached the minister in Ottawa. “We have gone in and raided the pantry,” Mr. Blair told me, adding that there are simply no artillery shells or anti-air missiles left to give.

But that’s not quite true. Speaking to a military source recently, I was told that there has been a willingness from the generals to give more – but there is a fear that if critical equipment is donated, it will never be replaced.

According to an analysis from the Kiel Institute, a German think tank, Canada donated just 6 per cent of its stockpiles of available weapons – putting us at the bottom of the pile, just ahead of the United States. Britain, meanwhile, has donated nearly a quarter of its stocks; Czechia, more than half.

These countries have been finding creative ways to help. Czechia managed to scrounge up 800,000 much-needed 155 millimetre artillery shells, partly by knocking on doors in non-NATO countries. (Canada may contribute some money to fund this plan.) Britain has worked feverishly to get Kyiv long-range missiles, capable of destroying air fields and weapon depots in Russian-held territory. The Biden administration, unable to break the congressional deadlock, raided the couch cushions to contribute $300-million more in critical weaponry.

These piecemeal efforts are not nearly enough. Ukraine is already facing a shortage of artillery shells, forcing its front-line forces to ration ammo: Estonia estimates that Ukraine needs 2.4 million rounds a year to gain an upper hand against Russia. But the needs go beyond just ammunition. I spoke to a front-line combat medic who told me there is an urgent need for more armoured vehicles which can help evacuate wounded soldiers. I spoke to someone working for a humanitarian demining non-governmental organization who said they remain in need of funds to finance critical mine clearance efforts. I spoke to Ukrainian defence executives who said there were only two main constraints on their production: They need more components, and more orders.

If we do not move quickly now, we will regret not doing enough for decades to come. Before arriving in Ukraine, I was in Vilnius, where there is a widespread belief that they may be the next target of Russian aggression.

We can make a much bigger difference, and we can do it quickly. For starters, we need to raid the cupboards: If it still works, we should give it to them. If it doesn’t, we should fix it and send it to them. If they can retrofit it better than we can, we should pack it up and send it to them.

While National Defence will not get into specifics of its ammunition stockpiles, it did tell me that Canada still has 103 Leopard 2 tanks: 74 combat units and 29 support systems. I put it to Mr. Blair that if his government would commit to procuring new tanks today, it could free us up to send along those Leopard 2 tanks – which are already slated to be decommissioned in the next decade, and which are costing more and more to keep up – tomorrow.

“Yes, that clarity will be very helpful to them,” Mr. Blair said, coyly. Nudged to explain, he added only “I’m not going to get out ahead of my own budget,” referencing the April 16 federal budget date, and that “we need to do more and doing more is going to require us to spend more.”

It’s a good sign that Ottawa might finally be stepping up in a real way. The tanks are an ideal place to start, but there are other critical capabilities we can offer. As Mr. Blair himself says, our military is struggling as it is: “Our stocks are very low, the serviceability of a lot of our equipment is a real challenge for us.”

Next, we need to start placing big orders for equipment that can be made inside Ukraine itself – drones and anti-air technology, in particular. The more orders we place, the more Ukrainian industry can scale up and do the research-and-development that will be necessary to overcome a better-resourced foe. Organizations such as the Ukrainian World Congress are already financing this work, and could use more help.

It does seem that this message has also reached Mr. Blair, who was in Kyiv last month. The minister told me he made a handshake deal with a Ukrainian counterpart to purchase drones directly from Ukrainian industry and donate them to the military. Mr. Blair added that he went back to the Ukraine Defence Contact Group’s drone coalition, of which Canada is a member, to get other countries on-board with the plan.

For any of our aid to be truly effective, though, we need to blast through the red tape. Mr. Blair confesses that Canada’s bureaucracy is hobbling our efforts to help Ukraine. “Because of my procurement processes, it’s easier for me to contribute money to the drone coalition, and use some of the procurement processes that our partners are using,” Mr. Blair said.

We also need to create better exemptions to Canada’s stringent export controls, important considering our record of selling military gear to repressive regimes. It is paradoxical to force Ukraine to jump through hoops to justify its need to defend itself.

I asked Mr. Trudeau about reforms that would make it easier for the Canadian defence industry to sell weapons to governments abroad, including Ukraine. He responded that while some may want to reduce those rules “even if it means selling missiles to the bad guys, I’m not going to do that.” Unfortunately, absent real reforms, that means we will have trouble helping the good guys, too.

Finally, we need to ramp up our own production. Given that this war could stretch on for years to come, with the Baltic countries possibly next in Moscow’s crosshairs, we cannot be caught with empty stockpiles again. Mr. Blair lamented that rebuilding Canada’s defence industrial base could take “two, two-and-a-half years to ramp up production, even if we’re able to get all the money and all the plans.” That timeline is embarrassing, considering it only took Russia – a pariah state, hobbled by sanctions, brain drain and a command economy – just a year to bring its defence industry roaring back to life.

Over the course of this war, we have mistaken Ukrainian bravery for invincibility. We have had the luxury of moving at a glacial pace because we convinced ourselves that Ukrainian strength could not be overcome.

But one message I heard loud and clear in Ukraine, including from those who fought in this wretched war, is that they are much closer to losing this war than its allies seem to believe.

At the same time, Ukrainian innovation and determination could yet beat back this imperial aggressor and liberate those who are living under the brutal oppression of the Russian state. But that will require its allies to stop their half-measures and buy them a bit more time.

The day I left Ukraine, Russia launched a brutal new salvo against the entire country: targeting the state security service, Russian missiles instead destroyed a school gymnasium. Dropping the pretext that this is a “special military operation,” Moscow now admits it is waging war against the country. And President Vladimir Putin will do whatever it takes to win that war.

Will we do whatever it takes to defend Ukraine?

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