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.