It’s time to stop pretending that Canada isn’t at war with Russia.
On Tuesday, April 19, in advance of a new Russian offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada will be sending heavy artillery to the besieged European nation. This came on the heels of the recently released federal budget, which earmarked half-a-billion dollars for arms to Ukraine, in addition to $90 million worth of “offensive” weapons announced and delivered since the end of February.
Canada has played a significant role in arming Ukraine and training its military personnel long before Russia’s illegal February 24 invasion. According to a recent report by Simon Coutu of CBC/Radio-Canada, the federal government has spent at least $900 million to train Ukrainian forces since 2015. The 2,800-word exposé details how Canada even trained elements of the Azov Battalion, a far-right neo-Nazi group that was absorbed into the Ukrainian national guard in 2014.
A recent front-page Wall Street Journal article also focused on the central role played by Canadian military trainers in Ukraine. In 2019, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko dubbed Canada’s Harper-era Defence Minister, Jason Kenney, as the “godfather of the modern Ukrainian army” for his role in launching Operation UNIFIER (a bilateral mission between Canada and Ukraine) and helping to restore Ukraine’s “decrepit” army and navy following the overthrow of elected President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.
Prior to the Russian invasion, the United States and the United Kingdom had also spent billions of dollars training and arming the Ukrainian military. An explosive investigation by Yahoo News revealed the CIA ran a secret training program in Ukraine until days before the war began. As part of the program, CIA paramilitaries taught their Ukrainian counterparts sniper techniques and provided instruction in how to use Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Over the past two months Washington has announced or supplied over $3 billion to Ukraine. According to Le Figaro reporter Georges Malbrunot, US forces are even directing elements of the war on the ground. In addition to large numbers of Canadian and US troops, the Daily Mail recently reported that British special forces are stationed in Ukraine.
While more details on the scope of Western involvement will likely emerge in the coming months and years, there is enough information in the public record to conclude that, despite falling below the threshold of direct confrontation with Russia, Canada’s contribution of arms means that we are indeed at war in Ukraine. This reality is compounded by the other retaliatory measures Ottawa has wielded to destroy the Russian economy. Canada has adopted an unprecedented sanctions regime that, according to Politico, was spearheaded by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, who led the international charge to freeze over $300 billion in Russian Central Bank assets.
In the words of Canadian Foreign Policy Journal editor David Carment and Webster University professor Dani Belo, economic and other actions just short of a formal declaration of war can be lethal and carry unpredictable consequences:
Canada and its allies are using techniques associated with hybrid warfare based on the understanding that engaging Russia directly may trigger a nuclear confrontation. Hybrid war’s strength derives from its societal impact, its ability to destabilize conventional statecraft and its weakening of political resolve and economic capacity—against which there is no effective military solution. Western governments are operating from the belief that using unconventional instruments of war can serve two ends. They are assumed to be inherently less costly and they are assumed to be a deterrent. Neither of these conclusions appear to be true.
In essence, Canada and its allies are embarking on uncharted territory with unintended consequences. The problem is that Canada is stuck. Unwilling to confront Russia directly through military means Canada has chosen a path which at face value seemed prudent before the war started. As the cost of engagement in conventional military operations increases, the grey zone becomes increasingly important for the exercise of power and overall interaction between states. Unfortunately Canada’s unconventional measures are clearly having global consequences—something which policy-makers did not anticipate or ignored with devastating effects. We are witness to the destruction and collapse of not just one but possibly two states on Europe’s doorstep.
As Greg Shupak has written for Canadian Dimension, the horror unfolding in Ukraine today must be understood not only as the result of brutal Russian aggression but also as a protracted proxy war between NATO and Russia over Ukraine.
A highly militaristic country with a long imperial history, Russia responded brutally to perceived threats to its sovereignty by abandoning diplomacy and proceeding with an assault on its neighbour. But this rash decision was not made in a vacuum. Rather, it followed a series of deliberate choices by mostly US policymakers to ignore Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top security concerns—namely the possibility of Ukraine’s membership into NATO—and withdraw from cornerstone Cold War arms control measures including the the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. These decisions, and more, contributed to impel Putin to criminal aggression.
While some may draw analogies between the current situation and the “appeasement” of Hitler in the lead-up to the Second World War, US and Canadian machinations toward Ukraine and Russia over the past few decades more closely resemble the situation before the First World War, when various European imperial powers played the “Great Game”—a period of immense political and diplomatic confrontation between the British and Russian empires.
Despite numerous moves by the Canadian government to increase the transfer of weapons (thereby prolonging the conflict), the Canadian left has largely supported Ottawa’s position. Absorbed with denouncing Russia, little effort has been put towards pressing for a negotiated solution to end the fighting or appealing for debt relief for Ukraine. There has also been little attention paid to the possibility that armaments shipped to Ukraine may be seized by the Russian military or end up on the black market.
For its part, the NDP supports the Liberals. They’ve backed sending more than half-a-billion dollars in arms, including heavy artillery, to Ukraine while the party has publicly promoted its membership into NATO.
The pressure to be patriotic during times of war is immense. In the best-known example of leftists succumbing to inter-imperialist war fever, most of the Second International abandoned their internationalist rhetoric and supported the slaughter at the start of the Great War. In 1915, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (now the Canadian Labour Congress) characterized the First World War as a “mighty endeavour to secure early and final victory for the cause of freedom and democracy.” Industrial Banner, the leading labour newspaper in southern Ontario, called for crushing “Prussian authoritarianism” under which the “common man suffered most.” It took years of horrible fighting and conscription for most to shift course.
An imperialist Canadian state and ruling class is at war with Russian imperialists, and just like during the First World War, the left should side with neither. Internationalist-minded Canadians should be working to end hostilities, not push the fight “to the last Ukrainian.”
Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.