‘Deterring Russian Aggression’

Not content with extending its bombing campaign in the Middle East to Syria, the Canadian government has announced that it will get involved in yet another country’s war by sending 200 troops to Ukraine. The objectives, we are told, are to deter Russian aggression and to ‘help Ukrainian forces’ personnel to better defend their country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.’

Most of the contingent (150 in total) will train members of the Ukrainian National Guard in Yavoriv in the far west of the country. The remaining 50 Canadians will provide training in explosive ordnance disposal, military policing, military medicine, and logistics. They will join 800 American and 75 British soldiers doing similar jobs.

There are a couple of ways of assessing this decision: the first is in terms of its own internal logic, that is to say examining whether the policy in question is capable of achieving the desired objectives; the second requires stepping outside that logic and questioning the assumptions behind it. The first approach involves asking whether Canada’s action will deter ‘Russian aggression’ and enable the Ukrainians to fight more effectively; the second involves asking whether ‘Russian aggression’ really is the primary cause of Ukraine’s current difficulties.

Looking at the first of these questions, will Canada’s 200 men and women serve as a deterrent? The answer is clearly no. If by ‘Russian aggression’ one means the support which Russia is giving the Donbass rebels, then to date nothing which any Western nation has done, individually or collectively, has had any noticeable impact on Russian behaviour. Certainly, it hasn’t dissuaded Russia from providing aid to the rebellion. In fact, over time Russian assistance to ‘Novorossiia’ has grown steadily. It is quite obvious that Russia will not permit the rebels to be defeated, and Moscow certainly isn’t going to be dissuaded from this objective because 200 unarmed Canadians, located 1,000 kilometres from the front line, are doing a bit of training.

It is also doubtful that the Canadians will help the Ukrainians fight more effectively. Although poor training has been a factor in the Ukrainians’ defeats, it hasn’t been the most important one. After all, the rebels aren’t exactly better trained. The real problem on the Ukrainian side has been very poor high level political and military leadership, which has resulted in a series of major strategic and operational errors. These led to Ukrainian troops being surrounded on at least three occasions – in the ‘southern cauldron’, at Ilovaisk, and at Debaltsevo. No amount of low level tactical proficiency can compensate for failure at the higher level, and since Canada’s training mission does not address that, it won’t do much for the Ukrainians’ overall performance.

Moving on to the second approach mentioned above – questioning assumptions – it is worth noting that Ukraine’s greatest strategic blunder has been the Anti-Terrorist Operation itself. Support for rebellion was actually fairly low a year ago, and the numbers willing to protest, let alone take up arms, was small. A year of living in cities which are being shelled has driven thousands of Donbass residents into the rebel armies. Listening to Canadian politicians and generals speak on the matter, it appears that they view the conflict in Ukraine in utterly black and white terms – the war is the result of ‘Russian aggression’, period. That implies that the solution lies in ‘standing up to Russia’. But this is a grotesque oversimplification of reality. While Russia shares some responsibility for what has happened, the rebels aren’t rebelling because Moscow told them to. They are doing so because they dislike the Ukranian government. Deterring ‘Russian aggression’ is irrelevant to this.

A route to a political settlement does exist. It was laid out in the Minsk II agreement, according to which Kiev must negotiate constitutional reform with the representatives of the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk. The agreement doesn’t specify who these representatives are, but it is obvious that they have to include the rebel leaders, because the latter will not accept any agreement which does not involve them. Ukraine cannot defeat the rebels by military means. That is now impossible, regardless of how much training Canada or any other country provides. Realistically, the only way to a lasting peace which preserves Ukrainian territorial integrity is for Kiev to strike a deal with the rebel leaders. This means engaging in political negotiation and compromise. Unfortunately, the military training mission not only doesn’t contribute to this but is also likely to strengthen the hand of those within the Ukrainian government who believe that no compromise is necessary.

Politically, therefore, the Canadian mission sends entirely the wrong signals to Kiev, indicating that Western states will support it regardless of the errors it makes and regardless of its degree of willingness to take the steps required for peace.

12 thoughts on “‘Deterring Russian Aggression’”

  1. I think that the most strident issue concerning the Kiev goverment is that it is still aiming for total victory, and not for “peace and reconciliation”. The thing is, convincing them of switching paths would likely, especially in the USA and in Canada due to nationalist fervor or due to Ukrainian emigre communities, carry political costs. While I would hope that neither the USA nor Canada entertain any unrealistic hopes about Ukraine “winning”, they would very much hope to outsource the costs of “convincing Kiev of peace” to either the EU by having them do the convincing (probably while decrying them as Chamberlains in the media) or by having the Russians and the rebels do the “convincing” via a more “nonverbal” way.

    That this isnt exactly in the interests of Ukraine is pretty well obvious.

    There is a rumor that Surkov was creditet with (somewhat hyperbolicaly) quipping: “I have only compassion for Ukraine, they have the Americans as friends, and us as enemies. We may not be their biggest problem.”


      1. I have to warn you that this “quote” is not very sourceable. I have heard it, or a variation (with a “call me unpatriotic, but I dont think we are Ukraines biggest problem” )of it, attributed to a number of people in the Kremlin, and while it is a nice quip, it is inherently unwise to engage in any kind of speculative Kremlinology (the shortcomings of which are something you are thankfully very aware of) over it.


  2. I don’t think that “Russia shares some responsibility for what has happened”. Unless this is some metaphysical statement about the ‘mystifying Russian soul’ or something.

