Canada took the world by surprise when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a 4.5 million-dollar military aid package to be delivered to Ukraine around the same time Russian strongman Vladimir Putin revealed his country’s plan to send in a mysterious “humanitarian aid convoy” consisting of over 250 vehicles that suspiciously look like military trucks painted in white – a detail that drew the ire of the Obama Administration. But while US officials never went further than strong words in their opposition to Russian involvement in Ukraine’s struggle with pro-Russian militants, the Canadian military got involved in a seemingly rear-guard role to help its ally. But there’s more than meets the eye.
At first sight, the deals seems symbolic at best, useless at worst. Canadian military aid to Ukraine mostly consists of delivering “non-lethal” equipment to Ukrainian troops – helmet, ballistic protective eyewear, flak jackets, first aid kits, tents and sleeping bags flown in by the Royal Canadian Air Force’s newly acquired C-130J Hercules transport aircraft. National Defence minister Rob Nicholson declared in a press conference that the Canadian military is responding to a request by the Ukrainian government to support their war effort. But the deal still raises my eyebrows, mainly for two reasons.
Cold War Mentality
While such gear is being described as “non-lethal” by Canadian military and civilian officials, most of it will be used on the battlefield. Flak jackets, helmets and ballistic eyewear will be worn by soldiers in combat, as will first-aid kits. Tents will be pitched in the rear and combat and non-combat soldiers alike will use sleeping bags.
So the “non-lethal” aspect the government insisted on is nothing more than a Public Affairs media line, a snake-charming trick to take attention away from one crucial fact – Canada, by committing such a small but bold move, is now militarily involved in the Ukrainian conflict, same as any other nation that supported another. It became the first G8/NATO country to strongly commit to assisting Ukraine, hence taking a clear side against Russia in this regional dispute. Russia consistently denied involvement, even though some of its soldiers forgot to disable their smartphones’ geotracking feature before taking selfies deep within Ukraine’s borders.
A stance consistent with Canada’s current foreign policy in Eastern Europe – Foreign Affairs minister John Baird was even spotted chanting with Pro-European Union Ukrainian protesters in Kyiv during the conflict’s heydays, back when it mostly revolved around whether or not Ukraine would leave Russia’s sphere of influence to embrace the EU. But it also reveals the Harper government’s Cold War nostalgia, taking an opportunity to show that they stand strong in front of the former superpower while other NATO countries prefer to keep their distance. It’s also consistent with the current shift in military policy – while many Canadians wished their military returned to their traditional peacekeeping duties, current defense strategy focuses on a more aggressive stance, especially regarding disputes in the Arctic.
An Electoral Move?
Which brings me to a second, very important aspect.
The Conservative government is facing a tough election coming in Spring 2015, having been involved in many political scandals. With the resurgence of a recently moribund Liberal Party, with the help of charismatic heir to the Liberal crown Justin Trudeau (son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau), and being forced to take the blame for, among other things, for Canada’s military failure in Afghanistan as well as mistreatment of veterans, re-election is far from guaranteed.
With 1.2 million people mostly concentrated in areas in Saskatchewan and Manitoba who mostly vote Conservative, the Ukrainian-Canadian community is one of the biggest diasporas in the country. It isn’t far-fetched to imply that the Harper government might want to secure the Ukrainian vote by spending 4.5 million dollars out of an 18-billion defence budget for logistical support – a grain of sand in the desert that could become a huge political payoff.
One could argue that military action is almost always politically motivated. But with a thinly stretched, tired military in the process of recovering from a decade-long war, choosing the next conflict – or to stay out of it – will prove a crucial test to the next government, no matter which.