By Alexander Lanoszka, March 30, 2023
Canada has been one of the most important supporters of Ukraine in the 13 months since Russia began its full-scale invasion of the country in late February 2022. With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declaring that “Canada and Canadians will stand by the Ukrainian people for as long as it takes,” Canada has committed $5 billion in direct assistance to Ukraine, with about half in direct economic support.
Through Operation Unifier, Canada trained over 35,000 members of Ukraine’s security sources. It has given military assistance, most notably M777 howitzers and their associated ammunition, a National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) along with its associated munitions, over 200 armored personnel carriers, eight Leopard 2 main battle tanks, and more. Canada has also streamlined visa processes to assist the over 175,000 Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war to Canada and imposed extensive sanctions on numerous Russian entities in coordination with the European Union, United Kingdom, and the United States.
All this support reflects very well on Canada. Yet being self-congratulatory on what Canada has done so far for Ukraine is an easy temptation that we should ignore. The truth of the matter is that Canada did stumble out of the gate in February 2022 and has been hamstrung by its own general discomfort when it comes to defence investment and industry. The numbers given of specific platforms are low and Canada has not been ramping up munitions production necessary to help Ukraine win.
Consider what Canada was giving to Ukraine prior to February 24, 2022. Shortly after the Russo-Ukrainian War first broke out in 2014 with Russia seizing Crimea and destabilizing the Donbas, Canada was one of a handful members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to respond by providing some form of military assistance. It offered access to Radarsat-2 imagery and would establish Operation Unifier. Canada also helped to oversee security sector reform in that country via the Defence Reform Advisory Board. Canada even signed a defence cooperation agreement with Ukraine in 2017.
Thereupon Canada’s support for Ukraine entered a period of stasis. Operation Unifier continued, to be sure, and Ottawa remained supportive of Ukraine’s aspirations for membership in the European Union as well as in NATO. However, Canada did retract its provision of Radarsat-2 satellite imagery in 2016, citing bureaucratic impediments that restricted information access. In the meantime, several more NATO members began to provide military assistance to Ukraine, as their worries about weapons diversion and corruption began to ease. Countries that were already giving some level of support – like the United States and the United Kingdom – began to give even more of it. In a stepwise change in policy, the US gave anti-tank Javelin weapons in 2018, albeit in limited quantities. The United Kingdom would pursue defence industrial cooperation with Ukraine aimed at reviving the latter’s maritime capabilities. In contrast, the defence cooperation agreement that Canada signed with Ukraine lacked the major capital projects that the British agreement had.
In early 2022, when Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine became clear in its implications, various NATO members stepped up to offer lethal military assistance. Whatever their actual tactical impact in the Battle of Kyiv, the UK played a key leadership role in sending large shipments of next-generation anti-tank weapons. Other NATO members – most notably, the Baltic countries – sought and received US approval to send Javelins and Stinger missiles. For its part, unfortunately, Canada first decided against providing lethal military assistance in February 2022.
Even though Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland rightly characterized Ukraine’s struggle with Russia as that between democracy and authoritarianism, Canada restricted its provision of military assistance to non-lethal military assistance in early February. Shortly thereafter it announced lethal military aid, but this package consisted of weapons that would barely support an insurgency: over $7 million worth of machine guns, pistols, carbines, associated ammunition, sniper rifles, and various related equipment. The amount of support was not commensurate with the stakes involved.
Once Ukraine demonstrated its combat effectiveness in the opening days of Russia’s invasion, Canada would increase its assistance to Ukraine by gradually expanding its military assistance to encompass more lethal and sophisticated systems. Even so, what Canada has given is revealing of the real limitations that its military faces.
For example, whereas the UK was able to send thousands of NLAWs, Canada was only able to give the Vietnam-era M72 Light Armored Weapon, which, unlike its successor, requires the shooter to maintain line of sight with the target while operating it. Canada claims to be able to give only a very limited number of Leopards (eight, as of writing) out of the 72 that it has for fear of compromising its operational readiness. Canada gave four M777 howitzers, but this number is small, not least because the military conflict is, in essence, an artillery war with a massive consumption rate. In the case of the NASAMS, Ottawa reached for its pocketbook to buy the platform from the United States as a gift to Ukraine. Most problematic of all is that Canadian defence contractors appear not to receive new orders for munitions production, let alone clear direction, that would assist Ukraine in this artillery war. Canada does not appear to be making any effort to revitalize its stockpiles and to purchase new equipment for its own military.
The reason why Canada cannot give much more military aid is simple. Despite a recent uptick in military spending, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) remain under-resourced. In my research with Jordan Becker of the United States Military Academy, we find that a strong predictor of any NATO member’s military aid to Ukraine was its pre-existing level of defence investment. More specifically, those NATO members that spent significantly on operations and maintenance (O&M) were those more likely to give large volumes of military assistance.
Canada, to its credit, does spend relatively more on O&M than most NATO members because of its participation in coalition missions and military exercises. However, its oft politicized and underfunded procurement process prevents it from getting replacement parts and new equipment on time, thereby obliging the CAF to field increasingly obsolescent assets. That Canada is amongst the lowest overall spenders on defence within NATO, at least in terms of a proportion of gross domestic product, is part of the problem. Moreover, Canada’s focus on expeditionary operations in recent decades has left its military under-capitalized for “full spectrum of combat capabilities,” let alone conventional war with a powerful adversary.
These shortfalls do matter. They are manifest not just in what Canada sends (or does not send) to Ukraine, but also in its own efforts to upgrade the enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup it leads in Latvia. Canada agreed at the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid that it would bolster the Battlegroup from a battalion to a brigade. Yet, given Canada lacks the essential capabilities, particularly in artillery and air defence, how it will fulfill those NATO commitments without further straining available resources is unclear.
Canada thus should take pride in what it has done so far for Ukraine, but it should not rest on its laurels. To the contrary, Canada’s own record of military assistance reveals serious shortcomings. Having very likely hit the ceiling on what it can provide from its own stocks, how Canada will continue to support Ukraine militarily remains to be seen.
Alexander Lanoszka is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo. His most recent book is Military Alliances in the Twenty-First Century, published by Polity in 2022.