How NATO — and Canada — could do a lot more to defend Ukraine

How NATO — and Canada — could do a lot more to defend Ukraine

by Sue Jones
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It’s become clear to all by now that NATO is not going to risk a Third World War by imposing a no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace contested by Russian warplanes. But perhaps the debate over a no-fly zone has distracted attention from other actions that Canada — and what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls “the collective West” — could take to help save Ukraine from Russia.

Russia Ukraine War

People sit inside a subway car being used as a bomb shelter as Russian attacks continue in Kharkiv, Ukraine on March 25, 2022. (Felipe Dana/AP)

It’s become clear to all by now that NATO is not going to risk a Third World War by imposing a no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace contested by Russian warplanes.

But perhaps the debate over a no-fly zone has distracted attention from other actions that Canada — and what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls “the collective West” — could take to help save Ukraine from Russia.

Canada has given Ukraine a considerable amount of assistance over the years. Since the annexation of Crimea, Canada has launched the Operation Unifier training program for Ukrainian troops and has contributed non-lethal aid — and lately, lethal military materiel — from its own meagre stocks. Canada also has been among the most aggressive countries when it comes to sanctioning Russia.

But there are other things this country, and other NATO allies, could do to help Ukraine.

Operation Distraction

Russia already has poured a significant portion of its combat power into Ukraine — but it still has more in reserve, spread out over its vast territory.

As the Russian offensive has stalled, Russian citizens in Siberian cities like Krasnoyarsk have been recording long trains carrying Russian armour west toward Ukraine.

A large train with Russian military equipment was seen in Krasnoyarsk


Could NATO do anything to disrupt or discourage the movement of reinforcements to Ukraine? It could — through distraction.

If NATO were to stage joint exercises with Japan near the disputed Kuril islands off Russia’s Pacific coast, Russia might be much less sanguine about stripping the region of its defences to bolster its forces in Ukraine. 

NATO also could stage manoeuvres in the Baltic region to discourage Russia from transferring forces from its North Military District.

  • What questions do you have about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Send an email to [email protected].

If NATO really felt like pushing the envelope, it could stage exercises in the western part of the Black Sea, off the coasts of NATO members Romania and Bulgaria. That would mean the Russian ships now assembling off Odessa and shelling the coast — apparently in preparation for an amphibious assault — would have to operate with NATO warships and warplanes right at their backs.

Keep them on their toes

“That’s certainly one of the tactics NATO will be looking at,” said Christian Leuprecht of the Royal Military College of Canada.

“The Black Sea is a very serious and genuine option. Romania has every reason to say, ‘The Russians are shelling the Ukrainian coast. What are we doing to defend our coast?'”

Leuprecht said NATO should give Russia short notice of the exercises. “Usually these are announced a year ahead of time,” he said. “That gives them time to draw down their forces.”

Latvia Nato

A U.S. Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter flies during the NATO military exercise Crystal Arrow 2022 at the Adazi military range in Latvia on March 11, 2022. (Martins Zilgalvis/AP)

Instead, he said, NATO should make use of the new troops moving to defend the alliance’s eastern flank and be “more sporadic and spontaneous. You want to keep them on their toes.”

“That forces the Russians to keep their forces deployed elsewhere.”

Risky business

This strategy is far from risk-free. It plays on the fact that military exercises can provide cover for an invasion force — a threat Putin understands better than anybody, having just used that same ruse himself. 

But when rival forces are in close proximity at times of heightened tension, there’s always a risk of violence.

That would be especially true in the Black Sea, where Russian naval commanders are already on a hair-trigger setting.

Putin also could choose to interpret any NATO exercises on his frontiers as an attack in order to justify launching a war with NATO. That action might not be rational but there are doubts about how rational Putin’s thinking is now.

“NATO exercises near Russian borders could be used by Russia to respond and escalate” if Putin decides escalation is in his interest, said Ivan Katchanovski, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa who has written extensively about conflict in his native Ukraine.

MASH at the border

One strategy less likely to widen the war is to set up Level 3 military hospitals at Ukraine’s borders on alliance territory in Poland, Slovakia and Romania. There, Ukrainian soldiers could be treated and, where possible, returned to the fight, saving lives and relieving a tremendous burden on Ukraine’s army.

Ukrainian soldiers are dying from injuries that could be treated under better conditions.

This action would be essentially humanitarian — and difficult for Russia to portray as a provocation.

Russia Ukraine War

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office on Sunday, March 13, 2022, President Volodymyr Zelensky, centre, shakes hands with a wounded soldier during his visit to a hospital in Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP)

“You can assume that among the wounded refugees showing up in European hospitals are wounded soldiers,” said Leuprecht. “But it’s currently happening on a very low-level, subversive scale. But NATO could make it much more explicit.”

Such hospitals also would allow NATO’s smallest members, like Albania, to contribute in a tangible way. 

“I suspect that’s going to come. Because we’re going to need to keep Ukrainian soldiers motivated, and that’s an easy piece of support and an easy sales pitch,” said Leuprecht. “There’s enough of these field hospitals around that you could run them at each of Ukraine’s borders.”

Escrow the oil and gas money

A no-fly zone isn’t the only tactic that seems out of reach for Ukraine’s allies right now. Another is Europe halting all purchases of oil and gas from Russia.

