By Scott Taylor
Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was once again baiting the Russian bear and telling Vladimir Putin to “back off” from his involvement in the Ukraine crisis.
Harper’s jingoistic tough-guy rhetoric came on the eve of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande flying to Moscow to meet with Putin in an effort to peacefully resolve the Ukraine conflict through mature dialogue. Germany and France are, of course, the central European military and economic powers that have the most skin in the game should the civil war in Ukraine dissolve into a wider clash involving NATO and Russia.
Backing up Harper’s taunts, Canada has but a single anti-submarine frigate cruising in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, more than 1,500 kilometres from Russian soil, and a handful of troops conducting a training exercise in Poland. Canada has also dispatched, with great fanfare, several tonnes of non-lethal military aid to support the Ukrainian armed forces. This material could best be described as used camping gear in the form of surplus tents, sleeping bags and cold-weather gear.
Subsequent to that generous provision of stores, Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, came cap in hand last September to beg for additional military donations from Canada and the U.S. During his speeches in Ottawa and Washington, Poroshenko noted repeatedly that “one cannot win the war with blankets.”
It has taken some time, but now senior U.S. policymakers are also advocating that “defensive weapons” should be provided to the Ukrainian military to help them crush the upstart rebels in the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. There is, of course, no actual military designation of a weapon system as being “defensive” in nature, other than air defence, and since the Ukrainian rebels in those regions possess no aircraft, this makes the new U.S. policy an exercise in political spin.
Pouring weapons into a simmering civil war would be reckless in the extreme, but providing freedom-loving, pro-western Ukrainians with a means of self-defence against Russian aggression seems not only prudent but necessary. The problem with this simple, oft-repeated storyline of defenceless Ukrainian citizens threatened by a Russian military juggernaut is that it is complete hogwash.
While a Soviet republic, Ukraine had an obligatory two-year conscripted military service and a vast arsenal of combat equipment. Following the country’s declared independence in 1991, Ukraine radically downsized its standing army, but kept its ample stock of war material and a trained reserve force of 700,000 former soldiers.
Last March, when Russian troops seized control of the Crimean peninsula, they did so from their naval base at Sevastopol, which they had officially leased from Ukraine until the year 2042.
What was little reported on at the time was the fact that Ukrainian troops were also stationed at airbases and ports in the Crimea. Despite the fact that the Ukrainian military force outnumbered that of the Russians, the annexation was uncontested. Subsequently, a significant number of those Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered without firing a shot chose to re-enlist in the Russian military. Those who did not opt for this, and who remained loyal to the new government in Kyiv, were peacefully repatriated to Ukraine.
Even some of the tanks and combat aircraft that were initially seized by Russian forces in the Crimea were returned intact to their Ukrainian owners.
Furthermore, at present, through rapid conscription and mobilization, Ukraine has just eclipsed France in possessing the largest military force in Europe.
As evidenced by its steady stream of reversals at the hands of the rebels, size is not as important as motivation in military conflict. The lack of will to fight and die for the corrupt and bankrupt regime of Poroshenko is reflected in the statistic that Kyiv is pursuing 7,500 criminal cases against males of military age who have refused conscription.
The most effective units fighting to contain the rebels have been the foreign volunteers combat unit known as the Azov Battalion and the former neo-Nazi militia group called the Right Sector. Both of these forces openly display Nazi symbols and swastikas, and the Right Sector still lionizes Stepan Bandera, a Second World War ultra-nationalist and fascist.
While it is true that the majority of Ukraine’s Cold War Soviet arsenal is somewhat antiquated, the pro-Russian rebels are using exactly the same equipment — they do not possess secret super-weapons. Despite the pleas for assistance from Poroshenko, Ukraine’s military is neither outnumbered nor outgunned; in fact, it is quite the opposite. What is lacking is the will.
That being the case, providing more “defensive weapons” and meaningless taunts from Harper will solve nothing. While the NATO hawks may wish to fight Putin to the last drop of Ukrainian blood, it seems that most rational Ukrainians are averse to that outcome.
Let us hope cooler heads prevail — soon.