The war in Ukraine could force Canada to shed its image as a peacekeeper

For the past three decades or more, Canada has suffered a profound identity crisis whenever it has been confronted with the disorderly and brutal foreign wars that raged in remote parts of this troubled world.

The crushing brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced the Liberal government in recent weeks to grapple with thorny issues. What does a peacekeeping nation do when there is no peace to keep?

And what to do with a nuclear adversary whose default reflex is to wage war?

For decades, Canada has clung to a perception of itself as a peacekeeping nation. Experts say the war of aggression launched by President Vladimir Putin marks a return to a type of conflict not seen since the end of World War II.

This uncomfortable conundrum will come into sharper focus later this week.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is traveling to Brussels on Thursday to meet with other NATO leaders. There, they will be asked to consider decidedly non-peacekeeping scenarios to support Ukraine’s staying in the war — with a view to confronting Russia in the long run.

Their goal will be to keep the West out of the war in Ukraine and avoid a direct confrontation with Russia. It is as much an exercise in organizing deterrence as it is putting a bit of steel in the backbone of NATO allies.

It is perhaps generous to say that the Liberal government is reluctant to adopt anything resembling a radical military solution. Canada was one of the last countries to agree to ship weapons to Ukraine, despite months of deliberation.

A man removes a ragged curtain inside a school damaged by Russian bombs in kyiv, Ukraine on Friday. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

The Trudeau government has staunchly refused to make clear whether it will increase defense spending in response to the threat, preferring soft platitudes to clear goals.

It has not made a firm commitment to purchase equipment and fill critical gaps in Canada’s military inventory in the short term. He also presented economic sanctions as the ultimate weapon to defeat Russia.

During Trudeau’s recent tour of European capitals, he delivered a speech in Berlin that captured his government’s reluctance.

“I think for a lot of citizens, they said, well, Russia just militarily invaded Ukraine, surely if you want to defend Ukrainians, the response has to be military,” Trudeau said.

“Well, in fact, we have more and better tools than that now. The power we have accumulated over the past 75 years of unprecedented peace and stability in the world means we have the tools to damage the regime. of Putin much more effectively than we ever could have done with tanks and missiles.”

There are strains of old arguments in Trudeau’s remarks.

From “strategic bombardment” to sanctions

During World War II, some argued that Germany and Japan could be brought to their knees by strategic bombing – razing factories to undermine the enemy’s fighting capability, the same way sanctions are meant to deprive Putin of the means to pay for his war.

These people claimed that victory could be achieved without the massive sacrifice of armies. It didn’t happen that way, of course. The Axis powers had to be driven into the field in much the same way Ukraine has – for now – held back Russia’s bloody advance.

One hundred and nine empty baby carriages are placed in front of the Lviv city council to mark the number of children killed in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Lviv, Ukraine on Friday. (Alexei Furman/Getty Images)

Matthew Schmidt, a national security expert at the University of New Haven, Connecticut, said sometimes we just don’t want to see the obvious nature of war.

If the Ukrainians hadn’t been so effective in their defense – and if the Russians hadn’t been so “scandalously incompetent” – the war would now be over, he said.

There are lessons Ukrainians have learned over the years about relations with Russia that could be sinking for Western leaders like Trudeau, Schmidt said.

“I think they understand Putin in a different way than we do. They understand Western-style deterrence won’t work with him,” he said.

wishful thinking

This reluctance to shed the aura of peacekeeping was echoed this week when Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly told a CTV interviewer that Canada is “not a military power” – that the country “is good at coming together and making sure the diplomacy is going”.

Schmidt said Trudeau and Joly reflected the West’s best ideals – but they may have been out of step with the times.

“I think it’s naive about Putin and the way he makes decisions,” he said. “I think it’s an aspiration for what we in the West want the world to be, and what it absolutely can be, but not in all cases, and maybe not yet.”

Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa, said he believes the horrors facing civilians in Eastern Europe right now – coupled with events such as the Friday’s pro-war rally in a crowded stadium in Moscow – bring with them echoes of the 1930s.

“Nuremberg,” he said, referring to torchlight rallies held in Nazi Germany.

A resident walks with a child past a Russian tank in the besieged port city of Mariupol, Ukraine on Friday. (Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters)

At the time, Arel said, many people in the West didn’t want to acknowledge what was happening in Europe. He predicts that as Canadians become overwhelmed with images of bombed-out theaters and murdered children, there will be a shift “in the Canadian identity” which for decades viewed peacekeeping as the main reason why the country went abroad.

The world has changed, Arel said.

“It’s a very hard and cold realization that in the age of war of aggression…you basically have to provide the means for states, including the Canadian state…to resist aggression,” he said. he declared.

That doesn’t mean Canadians have to completely give up who they are as a people, he added.

“It’s not that Canada should advocate a military solution to conflicts as such. Of course not,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s always about the political solution, but to get to a political solution, the military component now, unfortunately, has to be much more serious than it was before.”

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