This opinion was originally published at New Canadian Media. It's been updated to include latest developments.
Canada’s Federal government took a good step by deploying 60 more personnel to join 200 troops already on the ground, which came as part of a $340 million Canadian (US$268 million) commitment to Ukraine as Russian forces amassed at the borders. While reassuring, many believe more leadership is desperately needed.
Canada should consider sending a dedicated peacekeeping mission to the frontlines of Ukraine, signalling a clear message from a strong NATO member supporting the country.
It took weeks of mounting pressure before Canada finally acted Jan. 21 and committed $120 million to help Ukraine fight Russian attempts to destabilize it and its economy. This was the right thing to do, as Russia continues to bring weapons and soldiers to the border, signalling a potential military move by the Kremlin.
As home to the largest Ukrainian diaspora outside of Europe, Canada has a small but important role to play and a moral obligation to help its citizens of Ukrainian heritage.
Although Russia denies any military action, the threat of further invasion is very real as it amasses more than 100,000 troops near the border. And there’s no sign of a breakthrough in diplomatic talks with the U.S.
Lack of leadership
Canada has rightly come under pressure to follow Britain’s military lead as the U.K. promised to deliver a batch of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, while some other Western nations pledged their military support.
From a foreign policy perspective, Canada hasn’t demonstrated leadership on the international stage regarding Russia’s perceived aggression, and it seems it can’t go beyond being a support player on the matter.
Russia’s military buildup on the border of Ukraine is posing a more serious threat than both the original invasion, which began with the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, and its ongoing support for pro-Russian militants in the eastern part of the country.
At the end of the day, it’s not just about Ukraine but the future of free democratic Europe that is at stake. The Western world once allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to ignore the rules of the international order. It can not allow Russia to do it again by bringing its tanks to the EU border.
Even if Canada can’t provide the lethal weapons Ukraine is hoping for, it can raise its voice through lobbying efforts. Canada is a trusted ally that could use its influence with both NATO and non-NATO countries to put the issue of Russia on the international affairs agenda.
The Western alliance is divided over how to assist Ukraine and what to include in the economic sanctions if Russia attacks again. This could be up to Canada to facilitate and implement a long-term solution to the problem of despotic authoritarian Russia.
Some members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community believe Canada could share intelligence from satellites on the movement of Russian troops (something Trudeau's government has finally promised on Monday) and possibly provide other defensive equipment that could be sent to Ukrainian forces on short notice without requiring too much additional training.
Alexander Lanoszka, assistant professor in international relations at the University of Waterloo, thinks that besides deploying a group of Canadian special forces operators, Ottawa should green light the construction of an ammunition production facility that has been under negotiation since at least 2017.
"Ukraine lacks such a facility because the one it had prior to 2014 is now in non-government-controlled-areas. This does nothing for the immediate conflict at hand, to be sure. However, another practical measure to consider, along perhaps with the United Kingdom, what other defensive equipment can be sent to Ukrainian forces on short notice without requiring too much additional training."
Those might have been good options a few months ago, but now it’s time to react fast.
Increasing a peacekeeping presence on Ukraine’s soil might be the right solution. Canada might be small in terms of military power, but it has a long history of supporting Kyiv both financially and militarily (via Operation UNIFIER, that will now be extended by three years).
There are close to 200 Canadian Armed Forces members currently on the ground in Ukraine. Reinforcing the current military personnel by deploying a peacekeeping mission could send a clear message to Russia: that Canada will not allow Putin to recreate the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe.
Ukraine is not the only Canadian ally under threat of Russian aggression. Recently, Mali made headlines following the news of alleged Russian mercenaries’ deployment to the struggling western African nation Canada has been supporting for years.
And if Canada now beefs up its military presence in Ukraine, it might be seen as giving it preferential treatment and find opposition within and outside the country. On the other hand, Canada could also stretch its forces so far as it is not a major military power and has relatively small and lightly-funded armed forces.
Still, geopolitically, few countries have been as supportive of an independent and sovereign Ukraine as Canada currently is.
And now Canada has a chance to show Russia that Ukraine is not a soft target.
Having Canadian peacekeepers on the Ukrainian border might serve as a last warning for Putin of severe NATO consequences — after all, the Russian President is not going to risk an all-out conflict with NATO, which he would most likely lose.