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The war in Ukraine could force Canada to shed its self-image as a peacekeeper

Over the past three decades or more, Canada has suffered from a deep identity crisis whenever it has been confronted with the messy, brutal foreign wars raging in far-flung parts of this troubled globe.

The overwhelming brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced the Liberal government in recent weeks to confront some thorny questions. What does a peacekeeping nation do when there’s no peace to keep?

And what do you do when faced with a nuclear-armed adversary whose default reflex is to wage war?

For decades, Canada has clung to a perception of itself as a peacekeeping nation. Experts say the war of aggression launched by President Vladimir Putin marks a return to the kind of conflicts not seen since the end of the Second World War.

That uncomfortable conundrum will come into even sharper focus later this week.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travels to Brussels to meet with other NATO leaders on Thursday. There they’ll be asked to consider some decidedly non-peacekeeping scenarios in support of keeping Ukraine in the war — with an eye to confronting Russia over the long-term.

Their aim will be to keep the West out of the war in Ukraine and avoid a direct confrontation with Russia. It’s as much an exercise in organizing deterrence as it is about putting some steel into the spine of NATO allies.

It may be generous to say the Liberal government has been reluctant to embrace anything that looks like a hard-edged military solution. Canada was among the last countries to agree to ship arms to Ukraine, despite months of consideration.

the war in ukraine could force canada to shed its self image as a peacekeeper
A man removes a shredded curtain inside a school damaged by Russian bombs in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday. (Rodrigo Abd/The Associated Press)

The Trudeau government has steadfastly refused to indicate clearly whether it will raise defence spending in response to the threat, preferring mushy platitudes to clear targets.

It has not committed firmly to purchasing equipment and covering critical gaps in the Canadian military inventory in the near term. It also has presented economic sanctions as the ultimate weapon for defeating Russia.

During Trudeau’s recent tour of European capitals, he gave a speech in Berlin that neatly captured his government’s reluctance.

“I think for a lot of citizens, they said, well, Russia just invaded militarily Ukraine, surely if you want to stand for Ukrainians, the response has to be military,” Trudeau said.

“Well, actually, we have more and better tools than that now. The power we have that we have built up over the past 75 years of unprecedented peace and stability around the world means that we have the tools to damage the Putin regime far more effectively than we ever could with tanks and missiles.”

There are strains of old arguments in Trudeau’s remarks.

From ‘strategic bombing’ to sanctions

During the Second World War, there were those who argued Germany and Japan could be brought to their knees through strategic bombing — by flattening factories to undermine the enemy’s ability to fight, much in the way sanctions are meant to rob Putin of the means to pay for his war.

Those people claimed victory could be achieved without the wholesale sacrifice of armies. It didn’t turn out that way, of course. The Axis powers had to be driven out on the ground in much the same way that Ukraine has — for the moment — checked Russia’s bloody advance.

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One hundred and nine empty strollers are placed outside the Lviv city council to highlight the number of children killed in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Lviv, Ukraine, on Friday. (Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

Matthew Schmidt, a national security expert at the University of New Haven, Connecticut, said sometimes we just don’t want to see the obvious nature of war.

Had the Ukrainians not been so effective in their defence — and had the Russians not been so “shockingly incompetent” — the war would have been over by now, he said.

There are lessons the Ukrainians have learned over the years about dealing with Russia that may be just sinking in for western leaders like Trudeau, Schmidt said.

“I think they understand Putin in a different way than we do. They understand that Western-style deterrence isn’t going to work with him,” he said.

Wishful thinking

That reluctance to shed the peacekeeping aura was echoed this week when Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly told a CTV interviewer that Canada is “not a military power” — that the country “is good at convening and making sure that diplomacy is happening.”

Schmidt said both Trudeau and Joly reflect the best ideals of the West — but they may be out of step with the moment.

“I think it is naive about Putin and how he makes decisions,” he said. “I think it is aspirational of what we in the West want the world to be, and what it absolutely can be, but not in all instances, and maybe not yet.”

Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa, said he believes the horrors faced by civilians in eastern Europe right now — coupled with events such as Friday’s pro-war rally in a packed stadium in Moscow — bring with them echoes of the 1930s.

“Nuremberg,” he said, referring to the torch-lit rallies held in Nazi Germany. 

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A resident walks with a child past a Russian tank in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on Friday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Back then, Arel said, many people in the West didn’t want to acknowledge what was going on in Europe. He predicts that as Canadians are overwhelmed by images of bombed theatres and murdered children, there will be a shift “in the Canadian identity” which has for decades viewed peacekeeping as the country’s primary reason for going abroad.

The world has changed, Arel said.

“It’s a very hard and cold realization that in the era of war of aggression … you have to basically provide the means for states, including the Canadian state … to withstand aggression,” he said.

That doesn’t mean Canadians have to entirely give up who they are as a people, he added.

“It’s not that Canada has to advocate for a military solution to conflicts as such. Of course not,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s always about the political solution, but in order to get to a political solution, the military component now, unfortunately, has to be much more serious than it was before.”

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