Why is there no Royal Canadian Navy task force heading in to keep the sealanes in the international waters of the Black Sea open?

June 17, 2022

By: Sean M. Maloney

The world is confronted with the possibility of a famine that could affect the lives of a billion people all over the world as a direct result of the actions of the Putin regime. Yes, that is billion with a “b.” Deliberate military operations conducted by Russian forces, from theft of farming equipment to cruise missile attacks against storage facilities, are targeted against Ukraine’s ability to grow and export grain. These operations are backed up with a blockade in the Black Sea and what amounts to piracy of Ukrainian shipping. The lethargic response in the West, and especially Canada, to this state of affairs is shocking, given the stakes: a famine combined with a collapse of Ukraine will completely destroy the already tottering world order that Canada places so much faith in and has since the 1940s.

It is shocking particularly when this crisis is compared with others in the past. Canadians take great pride, or at least they used to, in our participation in the Battle of the Atlantic, which was specifically designed to break the U-Boat blockade of Great Britain. That campaign was itself conducted under the umbrella of the Atlantic Charter, which had as its basis the meeting of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill off Argentia, Newfoundland in August 1941.

The Atlantic Charter, which underpinned the creation of the United Nations in 1945, has passages that remain important in our time: all people have the right of self-determination; the participants would work for a world free from want and fear; there would be global economic co-operation and advancement of social welfare; and, important here, the participants agreed that freedom of the seas was paramount in the accomplishment of the other objectives.

Have we somehow repudiated all of this now in 2022? Is this no longer part of Canada’s values? A lot of people died to establish this system and it is being eroded in front of us, day by day.

In the 1980s a valuable commodity necessary for the continuation of modern life came under threat from hostile elements that sought to block it for their purposes. Military forces were deployed to ensure that commodity was escorted safely through a combat zone. They took casualties. But that commodity continued to flow and the livelihoods of those who depended on it continued unabated. That commodity was oil and the effort to keep it flowing through the Persian Gulf by tanker was called Operation EARNEST WILL. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Army conducted defensive and offensive measures to protect the tankers, efforts which resulted in the sinking or disabling of most of the Iranian Navy in 1987. Nations were willing to conduct

military operations to keep the oil flowing in 1987, but are not willing to do so to keep grain flowing in 2022. Why?

Fear is one reason. Nations are afraid of what Russia might do, despite the fact that the Putin regime has thus far been deterred from weapons of mass destruction use and from expanding the Ukraine war elsewhere. Deception and active measures are another. Russian information operations continue to hammer away at the now buckling relationships within NATO in order to undermine support for Ukraine, using the spectre of famine to transfer blame to the West. “Get Ukraine to accept au fait accompli or else” is Putin’s unsubtle message. Who started this war in the first place is getting lost in the fog. It is blame the victim time: Stop resisting or I’ll hurt you more.

But what can Canada do? In 1967, we deployed an aircraft carrier task force to the Mediterranean to extract the Canadian contingent of the United Nations Emergency Force that was held hostage by the Nasser regime. Once the task force passed Gibraltar, Nasser relented and the Canadians were withdrawn. Canadian warships and their aircraft were “painted,” lazed, tracked and harassed in the Adriatic, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean during successful maritime interception operations against rogue states in the 1990s.

Is this nation, which is one-third larger in terms of population and significantly more prosperous than 1967 Canada was, capable of such activity today?

The answer is, no, it is not.

We do have a navy. We are going to give a few billion dollars to Irving Shipbuilding to get new ships for it. Why is there no Royal Canadian Navy task force heading in to keep the sea lanes in the international waters of the Black Sea open? Is it that we do not have enough ships? Then how are we supposed to handle the three oceans that abut Canada? Or is it that Canadian ships cannot protect themselves from Russian action? If they cannot do so, then why do we have them? Is the RCN a glorified coast guard or a navy capable of combat operations?

Maybe such a mission is just too violent for some Canadians to contemplate. So what else are we doing to offset this famine? We are one of the world’s largest grain exporters. India has already suspended exports. What steps have been taken to refurbish the Port of Churchill, which was originally constructed to move grain out of Canada’s west? As important is the status of the rail lines that terminate at Churchill. These should have been crash infrastructure projects once the larger implications of a Black Sea blockade were understood four months ago. They are not. Why?

Canada’s inability or even unwillingness to be agile during this unprecedented crisis puts us into the back row of reliable nations. It is a paralyzing combination of fear, bureaucratic stagnation, and a crippling lack of creativity that holds us back and forces us to watch our hard-won values system circle the drain.

You were upset about a single drowned child in the Mediterranean back in 2015. Hundreds of millions of people are at risk because of the Putin regime’s actions. What are you going to do about it? What do you want your country to be prepared to do?

Sean M. Maloney, PhD is a professor of history at Royal Military College. His views do not reflect those of the Department of National Defence.