Russian aggression in Ukraine, and why Canada must enhance engagement
Roman Waschuk and Danylo Korbabicz.
In the last few days, the global community heaved a sigh of relief when Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russian troops would retreat from the Ukrainian border. This temporary de-escalation, after days of speculation about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s true intentions, is a strategic pause, but not a resolution. Tanks and heavy artillery have been left in forward positions. There remains a real and present danger that Russia will still undertake an incursion or full-scale invasion.
Canada, for its part, has found itself on Moscow’s list of public enemies, along with the U.S., U.K., Australia, and half a dozen NATO/EU partners in central and eastern Europe. Coming from the Putin administration, this is actually a backhanded compliment of the degree to which our country has been instrumental in helping Ukraine and Ukrainians stay an independent course, and has defended more broadly the rules-based international order that authoritarians love to hate and disrupt.
Ukraine finds itself hostage to a Russian-spawned conflict that has thus far killed more than 14,000 people and de facto re-arranged Europe’s peaceful postwar borders with the illegal annexation of Crimea. It’s also caused billions of dollars of infrastructure and economic damage through the destructive marauding of proxies in the occupied Donbas region commanded from across the Russian border. Ukrainian soldiers continue to die, day in and day out, as the Kremlin dials the level of fighting up and down.
There has been plenty of ink spilled about Russia’s apparent policy objectives and Putin’s belief system regarding Ukraine. On the former, Putin’s governing alter ego, Dmitriy Medvedev, has written a state-media opinion piece comparing the April 2021 escalation to the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — an attempt to restore strategic parity with the U.S. On the latter, Putin has insisted repeatedly that Russians and Ukrainians are one people; for the past month, his propagandists have said that Ukrainians need to be re-educated — forcibly, if necessary — to submit to this forced unity.
Canada has done a lot since Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in 2014. Using a range of instruments, Canada has contributed close to $800 million in development, humanitarian, and security assistance. We are part of the Quint, a five-country club of Kyiv’s closest defence-training partners. Ukrainian public opinion consistently puts us in the Top 3 of friendly powers.
We have the relationships and resources to play a more significant diplomatic role, too, with opportunities emerging from both Kyiv and Washington. Seeking to re-energize the moribund Franco-German-led talks with Russia about the so-called Minsk peace process, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has proposed adding Canada, as well as the U.S. and U.K., to the negotiating format. U.S. President Joe Biden, for his part, is sending Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to Ukraine in May to synchronize watches with the Ukrainians ahead of a likely presidential summit with Russia in June. What better moment for Canada to get in on the ground floor of a like-minded American administration’s plans to both deter and engage Russia?
It’s no exaggeration to presume that one of the reasons Putin pulled back from a new military adventure is Ukraine’s upgraded military capacity. This isn’t the ill-prepared, underfunded, and undertrained army of 2014. Today, it is battle-hardened, the third-largest in Europe, and one that’s received consistent training and support from the Canadian Armed Forces across the spectrum, from first aid and the Law of Armed Conflict, to advanced brigade-level operations and tactics.
Canada’s Operation UNIFIER and other programs have given a fighting chance to Ukraine’s armed forces, which total 25,000 soldier- and officer trainees to date. They’ve also given our task-force commanders and troops unique insights into conventional and hybrid warfare along a 500-km front in Europe. The trust and credibility we’ve earned can open doors — both at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence and for Canadian senior advisers, who could reinforce Ukraine’s admirable restraint so far, and also provide a second opinion on managing escalation-response scenarios.
In 2014-15, Canada provided Ukraine with Radarsat 2 imaging, albeit with caveats that limited its use beyond general situational awareness. Given the recent Russian buildup, real-time data-sharing should be on the table.
Building deterrence also means defence procurement. Ukraine’s military industries have switched from Russian to Western suppliers of components. Now is the time to keep defence-trade channels open.
Canada was in the vanguard of the 2020 decision to make Ukraine an Enhanced Opportunity Partner for NATO. We have also traditionally favoured an open-door approach to alliance membership. Continued advocacy in Brussels for openness to Ukraine will also reinvigorate impulses within the Ukrainian defence establishment to reform.
While Ukraine’s security challenge is primordial, there are elements of its own house that need to be brought in order, not least to reinforce national-security resilience. Entrenched oligarchy and weakened rule of law are frustrating entrepreneurial Ukrainians and exacerbating inequalities. Bad oligarchic actors also generate national-security vulnerabilities, as Zelensky has recognized in sanctioning Putin confidant Viktor Medvedchuk. The Biden administration is training its sights on outlaw oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky and his American steel and real estate holdings. Canada should also be vigilant, and insist that its judicial and policing support go to genuine change agents. After all, only a capable and adequately funded Ukrainian state can bear the economic cost associated with keeping the immense Russian threat at bay.
Whatever Putin’s motives in the April-escalation crisis, the current strategic pause provides Canada with an opportunity to consider the range of tools it can deploy in the years to come. For once, we have most of the instruments in place — from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Using them wisely as part of a Canadian Euro-Atlantic policy vision can strengthen both the survivability of Ukraine’s democratic project and Canada’s standing with allies and partners.
Roman Waschuk is a former Canadian ambassador to Ukraine (2014-19) and Canadian ambassador to Serbia, with concurrent accreditation to Macedonia and Montenegro (2011-14). His diplomatic service also includes postings at the Canadian missions in Moscow, Kyiv, and Berlin. He is based in Toronto.
Danylo Korbabicz is a senior adviser with Prospectus Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm based in Ottawa. He’s a former director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and a former political adviser to several high-ranking Canadian officials.