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Canada has vital stake in Ukraine outcome but ‘no currency or heft’, experts say


‘We’re not considered a big player, no matter what our government tries to tell us’

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OTTAWA — Canada shouldn’t let Washington and Moscow alone decide the future of Europe as the threat of war between Russia and Ukraine escalates, say experts.

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As Vladimir Putin slowly builds toward upending the stalemate on the Ukrainian border, Royal Military College and Queen’s University professor Christian Leuprecht says Canada needs to make its voice heard.

“Anytime you have instability, threats to the territorial integrity, prosperity, harmony, political stability in Europe — that’s a fundamental threat to Canadian interests,” he said.

“Anybody who has any strategic sense in Ottawa understands that how this plays out is absolutely vital for Canada.”

Tensions along the border grew on Monday as the U.S. put troops on standby as the prospect of a Russian invasion draws closer.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said military assistance for NATO remains on the table, with Pentagon spokesman John Kirby adding that 8,500 U.S. troops are now at ‘heightened alert.’

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Richard Shimooka, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said that if war should break out, Canada’s military is far from fighting shape.

“Everywhere you look, the military either has a personnel crisis or a capability crisis,” he said.

As an example, he points to Canada missing about two-thirds of its pilot strength, as well as critical shortages in key positions such as navy radar and sonar operators.

“Our army’s in a really bad state because they’ve been over-deployed,” Shimooka said.

“The problem has never been that Canada has never been able to commit more, it’s about how much is Canada willing to spend on the capability.”

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Much of Canada’s equipment — most notably its fleet of largely obsolete CF-18s — is nearing or already exceeded its useful life.

“What can Canada do?” he asked.

“Realistically, not much.”

Leuprecht said Canada’s inclusion in the process is vital to interests both local and abroad, particularly since Putin’s appears to be pivoting the conflict into a dialogue with the United States to decide the future of Europe.

Europe’s importance to Canada is also rooted in many of our shared values and interests, Leuprecht said, adding that it’s important Canada ensure it plays a role in deterring a full-out conflict.

“We haven’t been very good at sending a clear message to Washington that the future of Europe is not going to be decided between Moscow and Washington,” he said.

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“I’ve been terribly disappointed by our government for not saying ‘No, it’s not happening’ at the American diplomats and Russian diplomats here.”

This two-party approach, he said, sends a poor message to America’s allies.

“To pretend that somehow we’re, once again, going to let them carve up Europe without us at the table — it’s a terrible foreign policy blunder by the Biden administration, they should have never sat down with just the Russians alone.”

Canada’s distance from Russia — both geographically and economically — makes us better-placed than others to be that voice of reason.

“We can lean out much further in the window on this than, for instance, the Germans or many continental European countries that, if nothing else, are hostage to Russian gas exports,” he said.

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And while Canada has less to fear from Russia’s anger than others, last week’s cyberattack against Global Affairs Canada — one that occurred as Canada’s digital spy agency warned of the threat of Russian-backed hackers — is a glimpse of how the 21st century battlefield isn’t always on terra firma.

“They’re trying to show they can play at a high level with the West and NATO member countries,” he said.

Canada needs to convince Putin that Ukraine isn’t a gamble worth taking — particularly considering the pressure he’s under from the more ultranationalist elements of his inner circle.

“There’s not any immediate threat to his government, but he’s still got to try to maintain equilibrium, and that takes a lot of work,” Shimooka said.

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“When you control the narrative, you can say whatever you want … the public will go along with what you say, especially on foreign affairs.”

Shimooka counters Canada’s positioning of itself as a mediator in the conflict, saying nobody’s looking to us as any credible voice of reason.

“There’s always been the impulse within Canada to be a constructive-middle-ground peacemaker, but Canada has no currency or heft to undertake that kind of role,” he said.

“We’re not considered a big player, no matter what our government tries to tell us.”

• Email: bpassifiume@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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