Every available tool must be deployed toward making it crystal clear that the price Putin will pay for further incursions against Ukraine is just too steep, write Marcus Kolga, Balkan Devlen, and Richard Shimooka.
By Marcus Kolga, Balkan Devlen, and Richard Shimooka, January 24, 2022
As Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his bellicose rhetoric and pours more and more troops across multiple fronts with Ukraine, the world holds its breath at a crucial juncture. What path we go down next, whether Russia backs down or makes good on its threats, will largely depend on whether we succeed in staring down Moscow’s challenge and deter open hostilities.
To do this, we must understand the situation on the ground, Russia’s goals, and how Canada fits in to contributing toward deterrence.
First, Russia’s military preparations point to a possible invasion in several weeks time. Military action is becoming increasingly likely, but we are likely a few weeks away from an open attack.
Even still, the lack of success at the negotiating table likely points to a sobering fact: Putin appears to prefer launching a strike to accomplish his goals. The Russian president believes that a sovereign and successful Ukraine poses an existential threat to his regime and his attempts to re-establish Russia’s Soviet era spheres of influence. This explains the disproportionate Russian response to trouble in Belarus and Kazakhstan. The window of opportunity is closing for Putin to reassert Russian dominance over Ukraine, and thus force is preferable to failure for the Russian government.
Similarly, the window of opportunity to dissuade Russia is closing rapidly for the West. Putin has escalated too far to do nothing, and when he looks at how NATO has so far responded, he may be encouraged rather than dissuaded.
NATO’s response has been a mixed bag. While not entirely weak, it has been inconsistent. Powerful members like Germany and France are waffling, with Germany even going as far as to block the export of Estonian weapons to Ukraine. Moreover, a lack of clarity out of the White House has not inspired confidence.
Unlike our 2014 response to the EuroMaidan and initial Russian invasion of Ukraine, Canada has been slow to contribute to meaningful leadership, despite some recent diplomatic assurances. This is a contrast to countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States which are far more resolute in their approach to Russia; we can do much more to learn from their leadership and support their assertiveness.
So what should be done? We must respond urgently and resolutely with strength. The government’s decisions to deploy special forces and provide some financial aid are welcome moves, but far more can be done.
Every available tool must be deployed toward making it crystal clear that the price Putin will pay for further incursions against Ukraine is just too steep. We should expand our military training mission for Ukrainian volunteers. Domestically, Putin needs a short, swift, successful conflict; one that strengthens his revision of Russian history, with Kyiv under the Kremlin’s control.
Furthermore, Putin’s centrality in Russia’s political system is predicated on his ability to keep oligarchs fat and happy. Canada needs to do more to prepare sanctions, particularly by using the Sergei Magnitsky Law against Russia’s ultra-rich and ultra-corrupt – to hit Putin and his comrades where it most hurts: their pocketbooks.
Thus, Canada must work in concert with our allies to immediately send arms and resources to Ukraine, giving the Ukrainian people an opportunity to defend themselves. We must also put in place clear plans to sanction Russian officials and entities that preserve Putin on his gilded throne. We should ready all necessary agencies to remove Russian members from the SWIFT international payment system, greatly diminishing their capacity to transact in international markets to finance their wars of aggression.
And we must immediately prepare ourselves and our allies for backlash – by hardening critical infrastructure against cyber attacks, working with allies to develop new energy supply chains free from Russian coercion, and upgrading our military capabilities to reinforce our allies in the region. We should also start, in consultation with allies, planning for the “day after” if Putin decides to reinvade Ukraine. Hope is not a strategy and the time to prepare for the worst is now.
If we fail to act, not only is the sovereignty of Ukraine at risk, but we may embolden adversaries globally, such as China or Iran, who are eager to capitalize on inaction. We can and must disabuse the world’s authoritarians about their notions of Western weakness.
Marcus Kolga, Balkan Devlen, and Richard Shimooka are senior fellows at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.