    What is Russia supposed to be responsible for in all this?


    1. Russia is responsible in a number of ways:
      1. The annexation of Crimea (or whatever you want to call it) encouraged certain elements within Donbass, as well as adventurers like Strelkov, that they could repeat in Donbass what happened in Crimea – that if they seized a few buildings, the Russian Army would come. The Crimean example therefore helped to encourage more extreme forms of protest. At the same time, it strengthened a victim mentality in the new government, making it harder for it to make any form of political concessions, while also enabling it to portray itself as having been attacked by Russia, thereby ensuring it the support of the West when it launched the ‘anti-terror operation’.
      2. Russia has supplied weapons and ammunition to the rebels, and at the very least in August of last year Russian troops did enter Ukrainian territory.


      1. “The Crimean example therefore helped to encourage more extreme forms of protest.”

        The Crimean referendum was a reaction to the putsch in Kiev. You can’t pick an action from a chain of events, something that was a – moderate, I’d say – reaction to an extreme provocation, and make that actor responsible.

        And 2 – if it’s true, so what? That’s not responsibility for “what has happened”. That’s, again, reluctant (clearly) participation in what is happening. Yes, thankfully, they refused to play the role of Egypt in the Gaza blockade.


      2. Paul, I would respectfully disagree on some parts regarding your first point.

        One should note that Crimea was not the only immidiate and recent example of very successfull seperatism, in February, as Yanukovich appeared to be staying in power, Lviv and Ivano Frankivsk declared “independence” (actually, a point can be made that they declared themselfs as the true goverment of all of Ukraine, something that is in my opinion more ambitious then a seperatist revolt).

        From a potential Donbass pov: Maidan has basically destroyed the police forces that would have been used against them in a rebellion, and Berkut etc. where far more likely to side with Donbass, then to follow Kievs orders to crush it.
        If Lviv could pull off an ambitious takeover against the central goverment while that goverment was still powerfull, wrecking considerable parts of said goverment power structures in the process, then why shouldnt Donbass be capable of pursuing the more limited goal of either federalization or seperatism by force? Of course, that POV would have still thought that Russian support would materialize, since they had scant reasons not to think that.

        I would however add another point: If we accept the Kososvo precedent, then wrecking the territorial integrity of a nation is “OK” if that nations goverment is killing the opposition. Effectively, Moscow punished the Kiev goverment for a crime that they, at this point, had not yet comitted. Since Kiev was already punished, they may as well go on and do the deed for which they are being punished. This deeds of course further escalated the situation.

        In my opinion, something similiar happened with the western “punishment” of Russia. Generally, if you view Russian intervention as being a ladder (with weapon and training being lower rungs on the latter, while direct intervention by military forces being on the upper rungs) or two above of what they were actually doing at any given timepoint. As they were already being punished as if they had escalated a step further, they had less disincentives from taking that step.

        What I would love to know is the extent in which the Russians currently utilize Ukrainian refugees to Russia as a “volunteer fighting force”. Using refugees would allow Russia to first screen them, they could ensure and incentivize good behaviour by providing good accomodation and opportunities to the “refugee volunteers” relatives, they could train them and equip them in Russia, and if they get caught while fighting in Ukraine, they wold still be local Ukrainians from Donbass. In addition, these refugee volunteers would still have the moral benefits of fighting for their homes and their land, so from the machiavellian Russian pov, it would be the best of both worlds.
        I mean, if I was Putin this is a thing I would be doing. They now had enough time and enough refugees to train such forces,


      3. Sorry for my clunky German English, this:
        In my opinion, something similiar happened with the western “punishment” of Russia. Generally, if you view Russian intervention as being a ladder (with weapon and training being lower rungs on the latter, while direct intervention by military forces being on the upper rungs) or two above of what they were actually doing at any given timepoint. As they were already being punished as if they had escalated a step further, they had less disincentives from taking that step.

        Should have been:
        If you view Russian intervention as a ladder, then different steps Russia can take, fincancial support, military supplies, weaponry, advisors etc. are different steps on that ladder, with open Russian conventional intervention outside of Novorussia being the highest rung.
        From my pov, Russia was generally punished or sanctioned as if they were one or two steps higher on the escalation ladder then they actually were. This of course incentivized them to escalate further.

        An edit function would be really cool.


  3. Will there be any guidelines in not cooperating with say the Azov battalion? Is Canada not aware? The Jewish community is very strong and outspoken in Canada.
    On a parallel track: are you aware of any guidelines for the Canadian intervention in Syria? What are the targets, which are friendlies? Can an ISIS convoy be bombed inside Turkey (I assume not!)? Are Al Nusra a legitimate target? SAA positions? Have this been debated at all in Ottawa, publicly or not?


    1. The Department of National Defence will supposedly be vetting the National Guard units that it trains to check for far-right political tendencies. The implication is that Canadian soldiers won’t train far right units, but to be sure of that we would have to get exact details of what the vetting entails, and I haven’t yet found any.


      1. That’s kind of funny. So the Canadians are only going to be training that portion of the army that, were it’s ideology to be representative of the actions of the politicians in Kiev, there would be no war. Go Canada!

        It’s actually funny on another level. The need to make this qualification kind of undoes the narrative it has banished out the front door by letting it back in through the back.

        These conservative fuckers should stick to managing fucking golf courses where they can do no harm.


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