European countries have given hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to Ukraine since the invasion began on Feb. 24. Over the same period, many of those countries paid Russia, collectively, over $20 billion for fossil fuels.

In a New York Times opinion piece published Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s economic adviser Oleg Ustenko complained that Putin’s “war is paying for itself” and asked for secondary sanctions to go after companies that ship or handle Russian oil and gas.

“In the meantime,” wrote Ustenko, “payments for Russian gas should go into escrow accounts, so that the proceeds cannot be used to buy weapons. This is standard practice when there are sanctions.”

But there is a major problem with this proposal — it risks splitting the western alliance.

Not ready to go cold turkey

Germany and some other EU members have made it clear that they won’t ask their people to freeze in the dark for Ukraine. Even Poland — where the entire population seems to have mobilized to support Ukrainians — continues to buy energy from Russia.

Katchanovski said the Europeans know their position is weak.

“Russia would just stop delivery of natural gas to western Europe and other EU countries like Poland and Slovakia,” he said. “This would lead to very negative consequences for these countries.”

Germany Russia Ukraine War

Activists with the environmental organization Greenpeace paint the words ‘Oil fuels war’ on the hull of a ship carrying Russian oil near the German island Fehmarn on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. (Frank Molter/AP)

“Recently,” he added, “Putin issued a demand for buyers of natural gas from Russia to pay in rubles” in an effort to shore up his country’s plunging currency” — another sign that Putin believes Moscow holds the cards when it comes to energy diplomacy.

(He may yet get a rude surprise. Slovenia’s PM said on Thursday that he doesn’t think “anybody in Europe knows what rubles look like. Nobody will pay in rubles.”)

For now, it appears that weaning Europe off Russian oil and gas is a long-term proposition.

Start collecting for reconstruction now

Like all wars, this one will end someday. Katchanovski said Ukrainians are counting on something like a Marshall Plan for their country — a massive injection of foreign capital to fund the country’s post-war recovery.

But the reconstruction effort doesn’t have to begin and end with national governments. Nor does the collection of reconstruction funds have to wait for the shooting to stop.

Past experience with disasters such as the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake shows that very large amounts of money can be raised outside of government treasuries when governments use imaginative mechanisms such as matching private donations dollar-for-dollar.

Needs assessments will be necessary in certain cases, but some needs don’t require studies before the fundraising starts. Ukrainian towns such as Irpin and Mykolaiv have been forced to blow up their own bridges to stop Russian advances. The solution in such cases is obvious: rebuild the bridge.

Adopt a highway … or a bridge

Two European governments showed one way to do that. Italy has pledged to rebuild the Mariupol theater brutally bombed by Russian warplanes while hundreds of civilians sheltered inside. And Greece has committed to give Mariupol a new maternity hospital to replace the one destroyed by Russian artillery.

Rather than waiting for Ottawa to act, Canadian provinces and municipalities, corporations and unions, associations and groups of individuals could commit to rebuilding a single landmark or piece of infrastructure.

Ukraine Crisis Mykolaiv

Dr. Anatolii Pavlov takes pictures of a damaged psychiatric hospital after it was hit in a military strike in Mykolaiv, Ukraine on March 22, 2022. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)

The model is scalable: it could be as large as an airport or as small as a daycare. The federal government could assist by ensuring that such efforts will be treated as charitable donations for tax purposes.

“It would be very helpful to access private money,” said Katchanovski, pointing to private fundraising efforts that already have raised significant amounts of money, such as the one organized by Ukrainian-American Mila Kunis.

Open the clubhouse doors

This war has made it clear to all, including President Zelensky, that NATO membership for Ukraine is off the table for the foreseeable future.

But Russia’s demands go much further than that, said Katchanovski. 

“Currently the Russian demands include no NATO membership, demilitarization of Ukraine, Russian-language official status, independence of Donbas, recognition of the annexation of Crimea, and a demand for ‘denazification’,” he said.

But the extortionate demands Russia has presented to Ukraine in negotiations do not include ruling out Ukraine’s eventual membership in the European Union, said Katchanovski.

If the war ends through a negotiated ceasefire (as most wars ultimately do), then Ukraine may find itself forced to accept some form of neutrality that would make military alliances impossible. But as the examples of Austria and Finland show, it’s possible to remain outside NATO while still being thoroughly integrated economically into Europe.

“Ukraine could be offered EU membership as part of a peace deal where it agrees to renounce NATO membership and declares itself neutral,” said Katchanovski. “This would present Ukraine with something tangible and generate public support.”

Everything depends on the battlefield

Katchanovski says that the harshness of final peace terms will depend entirely on the progress of the war. 

“If Russia achieves more significant military success, this would lead to Ukraine losing its independence or becoming a Russian client state with some kind of formal union between Russia and Ukraine.”

If Ukrainian forces continue to hold their own, however, its government will be inclined to refuse the outrageous territorial demands Russia has placed upon them, which amount to the loss of a third of their country.

There were signs on Friday that Russia might already be scaling back ambitions. 

It all comes down to whether the Ukrainian armed forces can achieve success on the battlefield and whether Western governments have the stamina to continue to support them.

“This could go on for months; it could go on for years,” said Leuprecht. “Showing that we’re willing to do this for the long term, and that we can co-ordinate ourselves to keep this going the way we did in the Cold War until we get to an end — that’s going to be the most important piece.”

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