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What we’ve learned so far from Russia’s war on Ukraine

Canada has an important role to play, but it must abandon its inert thinking

By: /
2 March, 2022
KYIV, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 25: Ukrainian servicemen stand on patrol at a security checkpoint on February 25, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Yesterday, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with Russian troops invading the country from the north, east and south, accompanied by air strikes and shelling. The Ukrainian president said that at least 137 Ukrainian soldiers were killed by the end of the first day. (Photo by Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images)

In the early hours of February 24, Russian forces crossed over the border into Ukraine, igniting a conflagration after years of smoldering conflict between the two countries. The invasion has shocked many long-time observers of the region – the brazen nature of the act, the maximalist aims, and unprecedented scale easily classify it as the largest gamble of President Vladimir Putin’s political career. 

The situation in the region remains highly fluid and uncertain at the time of writing: many of the tactical and operational details are cloaked by the fog of war, and the final outcome of the invasion remains unclear. Nevertheless, the attack will likely lead to durable effects on Canada and NATO’s future.

Planning for Russia’s invasion – from the scale of its military buildup to the resulting operation – likely required months of planning. Moreover, the actual window to launch the operation would have been narrow, perhaps three to four weeks. Troops cannot be forward deployed in these locations for too long without severe consequences on readiness, morale and sustainment. US intelligence likely understood this fact and was fairly accurate in its overall assessments of the timing and scale of the war. This offers a useful lesson for future crises: Western intelligence gathering capabilities can provide a very early warning function on potential large military operations. 

Given the events leading up to the invasion, diplomatic efforts to stop the conflict were unlikely to succeed. Russia’s demands were simply unacceptable, which the Kremlin likely well understood. This was further reflected in Putin’s speech when he announced the invasion and laid out its justification, including a promise to demilitarize and “de-nazify” Ukraine. The messaging was directly aimed at his domestic constituencies, and completely divorced from any actual security or geopolitical concerns. 

There was likely little that could be done to dissuade President Putin from undertaking this attack. At the same time, Western outreach prior to the invasion may have allowed it to rally opposition more effectively to the invasion, by showing how good faith diplomacy was rejected out of hand. 

Yet despite the fog of war, some conclusions can be drawn based on how the war has unfolded so far. Perhaps most surprisingly, Russian combat performance has been exceptionally poor. Major operations have gone awry, resulting in significant defeats. This includes several large airborne landings that have been repulsed with reports of serious casualties. It’s difficult to diagnose the cause of this failure, but it does suggest the quality of Russian Federation’s ground and air force may have been overstated by some analysts; this requires a reassessment of their capabilities. 

At the same time, Western support has been undeniably critical for Ukrainian battlefield successes. Anti-tank guided missile systems, specifically the British MTB-LAW (NLAW) and American Javelin, have proved invaluable in blunting Russia’s qualitative and quantitative edge in armoured vehicles. Ukrainian troops are the beneficiaries of Western training and have experience in undertaking combat operations since the 2014 Donbass War, making them highly lethal despite shortcomings in artillery, air power and armoured vehicles. 

A potentially more decisive tool has been Western intelligence-sharing. For instance, one of the aims of the 2021 US-Ukrainian Strategic Defence Framework is “closer partnership of defense intelligence communities in support of military planning and defensive operations.”  While direct evidence is scant, this may have helped guide warfighting decisions during the conflict. One possible example can be found with Ukrainian ballistic missile strikes into Russia, which could have been targeted using intelligence gathered and shared by Western states.  As with other recent conflicts, drones also seem to be playing an important role in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), as well as providing low cost and somewhat survivable air power behind the front lines. 

On the whole, the conflict illustrates some of the newer trends surrounding modern combat operations. Ukrainian forces seem to have superior command and control capabilities compared to their Russian counterparts and are leveraging modern ISR capabilities effectively. These moves support ongoing shifts in Western military thought and development, which emphasize the role of highly mobile and connected forces for the battlefield of the future.

Russia’s inability to trigger the rapid collapse of the Ukrainian government, alongside the apparent rise of a paramilitary and civilian resistance across all sectors of Ukrainian society, indicate that unrest towards any Russian occupation will remain pervasive. Nationalist sentiments are rife, which will likely fuel any resistance towards Russia’s presence for the foreseeable future. 

Furthermore, the prevalence of these views, including in eastern areas like Kharkiv, suggests that there is little chance for Russia to effectively split off ethnic communities within the country. This means that a partition of any part of Ukraine to achieve a diplomatic settlement will likely result in continued unrest within that territory. Yet finding a satisfactory outcome seems difficult to imagine, given the Kremlin’s maximalist aims. 

Unfortunately, even if the government survives the conflict intact, Ukraine’s economic development, human rights and political reform efforts over the past decade will have lost ground. Rooting out right-wing extremism and endemic corruption will prove much more difficult after the conflict. Ukraine will require significant assistance from the West to rebuild. 

Still, while the invasion may have been undertaken to solidify Putin’s position in the region, it will almost certainly weaken it. Ukraine’s bloody resistance undermines the Putin regime’s dream of a common Slavic cause. It may even push some other countries in the Caucasus or Central Asia to reconsider their close relationship with Moscow. 

