Nov 24, 2021

The Globe and Mail


Canada is considering bolstering its military mission to Ukraine, amid a debate over whether additional NATO forces would deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from further aggression against his country’s neighbour.

Two sources with knowledge of the deliberations said Defence Minister Anita Anand is considering deploying hundreds of additional troops to support the Canadian soldiers already in Ukraine on a training mission. Other options being looked at include moving a warship into the Black Sea, or redeploying some of the CF-18 fighter jets based in Romania.

Any reinforcement would be intended as a message to Mr. Putin, who has raised alarm for the second time this year by amassing troops and equipment near his country’s borders with Ukraine. Videos posted online show thousands of battlefield weapons – including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and multiple-launch rocket systems – being moved toward Ukraine from their regular bases in other parts of Russia.

By some estimates, there are now just shy of 100,000 Russian soldiers within a short drive of Ukraine – a country Mr. Putin has never seen as a fully sovereign state, and one he is determined to keep from joining the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

How to respond to Russia’s renewed pressure on Ukraine looms as Ms. Anand’s first major international test since she was appointed Defence Minister last month, replacing Harjit Sajjan. She and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must calibrate whether a further Canadian show of support for Ukraine would help dissuade Mr. Putin – or push him to take action.

The Russian leader, who has warned for more than a decade against any move to invite Ukraine into NATO, recently upped the ante by declaring that any expansion of existing NATO infrastructure in Ukraine would also cross a “red line” and provoke an unspecified response from Russia.

Canada has some 200 troops based in the far west of the country – more than 1,000 kilometres from the Russian border – on a mission to train their Ukrainian counterparts. The two sources, whom The Globe is not naming because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the deliberations, said no decision had yet been made about deploying additional forces, despite pleas from the Ukrainian delegation at the recent Halifax Security Forum for Canada and NATO to do more.

“It’s still status quo, as of now. There’s been no change in our posture,” Lieutenant-Commander Julie McDonald, a spokeswoman for the Canadian military, said on Wednesday. “We’re closely monitoring the situation along with our allied partners.”

While Ukraine is worried about the possibility of a large-scale invasion, others see the Russian buildup as a bargaining ploy – one backed by Mr. Putin’s proven willingness to use military force to achieve his aims.

Russian and Western defence experts agree that Mr. Putin appears to be at least giving himself the option of ordering a broader assault on Ukraine, a country that has already been partly dismembered by Russian military action. (Russia seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, following a pro-Western revolution in Kyiv. A Russian-backed militia has also controlled large parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions since that time, battling the Ukrainian army in a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.)

According to a situation map published by the Ukrainian military, Russia now has 94,000 troops – backed by some 1,200 tanks and 330 warplanes, plus other equipment – stationed along its frontiers with Ukraine. Most experts agree it’s too large a force for the Ukrainian army, though battle-hardened by seven years of war, to resist for a prolonged period of time.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst based in Moscow, said while there was no immediate threat of a snap Russian attack on Ukraine – because the ground in eastern Ukraine is too soft for tank operations – there are signs Mr. Putin may at least be contemplating an offensive in late December or early in the new year when the terrain is frozen.

“Russia is most certainly planning a big campaign. That doesn’t mean they will do it,” Mr. Felgenhauer said in an interview. He said that the objective of any large offensive would be “destroying the entirety of Ukraine” by defeating the country’s army and provoking the collapse of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government.

Russia drew international condemnation in April after massing a similar-sized force near Ukraine’s borders, with the troops returning to barracks only after Mr. Putin secured a one-on-one summit meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. Those talks ended without any major agreements, and Russia’s Kommersant newspaper reported earlier this month that the two leaders are expected to hold a one-on-one video meeting before the end of 2021.

The June meeting with Mr. Biden, however, had not led to any changes to what Russia sees as an untenable situation in Ukraine. Russia seeks to compel the Ukrainian government to grant autonomous status to the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Such a constitutional change would give pro-Russian forces a veto over any future attempt by Ukraine to join the European Union or NATO.

“Putin is really ready to do something to shock the world and demonstrate that he will not tolerate any more the status quo. He is ready to go much further than before,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “It’s not about [gaining more] territory. The idea is to severely and without any doubt stop any Ukrainian ambitions to join NATO one day.”

The current crisis comes as tensions remain high along the border between Belarus, a close ally of Russia, and Poland, a member of NATO. Poland recently moved 15,000 troops to its side of the border after Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko invited thousands of would-be refugees from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere into his country, and then sent them west toward Poland and the EU with the apparent intent of creating a fresh migration crisis inside the bloc.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned last week that the standoff at the Belarus-Poland border and the Russian buildup around Ukraine were two fronts in a “hybrid war” that Mr. Putin was waging against the West. The Kremlin has denied any role in the refugee crisis, and says it is NATO that is raising tensions by repeatedly holding military exercises in the Black Sea region.