This article was originally published in the Hub.
By Marcus Kolga and Brett Byers, March 2, 2022
Vladimir Putin’s latest war of aggression against Ukraine is entering its second week. But if Ukrainians are the ones standing heroically at the forefront of democracy against authoritarianism, make no mistake: Putin actually declared war on much more than Ukrainian democracy.
This war, the largest and most devastating in Europe since the end of the Second World War, represents an attack on democracy itself. It is an attack on the rules-based international order which rejects the ‘the stronger the law’ approach and which is essential to the maintenance of democracy, freedom, human rights and prosperity.
The cost of allowing Putin to destroy Ukraine’s nascent democracy will be much higher and more painful for the Western world in the long run. By failing to resist Putin’s aggression today, we put our frontline NATO allies at risk, as well as our partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific region such as India and Taiwan, which are under the constant threat of aggression from China. We invite a more dangerous world when we allow authoritarians to use force and threats to achieve their ends.
Thus, the choice before us is clear: do we pay the price for the defense of democracy now, or do we continue to allow authoritarianism to prevail, and ultimately pay a much higher price later?
We must do all we can today to support Ukraine in its fight against authoritarianism. And although we have for many years defended the need for a stronger approach vis-à-vis Russia, we are less alone than ever in advocating this cause.
The United States, the European Union, and countries like Canada have actually stepped up their efforts. The economic sanctions against the Russian regime and Putin’s cronies, while imperfect, are robust and aggressive. The aid given to Ukraine is substantial, and if we are to believe the reports of the last few days, this aid is vital and is increasing. US intelligence has greatly enhanced Ukraine’s ability to frustrate and repel Russian invaders. Canada’s mission to train Ukrainian soldiers proved to be a critically important factor in the Ukrainian military’s ability to successfully defend its cities against a numerically superior savage enemy.
Finally, in this moment that matters most, the free world has decided to stand up and unite against Putin’s neo-imperialist aggression.
But even still, Canada can and must do much more to secure victory for Ukraine, strengthen the resolve of our allies, protect the Ukrainian people from the war that Putin has imposed on them, and impose all reasonably possible costs on the prosecutors of this inadmissible act of barbarism.
Our first step should be to push NATO towards a roadmap for Ukraine’s inclusion in the alliance and to encourage our European partners to invite Ukraine to join the EU. Both moves can still offer serious deterrence against Russia, communicating to Russian oligarchs and generals – who have badly bungled their invasion to date – that they have no hope of winning in the long run.
To help ensure Ukraine’s victory, we must spare no expense. The assistance that the international community has sent so far in terms of arms, equipment, rations, money, etc., has all been significant, and we must continue to increase it. We should treat manufacturing now as a war effort, working aggressively with manufacturers to produce the means Ukraine needs to defend itself. Canada should also work hard to rally its allies to do the same. If Canada does not have the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons that Ukraine’s defenders desperately need, we must work with our allies to deliver them and then resupply them.
Even before these crippling new sanctions were imposed on Russia, its economy was much weaker and less productive than ours, despite Russia having a population nearly four times larger than ours. When joined by its allies, Canada can spend much more to help Ukraine. Russia will not be able to match our ability to provide aid and resources to the heroic defenders of Ukraine.
We should make it easy for Canadian volunteers to travel to Ukraine, possibly setting up funding to help those with military experience travel to Europe to join the Ukraine International Brigade.
We should also contribute to intelligence and cybersecurity efforts to support Ukraine while eroding the effectiveness of Russian aggressors. Russia will likely launch intense cyberattacks, and we need to provide as much of a shield as possible, which Canada indeed has the ability to help.
Even still, Canada cannot make much change on its own. We need help in this effort, which means we need to make sure our allies are also dedicated.
One way to encourage that commitment is to finally take advocacy seriously. Canada should finally announce its replacement of our aging CF-18s, choosing the most efficient and best option to ensure the safety of our pilots: the F-35. We should also seek to follow Germany’s lead in announcing a significant increase in our defense spending, reaching the 2% of GDP threshold that is technically expected from NATO allies. As Putin launches reckless nuclear threats, it reminds us of the importance of taking ballistic missile defense in our North seriously, of accelerating the process of modernizing our North Warning System and of further expanding our defense in Europe.
Moreover, it is time for us to seriously tackle disinformation, foreign interference, money laundering and power operations. We can start by targeting foreign agents in Canada by passing the Foreign Interference Registry Act that was recently introduced in the Senate by Senator Leo Housakos. We can also learn from countries like Taiwan, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden, which are at the forefront of the fight against malicious foreign interference in their politics. If we are to secure the home front, we must finally tackle Russia’s network of deceptions that poisons our democracy.
Our allies in Europe are also struggling with their energy supplies. Canada has unique advantages here, particularly with respect to LNG. We must urgently restore and accelerate projects to provide energy resources to our allies in Europe so that those allies can permanently turn off the Russian taps. Canada’s decision on Monday to ban all imports of Russian crude oil should also spark a debate about increasing our energy independence in Canada.
Taking these steps – steps we should have taken a long time ago – is in our own best interests and the best way to respond to a clearly more dangerous world.
War creates a humanitarian disaster. Although many Ukrainians will stay and fight, many will also seek refuge. A country as geographically blessed as Canada should open its doors as widely as possible. We should also support allied UN and NATO efforts to help place refugees in other countries that will host them. Our experience in Afghanistan has been instructive; we must ensure that our civil servants are properly supported with both policies and resources to save as many Ukrainians as possible fleeing Putin’s butchers.
Canada has announced matching donations to the Red Cross of up to $10 million, and that is certainly something, but we need to do a lot more. Again, this is not a situation in which one can afford to be stingy.
Although the sanction measures that have been introduced to date have been robust, more can be done. The goal must be to make Putin and his kleptocrats as financially bankrupt as they are morally. Their greed and kleptocratic nature are their greatest weakness; we must do everything we can to exploit this, not just freezing the assets of the oligarchs, but seizing them as planned in Magnitsky plus legislation proposed by Senator Ratna Omidvar. The main oligarchs began to criticize Putin’s war – this reversal was motivated by the threat of sanctions. Canada must target the assets of corrupt oligarchs in Canada to further motivate them to challenge the policies and authority of Vladimir Putin.
Canadian financial institutions and businesses should completely cut their ties with Russia; pension funds and wealth portfolios should be urged to divest entirely from the Russian economy, and the federal government should help provide the means to facilitate this process if necessary.
For most of these measures, there is a price and there are risks. Russia can still retaliate with cyberattacks against our societies. Putin could step up his toxic disinformation campaigns. Like a growling rabid animal, there is always a risk that the frightened, angry little man ensconced in the Kremlin will go after a NATO ally directly and militarily. These are all things that we should be concerned about.
But this is proof that action is needed, not an argument for continued inertia. If Putin’s Russia is so willing to assault and punish the world in an attempt to achieve its preferred outcome in Ukraine, it speaks to the nature of an inherently aggressive regime that must be confronted lest it continue to act this way. We have already seen Russia act with a destructive abandon towards our democratic institutions, our information environments, and more. That Putin has the ability to wreak further destruction is just more evidence that we must take action to help effect his withdrawal.
And in the end, Putin is unlikely to stop unless he thinks his position as president of Russia is in jeopardy. Therefore, we must work quickly and hard with Ukraine and our other democratic partners and allies to bring this reality closer. This is the only way to achieve a just peace.
Marcus Kolga is a senior researcher at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and founder of DisinfoWatch.org. Brett Byers is director of communications at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.