Tough choices ahead for Canada as Ukraine and Russia teeter on brink of war

Canada’s long-standing, stalwart support of Ukraine will be under new and intense pressure early in the new year, say experts and a former top military commander, as the West braces for possible military action by Russia, perhaps as soon as late January.

There could be as many as five possible scenarios on how the current crisis in Eastern Europe might play out, and they’re almost all bad.

The assembly of over 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and the possibility of a full-blown invasion has riveted the attention of western leaders and policy-makers. 

It is just one of the potential scenarios, although U.S, intelligence officials say Russian President Vladimir Putin has not made up his mind to use overwhelming military force and the Kremlin denies it is planning an invasion.

Canada, which originally sponsored Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, and is among the country’s biggest cheerleaders and defenders, will find it faces uncomfortable choices in the new year, both internationally and domestically. 

The U.S. and NATO have already said that they will not send troops to defend the country in the event of an invasion. That is cause for anxiety in the politically-active, occasionally strident, Canadian-Ukrainian diaspora population in this country.

The Liberal government will have to fall in line with other NATO allies, no matter how painful it becomes domestically.

Stefanie von Hlatky, associate professor of political studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said the challenge for the government will be to “play up what it is already doing in Ukraine.”  

Training, not combat

One of the things Canada is doing is helping to improve the combat skills of Ukrainian soldiers through an international training mission. It is an endeavour the Trudeau government has already signalled its willingness to renew, when the mandate expires in March of the coming year.

Defence Minister Anita Anand’s mandate letter contained a reference to “extending” both Operation Unifer in Ukraine and Operation Reassurance, the overall Canadian military contribution to NATO’s campaign of deterrence against Russia.

The Canadian military trainers in Ukraine, roughly 200 in all, would “quite possibly” have to be withdrawn in the event of major hostilities, said the country’s top military commander.

I think the scenario of a massive invasion of Ukraine is unlikely.– Matthew Schmidt, University of New Haven

“It is a capacity-building mission that we have there, it is not a combat mission,” said Gen. Wayne Eyre, Canada’s chief of the defence staff, in a recent interview with CBC News. 

“We have trainers who are focused on training, not fighting and so, as with any deteriorating situation, we would have to take a look at that situation and what we do with that force on the ground.”

The possibility of having to make that decision underlines the delicate balancing act facing not only Canada, but NATO as a whole. In the face of a military crisis, there will be the need to show resolution without antagonizing Russia, or getting drawn into one of Moscow’s disinformation campaigns. 

“No one has a crystal ball,”  said Dominique Arel, a University of Ottawa professor and the school’s chair of Ukrainian Studies, who added that he found the notion of full-blown invasion to be “wildly unlikely” because of the enormous cost Russia would pay in terms of blood and treasure.

If Putin has to take Kyiv, he’s lost the war

An invasion, he said, would be a complete change in policy for Moscow and the Ukrainian Army is better trained, more experienced and more effectively armed than the last time Russian forces fought them for control of Crimea and the eastern Donbass region in 2014.

“There’s an actual army there and they’re gonna fight,” said Arel, referring to Ukrainian forces, which are now equipped with U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank rockets and Turkish missile-carrying drones. “Even if they are initially defeated, that’s going to be at a serious cost to the Russian Army. Why would the Russian government do that?”

Additional equipment (including BMP-series IFVs, tanks and support equipment) arrived to the existing garrison in late November to December 2021 in Soloti in western Russia. (Maxar Technologies)

Similarly, Matthew Schmidt, an associate professor and national security expert at the University of New Haven, Connecticut, said he’s doubtful we’ll see the absolute worst case scenario.

“I think the scenario of a massive invasion of Ukraine is unlikely,” he said. “If Putin has to take Kyiv, he’s lost the war because the international response will be so devastating … that he doesn’t gain much benefit.”

The U.S has threatened devastating economic sanctions, including the possibility of cutting Russia off from SWIFT, the messaging network used by 11,000 banks in hundreds of countries around the globe to make cross-border payments. That has been referred to as “the nuclear option,” a crippling economic blow that would deliver major financial pain.

Winter war

Western and Ukrainian intelligence officials have suggested, that if there is going to be conflict, expect to see it in the window from mid-January to early February when the ground is frozen and solid enough to take the weight of tanks. 

There are two other scenarios that involve a limited invasion: one that sees Russia establish a land bridge to Crimea by taking the Ukrainian city of Mariupol and possibly driving further west as far as the port city of Odessa; the other notion would see some form of overt reinforcement of Russian-backed proxy forces in the breakaway oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, known collectively as the Donbass region. 

Schmidt said both of those scenarios would likely provoke western allies.

“He may well engage in some kind of limited invasion in the east, but even there it’s risky for him because of the kind of sanctions the West would bring down, particularly the risk of cutting them out of the SWIFT banking network, which would devastate the Russian economy,” Schmidt said.

