Standing in front of reporters with three of his ministers in tow, Justin Trudeau mounted as convincing a show of seriousness as he is capable of. “Let there be no mistake,” he said, eyes flashing, “that Canada … stands strong for Ukraine.” Canada, he promised, will “be there for” Ukraine as it faces the threat of Russian invasion, providing it with the support it needs “so that it can defend itself.”
“This is a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland chimed in. “Ukraine is on the frontlines of that struggle, and that is why Canada is standing with Ukraine.” Canada is “resolute,” added Foreign Affairs minister Mélanie Joly, “in our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.”
What actions does the Trudeau government propose, then, in order, to “be there for” and “stand with” and be “in support of” Ukraine? Less than what the Ukrainians have asked for. Less than what other countries are doing. Less than what previous Canadian governments did. Less even than it had itself been hinting it would do. And certainly less than what the situation requires. We will give Ukraine every assistance, it seems, short of actual help.
With more than 100,000 Russian troops surrounding Ukraine on three sides, equipped with tanks, armoured vehicles, heavy artillery, helicopters, fighter jets, and surface-to-air missiles, how does the government of Canada propose to help Ukraine defend itself? Not with the weapons for which Ukraine has publicly appealed. Not with missiles and hand-held anti-tank weaponry similar to the ones provided by the United States, Britain and other NATO allies. Not even with the cache of pistols, sniper rifles and other small arms Canada promised but never delivered to the Iraqi Kurds in 2016, which it had been suggested might be redirected to Ukraine.
No, in place of actual weapons, the kind that could make a Russian soldier think twice about advancing, Canada will restrict its assistance to the purely “non-lethal” variety – body armour, night goggles, that sort of thing: not entirely immaterial, but if that were all that Ukraine needed they would have said so. In addition, it will add 60 military trainers to the 200 who are already in the country, with possible further supplements to come. Plus intelligence sharing, “increased diplomatic capacity,” not to mention “a new task force at Global Affairs.” That should send a shiver down Russian spines.
Why the daintiness about weapons? Asked the same question earlier – last week, that is, or three cycles of indecision ago – the Prime Minister suggested this might provide Vladimir Putin with the “excuse” he needed to invade, as if the Russian dictator were particularly in need of an excuse. This time the explanation was that the “solution” to the conflict “must be diplomatic not military.” Which would certainly be good advice, if Mr. Putin were likely to follow it.
Obviously a diplomatic solution would be preferable, provided it did not amount to simply capitulating to Mr. Putin’s demands. But for there to be genuine negotiations, all sides have to come to the table, and stay there. So long as one or another side thinks it can walk, it has little incentive to negotiate. What incentive does Mr. Putin have to negotiate – for diplomacy to work – if there is no price to be paid for invading?
That is the point of arming Ukraine. It is not solely or even primarily to help Ukrainians defend themselves in the event of an invasion. It is, ideally, to deter Russia from invading in the first place. By depriving Ukraine of the weapons it seeks, then, Canada makes war more likely, not less. Liberal squeamishness on this point seems aimed, like the Conservatives’ on vaccine mandates, at the stupidest part of its base: the part that thinks it is not war if Russia invades, but only if Ukrainians fire back.
It isn’t only on weapons that the Trudeau government has let Ukraine down. The measures announced Wednesday do not meet any of its three main requests. Ukraine had asked that Canadian trainers help prepare its troops where they are most likely to be needed, in the north, east and south, not only in the west, as they have been until now. Nuts to that, our government replied, it’s safer there.
Ukraine had also asked that Canada impose tough “sectoral” sanctions – immediately, rather than after the fact. Again, no action. Even the intelligence sharing is oddly constricted: it excludes, for instance, satellite imaging, though this had been approved under the Harper government.
But it is the failure on weapons that is the most glaring. Perhaps the government intends to provide them at some later date. But by then the opportunity for deterrence – or even for effective self-defence, given the amount of training required to deploy them – will have been lost. Perhaps it thinks sanctions will be sufficient deterrent in themselves. That does not seem to be the judgement of our allies.
It may be fairly objected that Canada has little in the way of military hardware to offer, given the shrivelled state of our armed forces. But every little bit helps, and just now Ukraine can use all the help it can get. The assistance it would provide is not only a matter of pure firepower. As important, if not more, would be its symbolic value – for the morale boost it would give the Ukrainians; for the example it would set to others. Canada is in a position to help bolster support for Ukraine among other wavering NATO members, notably Germany and France.
Instead, our aim seems to be to hang back with the laggards. On the same day that the Prime Minister was announcing we would not send arms to the Ukrainians, even in the hour of their maximum peril, Germany announced it would send them … 5,000 helmets. The German announcement, disappointing as it was, occasioned a hailstorm of criticism. (“What’s next,” said the Mayor of Kyiv, “pillows?”) Canada’s, by contrast, passed largely unnoticed. But then, people expect better of Germany.
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