Written for Daily Hive by Stewart Prest, Lecturer in Political Science at Simon Fraser University
It is a sight rarely seen in the world in the last 70 years. Indeed, for many it had become nearly unimaginable.
A war of territorial conquest is now under way, as a blitz of helicopters and tanks cross into a sovereign Eastern European nation’s territory in defiance of all international law.
Ukraine’s military defends against Russia’s multi-front assault while the world watches. It’s a scene reminiscent of Poland in 1939, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, witnessed in real time on Twitter.
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As we watch, aghast, what can be done? How might a country such as Canada respond?
There are short, medium, and long term answers to that question. I’ll address each in turn.
Short term: Enact sanctions
In the short term, Canada is already doing much of what it can to make the conflict a costly one for Russia, enacting broad sanctions against the country, and more targeted ones against specific members of the Russian oligarchic elite. Canada can and should maintain those sanctions, and do what it can in cooperation with allies to make them as comprehensive and broadly adopted as possible—though without China on board their effectiveness will be limited.
Canada can also continue to provide material assistance to Ukraine—though given the fluidity of the situation it’s not clear any help sent now will arrive in time. It may well be too little, too late.
Finally, Canada is acting to provide security guarantees to other states in the region, notably the Baltic states that are now members of the NATO alliance. A firm commitment to defend those states will serve to reduce the likelihood of the conflict expanding to other former Soviet republics—clearly potential targets of Vladimir Putin’s revisionist vision.
Canadians can help to answer the call for assistance as well. The federal government is now matching donations to the Red Cross for Ukraine.
Medium term: Prepare for a fresh humanitarian crisis
In the medium term, Canada must prepare for a fresh humanitarian crisis. Indeed, in many ways that crisis is already well underway. The UN estimated there were as many as 1.5 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine in 2021, many due to the fighting in the Russian influenced eastern region of the country, the defence of which has since become a pretext for the current invasion.
That number is rising dramatically. As millions of Ukrainians flee in the face of the Russian advance, many will seek sanctuary outside Ukraine’s borders. Canada must be ready to work with other countries to ensure resources are available to meet the immediate need for those refugees, and to make preparations to receive any who wish to make a new home here.
Long term: Difficult decisions about Canada’s place in the world
In the long term, Canada has some difficult decisions to make regarding its place in the world.
For nearly 30 years, Canada benefited from the post Cold War peace, guaranteed in large part by the dominance of the United States. In the last 20 years, we have become increasingly bit players internationally, devoting a tiny fraction of our resources to any international action—whether the conduct of international diplomacy, delivery of international economic assistance, the delivery of vaccines, global efforts to address a changing climate, or the military defence of the international order.
That era of peaceful coasting is now over. We live in a multipolar world, in which no one country dominates, and non-democratic leaders are increasingly willing to test and revise the status quo, even through military action.
In response, Canada needs to find ways to return to a more vigorous foreign policy, one backed by resources equal to the diplomatic, development, and yes, also the military challenges that await.
We think of ourselves as a nation of peacekeepers, but in reality it has been many years since we played such a role — one that in any case requires some measure of peace to keep. We are above all a country that benefits from a stable, rule-governed, and well defended international order.
In the weeks, months, and years that follow, Canadians will have to give serious thought as to how to best to work to ensure that order endures. Our continued prosperity depends on it.