A Ukrainian serviceman stands on board a coast guard ship in the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine in December. The Ukrainian military has been on increased readiness as part of martial law introduced in the country in the wake of the Nov. 25, 2018 incident in the Sea of Azov, in which the Russian coast guard fired upon and seized three Ukrainian navy vessels along with their crews. (The Associated Press/Evgeniy Maloletka)

A fourth option; to use special forces and subversion to wear down Ukraine and its allies, is something that is more Moscow’s speed, said Arel.

“Will Russia find other ways of ratcheting up the military pressure, while pretending it’s not doing it? Possibly. Because that’s been the playbook,” said Arel, referring to the campaign of disinformation and confusion the Kremlin used following the annexation of Crimea.

The fifth option would be to do nothing and allow the giant military force to sit on Ukraine’s border and wear down the government in Kyiv, as well as NATO, with a perpetual state of crisis.

Defeated by Afghanistan

Canada’s former military representative at NATO, retired vice-admiral Bob Davidson, said he believes Putin senses weakness among the allies following the disastrous, chaotic end to the two-decade western alliance mission in Afghanistan.

For authoritarian leaders, there was an unmistakable message.

“We didn’t lose the war because the Taliban won. We lost because we basically gave up on it,” said Davidson. “So, that’s what I think Putin and some of the others in the world are looking at: What is the real staying power of NATO when it comes to some of these issues that may turn out to be generational?”

Schmidt agreed with the assessment, saying Putin is an astute opportunist.  

“Putin is often seen as some kind of grand strategist, my view is he isn’t,” Schmidt said. “What he is, is that he’s a good reader of current events and he takes advantage of targets of opportunity.” 

The loss of Afghanistan and the way it has reflected on NATO and the United States “has given him an opportunity to push and do two things he’s wanted to do: things that have been part of his foreign policy for a long time, which is to weaken and break apart NATO, and secondly, to weaken and break apart the European Union.”

Demands NATO leave

On Dec. 17, Russia published draft security demands that included: NATO denying membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries; a roll back of the alliance’s military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe and a halt to western military drills near Russia, among other things.

The demand for a written guarantee that Ukraine won’t be offered membership has already been rejected by the West and the other ultimatums are almost certainly headed in the same direction.

The attempt to link the ending of the Ukraine crisis with the wider Russian policy of stopping NATO’s eastward expansion is illuminating, Davidson said. 

The reality, he said, is that Ukraine is at least fifteen years away from the kind of institutional reform that would allow it to be a full-fledged NATO member and Russia knows that.

So, why now? 

An animation gif featuring satellite images of Bakhchysarai in Crimea. A new Russian brigade-level unit, comprised of several hundred armoured vehicles that include BMP-series infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), tanks, self-propelled artillery and air defence equipment, arrived in a Russian garrison that recently housed a motor transport unit. Images show the garrison in October before the new unit arrived and again in December 2021. (Maxar Technologies )

Putin is struggling with “a weakening economy” and the drive towards clean energy, which will have a further enormous impact on the Russian economy, because of its reliance on fossil fuels, limiting its ability to wage war, said Davidson.

The U.S. has said it is seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but achieving one will be difficult without the willing support of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government.

There have been two peace accords, brokered with the help of the U.S., France and Germany, known as the Minsk agreements. The deals have been a recipe for political stalemate.

Arel said it’s clear Russia is tired of the situation.

“Russia is seeking ways to ratchet up the pressure so this political impasse will crack,” Arel said. “It’s hard to see how it will work.”

The accords propose giving the two breakaway regions so-called special status within Ukraine; something the government in Kyiv appears loath to grant.

“The word autonomy is not used in the accord, but that’s what it amounts to, but that’s not happening,” said Arel. “Ukraine is unable, unwilling to move forward because it’s seen as total capitulation.”

There is good reason for the Ukrainians to be suspicious. Crimea, which was annexed by Russia, had an autonomous status before 2014. 

Ironically, Arel said, France, Germany and the United States are all onboard with the notion of giving special status to the Donbass. 

But with Russia’s recent military buildup neither the allies, nor Canada, can openly pressure the government in Kyiv to be flexible because it would be seen as caving in to Moscow.

It would put Canada in an uncomfortable position if the U.S. pressed Ukraine to make concessions; or if NATO showed signs of walking back its commitment to eventually allow Ukraine to join. 

“Were NATO to do that, that would be the end of NATO,” Arel said.

In a further ironic twist, he noted how in 2008, when Ukraine was first proposed by Canada for NATO membership, the resolution was deliberately vague on the timetable and meant as a concession to ease Russian fears. 

“It means Ukraine could join in 50 years, not five,” Arel said.


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