ON TARGET: Unresolved events of 2014 have set the stage for a volatile 2015

A CF-18 Hornet from Air Task Force-Iraq engages in nighttime air-to-air refueling with a CC-150T Polaris during a combat mission in support of Operation IMPACT on December 7, 2014. - Canadian Forces photo

A CF-18 Hornet from Air Task Force-Iraq engages in nighttime air-to-air refueling with a CC-150T Polaris during a combat mission in support of Operation IMPACT on December 7, 2014. - Canadian Forces photo

There is no question that dramatic unresolved events of 2014 have set the stage for what bodes to be an incredibly violent and volatile 2015. The internal unrest in Ukraine prompted Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and has now developed into a bloody civil war.

 Canada has been one of the most strident supporters of the pro-western government in Kiev, and one of the most vocal critics of Russian president Vladimir Putin and the pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels in the Donbass region. Unlike our European NATO allies, Canada has the advantage of being able to freely trash talk Putin and rattle sabres with the Russians because we still have no real skin in this game.

 Sure, we have sent an anti-submarine frigate to patrol the eastern Mediterranean and six CF-18 fighter planes to perform routine NATO patrols in the skies above Lithuania, but if NATO is pushed into a World War 3 showdown with Russia over Ukraine, Europeans will have a hell of a lot more at stake than we do.

 As an oversimplification, the current conflict in Ukraine is portrayed as a virtual tug-of-war between NATO wooing the western-leaning Ukrainians, and Russia luring those ethnic-Russian Ukrainians who still wish to close ties with their eastern neighbours.

 What seems to be deliberately overlooked in this burgeoning clash of arms is that the root cause of Ukraine’s collapse and political unrest is the fact that the country is bankrupt. Economists estimate that for Ukraine to simply remain afloat it will require a cash infusion of some $74 billion U.S. over the next 24 months. So while everyone talks about bringing Ukraine into either the NATO or Russian sphere of influence, nobody is commenting on where such a massive sum of money is going to come from. The stumbling economies of the fragile European Union certainly cannot afford to absorb that debt, and the current crash of both international oil prices and in turn the Russian ruble means that Putin is also no longer in a position to bail them out.

 While it may be a fun distraction for Prime Minister Harper to beat the war drums and to goad other NATO leaders into pushing Russia ever closer to the brink of hostilities, it also needs to be remembered that not a single Ukrainian soldier fired a shot in defence of the Crimea. Those Ukrainian soldiers based in the Crimea – and it was a major military base – not only willingly surrendered their weapons, but some 80% of them subsequently switched uniforms to enlist in the Russian military. To make the reclamation of the Crimea, the NATO battle cry therefore seems to strike a rather hollow note.

 As for any resolution of the current violence between Ukrainian government forces and the rebels, there needs to be a viable financial and long-term workable business plan to overcome that nation’s massive debt.

 Similarly, Canada’s current combat contribution in the fight against ISIS in Iraq will accomplish nothing until we develop a strategy to eliminate the support which ISIS fighters currently receive from the Sunni Arab population in the central Iraq territory which they now control. That same Sunni faction supported Saddam Hussein and benefited greatly from his three-decade secular rule. While there are fundamentalists among them, the majority of these Sunnis enjoyed the privilege of higher education for both males and females.

 During the 2006 American surge against Al-Qaeda extremists in this same Sunni triangle, the US military successfully recruited the secular Sunni tribal militias to help secure a victory. Upon the US military withdrawal from Iraq in December 2012, the Shiite majority government in power vindictively marginalized the Sunnis once again. It was this setback that led the secular Sunnis to once again support fundamentalist extremists – this time ISIS, as they see these jihadists as being their only salvation.

 Bombing ISIS dump trucks and roadblocks will not defeat the threat. The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters will defend their self-proclaimed territory including the oil fields of Kirkuk and the Shiite militia will fight to protect their oil fields in Basra. Neither of these factions wants to fight their way into the Sunni triangle to sit atop a violent hornets’ nest of fanatical insurgents.

It will require once again successfully convincing the Sunni tribal leaders that they will enjoy a better future in a unified Iraq, than the harshly enforced fundamentalist rule within the current ISIS caliphate.

 That will be a difficult promise to make, and even more difficult to guarantee, as the Sunnis currently see the allied air effort aimed at supporting Shiite militia and Kurdish Peshmerga.

 Neither Ukraine’s massive debt nor Iraq’s factional divisions will be easily resolved, but both need to be addressed or whatever resultant bloodletting transpires will be pointless.