Ukraine crisis: Should Canada push the West to provide weapons?

Canada and its NATO allies say they're considering "all the options" to help Ukraine in its conflict with Russian-backed rebels. Would sending weapons and troops be worth the cost - and the risk?

Kyiv's Western allies show unity in talking points, but will it translate into action?

Kenney 'examining options' for Ukraine training mission

7 years ago
Defence Minister Jason Kenney, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau discuss sending Canadian forces to Ukraine on a training mission. 4:01

"To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."
- Winston Churchill, 1954

Before brokering the latest sputtering ceasefire, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned the hawks, both in Washington and across the Ukrainian diaspora, about arming Kyiv's forces to battle Russian-backed separatists.

"I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily," Merkel said on Feb. 7 at the Munich security conference. 

Sitting beside Merkel two days later, U.S. President Barack Obama punted.

"If in fact diplomacy fails, what I've asked my team to do is look at all options," Obama said. "The possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options."
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper hosted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) last September, he asked for Canada's help fighting Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine. He's still asking. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Standing beside Merkel after that, Prime Minister Stephen Harper kicked the same political football.

"We’ll look at all options. But obviously we’ll proceed extremely cautiously in partnership and collaboration with all of our allies," he said.

Jason Kenney, Harper's new defence minister, has been quoting that line ever since.

"We don't have huge stockpiles of equipment to supply," Kenney told CBC Radio's The House. "We're not going to do anything... without a consensus from our allies. We will not act alone."

What's on the table?

When Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko came to Ottawa last fall, his main request was for radar satellite technology, Kenney emphasizes.

An agreement on that — with the condition that it not be used for targeting, something it's not designed for anyway —was just signed.

Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson (right) met with Andriy Parubiy, Ukraine's deputy speaker, in Ottawa on Monday. The parliamentarian asked Canada to push the U.S. to send lethal weapons and lobbied for more sanctions against Russia. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

But Ukraine's wish list doesn't stop there.

Poroshenko's deputy foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, told The House last weekend Ukraine wants Canada to lead the charge towards persuading allies to supply lethal weapons and the training to use them.

Deputy speaker Andriy Parubiy was in Ottawa Monday, also lobbying.

On Tuesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that four teams of up to 75 British soldiers are heading to Ukraine to provide advice and training. The U.S. is expected to lead a training mission, too.

Kenney has said Canada is "actively considering different options for engaging."

I wouldn't expect Minister Kenney to get out ahead of everybody else... to say 'yeah, we're going first, just watch us go.'- Yaroslav Baran, former Harper adviser and pro-Euromaidan activist

After controversy in northern Iraq, where Canadian trainers "fired back," the mandate for Canadian forces will be scrutinized.

"Firing back" at Russian (or proxy Russian) troops would escalate tensions to an even more serious level.

Prystaiko, who until last fall was Kyiv's ambassador in Ottawa, left his post frustrated.

"Iraq’s government is asking for help and you’re sending everything. Then the Ukrainian government asks you the same… and you tell us what? 'No,'" he said then. 

Undeterred, he's still asking.

'Problem' with Merkel's logic

The latest briefing note from the Ukrainian Canadian Congress to MPs is blunt: Ukraine needs defensive weapons, and it's the West's lack of provision of these weapons that "fuels Russia's escalation."

Photographer Maria Arseniuk poses with Defence Minister Jason Kenney at an exhibit of her work hosted by the Euromaidan Ottawa pro-democracy group in Ottawa Monday. Kenney and other members of the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group commemorated the first anniversary of the 2014 protests that overthrew the Russian-backed government in Kyiv. (CBC)

​Yaroslav Baran, a former Harper adviser who is the group's Ottawa president, said the best thing a middle power like Canada can do is lead the discussion among Western allies about doing more in the face of Russia's willingness to arm the separatists.

"I wouldn't expect Minister Kenney to get out ahead of everybody else... to say 'yeah, we're going first, just watch us go.' That's never really been Canada's role and it's not the best way we can help," Baran said.

Should NATO do more? "Absolutely.

"Whenever the hardware is more balanced the fighting has actually subsided."

"That's the problem with Chancellor Merkel's logic," he added. "There is a very real deterrence capability in helping to re-equip the Ukrainian forces with (...) anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems." 

Too late for weapons?

"Unless there's a prospect of years of war, and I don't think there is, it's already very late in the game to be reinforcing Kyiv's ragtag forces. The Western cavalry is long overdue," says former diplomat and Russian ambassador Chris Westdal.

Westdal agrees it's possible, as Ukrainians have warned, rebels will now push south to secure the strategic port of Mariupol.

After that, the fighting may stop and stalemate. "Then there's a credible ceasefire line."

Weapons sent now could arrive after the shooting's over.

But when it comes to courting Ukrainian-Canadian voters, "you bet [Kenney] cares about Ukraine," Westdal said.

If we think we're isolating the Russians, think again- former diplomat Chris Westdal

On Monday, the minister posed for pictures and showed off his best Ukrainian phrases as the guest of honour at an event marking one year since the Euromaidan protest.

"Canada has led the world in sanctions against the Putin regime," Kenney told attendees. "This is why Prime Minister Harper led the G8 in expelling Vladimir Putin from that world body of leadership."

The leadership on sanctions is disputed. Some argue powerful Russians who deal with Canadian companies like Bombardier are not on Canada's list. 

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress also wants Russia removed from the SWIFT international bank transfer payments system. 

Russia, meanwhile, mocks Canadian sanctions as "futile."

"If we think we're isolating the Russians, think again," Westdal said. Russia just pivots, focusing on emerging economies like India and China.

Neither fighting, nor talking

Harper has not spoken to Putin since their headline-grabbing handshake at November's G20 summit, when all he had to say was "get out of Ukraine."
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was criticized by some for 'shirt-fronting' Russian President Vladimir Putin at last fall's G20. Others applauded his hard line. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The "jaw-jaw" is Merkel's job. But must Canada demonstrate it could "war-war"?

Westdal thinks the cross-party support for the government's position on Ukraine is surprising, given it isn't coherent.

"We're neither arming them, nor are we equipping them to talk. We have shunned the people they need to talk to," he said. "What do we think they should do?"

"We've been their best friend: 'Count on us.' We've encouraged the Ukrainian nationalism.

"I do think that we led them to overestimate the support that they'd get from the West... and underestimate the cost of picking a fight with Russia. Which they did."


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