More critically, the economic damage to Russia will likely be immense, and remain so for quite some time. The sanctions regime has choked off liquidity to the economy, creating the grounds for hyperinflation and a market collapse. Even if removed today, it will take months for the damage to be reversed, given their pernicious and pervasive consequences. However, many firms will simply avoid undertaking business within Russia, as evident with BP withdrawing from its US$25 billion venture with the Russian oil firm Rosneft.

Russia also faces other long-term, strategic consequences. For example, the European Union seems poised to wean itself off of Russian gas supplies and invest more heavily into nuclear and renewable resources. It has also been unexpectedly robust in other aspects of its response, from its decision to apply sanctions on Russia and to accept Ukrainian refugees to its willingness to fund lethal arms for Ukraine. 

Yet perhaps the most significant change occurred within Germany. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has cast aside nearly 70 years of foreign policy orthodoxy, with the delivery of 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles, alongside a defence spending increase of roughly 25 percent to meet the 2 percent of GDP NATO threshold (and a €100 billion special fund infusion for 2022). Even traditionally neutral countries like Sweden and Finland followed suit, promising significant arms deliveries to Ukraine. 

This suggests Europe will be much more willing to consider collective action to deal with their problems and that all NATO members will be called upon to do more to ensure the region’s security and prosperity. 

Which brings us to Canada. Throughout the crisis, Canada’s role has been mixed, alternating between leading and following allied efforts. In the weeks prior to the invasion, the Liberal government was criticized for its lacklustre support for Ukraine, initially only extending limited financial support and non-lethal aid. However, once the invasion occurred, it took a much harder line with the Kremlin. Canada seemed to be among the most vocal countries to call for banning Russia from the SWIFT transactional banking system, while pressing European allies to follow suit. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland worked to convince US policy-makers to sanction Russian banks, which included circulating a paper on the imposition of such sanctions. 

It has also promised $7 million in lethal aid, $25 million in protection military gear, and now short range anti-armour weapons and munitions. This however is a very small and modest contribution, especially compared to what other allies are providing. This is largely due to cutbacks and drawdowns over the past decade have forced the Canadian Armed Forces to divest itself of stockpiles that could be sent to assist Ukrainian forces in combat.

Similarly, there are limits to what Canada can provide in terms of military capability to assist in the defence of NATO members in the region. The government has announced 3,400 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel from across all branches of the service will be placed on stand-by for potential assignment to the NATO Response Force, as well as the immediate deployment of an artillery battery, electronic warfare personnel, a second frigate and an CP-140 Aurora multipurpose aircraft to Eastern Europe. While on the surface these contributions may seem significant, the actual capability it brings is much more limited.

Historically, Canada’s primary contribution to similar crises is usually its CF-18 Hornet fighter fleet, an option that seems unavailable at this time. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has been particularly hard hit by severe understaffing, with its tactical fighters only at 50 percent availability rate. Moreover, Canada’s CF-18 fleet is nearing obsolescence and would serve little useful purpose in any serious conflict between NATO and Russia. Its replacement program remains unselected and the fleet-replacement process is stalled until the government selects a winning fighter. 

Canada needs to fully appreciate and understand these major policy shifts and react accordingly.

Canada’s ability to deploy the 3,400 CAF personnel rapidly and with capabilities to potentially operate in a high-intensity conflict environment is also fraught with challenges. When it comes to any ground component, the Canadian army does not possess any advanced anti-air capabilities, which would leave them vulnerable to strikes by aircraft, helicopters and drones; all of which have been observed in Ukraine. 

Moreover, Canada has significant limitations in its ability to provide modern command and control and ISR capabilities for any formations to be assigned to the NATO Response Force. When Canada deployed its battalion-sized (500 soldiers) Enhanced Forward Presence to Latvia in 2015, it required a full year to acquire these capabilities so the formation could operate successfully in the field. The CAF’s potential deployment to the NATO Response Force would face similar challenges. If the earlier analysis of Western ISR’s role in the conflict is accurate, any deployed forces will require extensive upgrades and reorganization to take advantage of these opportunities.

Over the coming years, Canada will likely face pressure to significantly increase its defence spending beyond the current 1.2-1.4 percent of GDP if it has any desire to play a useful role in transatlantic security going forward. 

While only days into the crisis, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has already upended strategic thinking around foreign policy, defence, energy security, and beyond. It has laid bare the disconnect between many states in their security environments, their defence and foreign policies, and how they are resourced.  While it was unlikely that diplomacy could have dissuaded Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine, the invasion has forced leaders to develop a much more clear-eyed view of the potential threat posed by their neighbour. 

Canada needs to fully appreciate and understand these major policy shifts and react accordingly. The government must resist its frequent policy of announcing largely empty symbolic gestures and instead pursue a major foreign and defence policy reorientation that better addresses the new geostrategic landscape. While nothing is certain, this much is clear: Canada and its allies have played an important role and can continue to do so if they continue to readjust their previously inert thinking.

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