Canada’s mission to Ukraine: Where international alliances and domestic politics meet

The decision to join the international mission to train Ukrainian troops was probably inevitable, argues Steve Saideman.

By: /
14 April, 2015
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Canada will send 200 soldiers to Western Ukraine as part of a training mission to help the Ukrainian military, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Tuesday. The troops will be joining 800 U.S. and 75 British soldiers already on the ground.

There are at least two ways to look at the decision:

  1. Canada always joins Anglo-American efforts to foster stability and confront aggression (the Iraq 2003 was, um, something else).

  2. Never say that this government has not leaved any stones unturned in its efforts to pander to a Canadian diasporic segment.

Both are correct.  One can pitch this new training mission as something that is quite typical of Canada — doing what it can as part of a coalition effort. The Canadian Forces has learned, at great cost, how to deal with landmines and improvised explosive devices. They can impart this and other expertise to the Ukrainians.  Of course, 200 trainers can only do so much (as Canada is learning in Iraq with a lesser number), but the Ukrainians can certainly use the help. To be clear, any effect this mission may have will be limited. Better training is not going to give Ukraine the chance to win its war with Russia* but it might raise the costs that Russia will have to incur to keep fighting it, and possibly limit how far Russia will be able to advance.

The impact at home might be a bit clearer.   Stephen Harper and his dual-hatted Minister of National Defence and Minister of Multiculturalism Jason Kenney have been out in front of most of NATO in speaking fervently for the need to help Ukraine. The passion here has a domestic angle, aimed at one of the larger diasporas in Canada. While Harper may indeed have some animus towards Putin (something that we share), the Ministry of Multiculturalism has been mostly focused the past few years playing towards different ethnic communities in advance of the next election. So is sending a small number of troops to Ukraine just six months ahead of an election is a happy coincidence?

Until now, most of Canada’s military efforts in the region have been in support of NATO’s reassurance missions — flying planes over Romania and the Baltics, and sending small numbers of troops to take part in training exercises. This is a significant step forward, as most of Canada’s NATO partners are not directly involved in Ukraine. And it does mean that Canada will have soldiers on the ground in a country that is at war. Of course, the training will be done in Western Ukraine, so there is little risk for the troops.  Still, it is not something to be done lightly.

There may be other dynamics involved in this, but the combination of Anglo-American-Canadian cooperation and ethnic politics at home makes this move almost inevitable.

* I am not a big fan of the fiction that this conflict is between Ukraine and a band of separatists — Russian soldiers are dying in Ukraine and Russian equipment is killing Ukrainians (as well as the passengers of a Malaysian airliner).

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