Ever since the conflict between Russia and Ukraine escalated into a near state of war, the Canadian government has taken a firm stance on the issue—siding with the former Soviet satellite. At the G20 retreat in November 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper even told Russian President Vladimir Putin that “[he’ll] shake his hand if he gets out of Ukraine”—tough talk from a prime minister who was, at the time, a year away from seeking re-election and had been courting Canada’s Ukrainian-Canadian community since the Ukraine crisis started in early 2014.
After months of low-profile military support, mostly consisting of supplying Ukrainian troops with “non-lethal equipment” such as ballistic glasses, sleeping bags, night vision goggles, and medical equipment, as well as contributing ships and aircraft to NATO’s “assurance” mission, the Harper government upped the ante last April by sending 200 soldiers into the Ukraine crisis in yet another “training and advising mission.”
Here’s an excerpt from the prime minister’s office’s statement regarding the mission:
“Canada will be deploying approximately 200 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel to Ukraine until March 31, 2017, to develop and deliver military training and capacity-building programs for Ukrainian forces personnel. CAF members will be deployed on both a sustained and periodic basis depending on the type of training being conducted.
Their activities will include explosive ordnance disposal and improvised explosive device disposal training, military police training, medical training, flight safety training, and logistics system modernization training. Canada will also be providing individual and unit tactics training to Ukrainian National Guard personnel along with the United States.”
A first-degree look makes this mission fit the criteria of a standard defense, diplomacy, and military assistance. And yet, things can quickly get out of hand for two main reasons: indirectly supporting extreme-right factions, and getting engulfed in a conflict that expands way beyond the Ukraine crisis.
Since it first took this stance, the Canadian government has been ignoring the immense complexity of the Ukraine crisis by openly challenging Russia and affirming that it will unilaterally stand alongside Ukraine. This is a bold statement reflecting major changes in a Canadian foreign policy that has, in recent years, moved from relative neutrality regarding external conflicts to taking unambiguous, unequivocal positions, similar to the unconditional support for Israel, for instance. It’s a black-and-white view that taints reality and, in the case of Ukraine, veils the fact that the conflict has been a fertile ground for far-right armed groups such as the infamous Azov militia, which has since been incorporated into the Ukrainian army as an infantry battalion.
While Ukraine’s struggle for independence from the Russian sphere of influence remains legitimate, the emergence of ultra-nationalist, right-wing groups in government, the military, and civil society challenges the legitimacy of NATO’s operation, of which Canada is an increasingly big part. The rise of such groups has been a concerning political trope across Europe for several years, with their spread coincidentally sparking anti-Semitic and xenophobic sentiments.
The Canadian government has yet to address these issues and has been mute on the matter since the beginning of the mission.
The other question raised is whether Harper and the conservatives can walk the talk. With the army still recovering from the Afghanistan War, a navy that lost its capacity for refueling and replenishment at sea, most of the country’s fighter jets engaged in combat in Iraq and Syria, and all branches suffering deep budget cuts, the Canadian military is far too stretched to back any action the Harper/Putin staring contest might inspire. The Arctic strategic plan still hasn’t left the paper stage.
Taking a stand on the international stage is any sovereign country’s prerogative, but it must be done responsibly. Unfortunately, this government’s foreign and defence policies have become too closely tied to electoral concerns—an issue that will be the subject of an upcoming article addressing the explosive mix of war and electoralism.
(Featured image courtesy of al-Jazeera)