By Matthew Bondy, March 30, 2023
In late February, the world’s support for Ukraine crested – and cracked.
The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine and end its war. Only seven nations voted against the resolution, pariah states each. In the same week, however, French President Emmanuel Macron called for “dialogue” and “re-engagement” with Russia in the belief that “we will have to negotiate” an end to the conflict.
This is what Ukraine fatigue looks like, and its seductive allure may grow in war-weary western capitals. The immediate risks are obvious. If Ukraine is pushed to accept a political settlement that is not centred on its fully restored territorial integrity, which has been undermined by Russia since 2014, the precedent will be catastrophic and the world will become more dangerous.
The naivety of the pro-negotiation crowd is stunning in this regard.
But what’s discussed much less is how to turn the war in Ukraine to the West’s long-term strategic advantage. Aside from the moral and legal arguments for ensuring Ukraine’s outright victory, there are two strategic reasons why the North Atlantic democratic community should see its self-interest best served by Russia’s outright battlefield defeat, no matter how long it takes.
First is the opportunity that this state of war provides to wean the democratic community – particularly in Europe – off of its status quo $1 billion dollars-per-day addiction to Russian oil and gas for good, thereby freeing the North Atlantic community of energy blackmail permanently. Russia can only weaponize its energy supplies to Europe for as long as the continent is wildly overdependent on them.
Encouragingly, Europe has begun the long process of reorganizing its energy supply since the onset of the conflict and Russia’s retaliatory cancellation of key gas pipelines including Nord Stream 1 into Europe. Though there have been shortages this winter, new democratic deals for energy supply are being signed in the West and the North Atlantic community needs to press on until we achieve energy independence from dictators.
Even the reluctant western warriors on Ukraine, like German chancellor Olaf Scholz, sees this turning point for what it is. As he wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, “We have learned our lesson. Europe’s security relies on diversifying its energy suppliers and routes and on investing in energy independence.”
According to analysis from McKinsey, North America is capable of supplying long-term natural gas resources at a stable production price of approximately three dollars per MMBtu (Metric Million British Thermal Unit) – the approximate benchmark for cost-effective long-term production – to such markets as Europe and Asia. The current liquified natural gas (LNG) import price in Europe is US$20.18/MMBtu, and it reached near US$70/MMBtu last September.
This product-market fit represents enormous economic opportunity for North American suppliers and massive energy security opportunities for our democratic friends and allies. Indeed, Canadian energy can and should be a big part of the solution. Supplying for our allies’ needs is a strategy and moral imperative and an enormous opportunity for the sector of our economy that represents more than 10 percent of the nation’s GDP and 17 percent of our exports.
The federal government is making an enormous mistake by failing to aggressively focus on this need and opportunity. But much opportunity remains. Energy investment is tilting back to carbon-based sources like oil, gas, and coal to make up for the market disruption brought on by Russia’s invasion. BP, for example, has recalibrated its “Beyond Petroleum” branding to re-embrace oil to serve the world’s energy needs. This provides political cover for the government of Canada to do what’s necessary and assert our energy value proposition internationally.
Though racked by uncertainty, global energy markets tell us one thing unequivocally: we’re going to need both renewables and carbon-based energy for a very long time to come. Canada can be an ethical energy superpower and we should start acting like it.
Second, an outright Ukrainian victory in its just war against Russian aggression is the key to re-arming the North Atlantic community for the long-term.
The United States and her NATO allies are scrambling to provide Ukraine with the armaments it needs to sustain its successful push to kick Russia out of its eastern lands. Ukraine for much of the war has been firing more artillery shells in a day than the allies used in an entire month in Afghanistan – and production supply over the years has atrophied. But it’s about more than howitzer shells.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that since the end of the Cold War, NATO members’ total sum of main battle tanks (MBTs) has fallen 77 percent, from nearly 19,000 to just more than 4000. For context, China alone has nearly 4000 MBTs. Stocks of ground attack aircraft – now needed more than ever in Ukraine – have fallen 57 percent, from nearly 4000 to approximately 1500. Similar statistics hold true for combatant ships and submarines.
The North Atlantic community has long enjoyed a post-Cold War “peace dividend” – a Clintonian rhetorical construction that really means unilateral and unwise disarmament – that we could never really afford. It’s time to let that pretense go and plan to win the 21st century for the safety of the world’s democracies and the advancement of liberty and prosperity, using industrial mobilization for Ukraine as the beginning of a resurgence in western power and military confidence.
Levelling-up democratic production capacity for hard power military assets and ammunition is already under way. South Korea is quietly leading the way to ensure a stable and democratic supply of weapons systems to its allies, including eastern European states like Poland. Likewise, US President Joe Biden has issued a range of executive orders for arms and munitions makers to produce more supply both for Ukraine directly and to replenish America’s own depleted stores.
Some of these developments have spurred dramatic business expansion for Canadian firms in the under-appreciated defence manufacturing hub of southern Ontario, where defence companies routinely do business with both the United States and Canada. Recent funding announcements by the Canadian government for the modernization of the North American Areospace Defence Command (NORAD), combined with increased industry mobilization to support Ukraine, could be the beginning of a much-needed improvement of Canada’s defence posture, long sought by our democratic allies even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
North American defence industries also have an under-appreciated but enormous natural advantage, too: they’re out of easy range from rogue states like Russia and North Korea. Doubling down on them makes sense for Canadian economic growth, national security, and the long-term defence of our allies.
Just like an energy realignment will take time and struggle, retooling and restocking the democratic community with more military production capacity and larger standing arsenals would be a good thing for deterrence, readiness, and economic development. Allowing Ukraine war fatigue to cut these initiatives short would remove the sense of urgency that makes these transformations viable and necessary, and will leave the democratic community as vulnerable and ill-equipped as we were on February 24, 2022.
For the moment, this path of energy realignment and military rearmament appears to be the one that the North Atlantic community is on. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has pledged that the alliance will remain in Ukraine’s corner “as long as it takes,” and Canada’s own federal government has been equally vocal in its long-term support of the beleaguered democracy.
This is very good. And sustaining that energy will require political will from allied capitals like Canada’s. Failing that, Ukraine war fatigue, and the seductive logic of those that enable such narratives like President Macron, will take deep root in the West.
This must be resisted. The right path forward is for the democratic community to learn from the mistake of our decades-long disarmament and create a future for the democratic community defined by energy independence, economic growth, and collective security for the long-term.
Matthew Bondy, a former Army reservist, writes independently on public policy and national security.