Eugene Lang is an assistant professor at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Vincent Rigby is the Slater Family Professor of Practice at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University and a former national security and intelligence adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“Canada will be there for Ukraine alongside our other allies, with as much as it takes for as long as it takes.” These bold words were uttered by Justin Trudeau following last July’s NATO Summit.
What is Canada’s long-term plan for supporting Ukraine in its valiant defence against Russia? The short answer: we don’t have one, but we need one right away.
Two years into the war, it is evident that “for as long as it takes” will mean years into the future. It is now a war of attrition, with Ukrainian and Russian forces battling over small territorial gains, together expending as many as 15,000 artillery shells a day. At times, it resembles the bloody trench fighting of the First World War.
Ukrainian victory will ultimately depend on the supply of military equipment and munitions from NATO states and their defence industries. CIA Director William Burns put it well: ”The key to success lies in preserving Western aid for Ukraine.”
Ukraine simply cannot match Russia in the scale of its munitions and military equipment output. The Kremlin has now mobilized both its military and defence industrial base for a protracted war. Some estimates suggest that Russia will spend 7 per cent of its GDP on defence in 2024 – double the U.S. percentage.
Ensuring that Ukraine prevails is critical to the security of NATO, which is up against a revanchist Russia bent on re-establishing the territorial boundaries of the former Soviet Union. If Ukraine falls, the Baltic states and Poland may be next. NATO recognizes this and is working on increasing munitions and defence technology production across member-states to support Ukraine. Meanwhile, China and other autocratic states are watching the war carefully for signs of Western weakness.
On Feb. 1, the European Union announced new assistance to Ukraine of €50-billion through 2027. In the meantime, G7 countries, including Canada, agreed at the last NATO summit to negotiate bilateral security arrangements with Kyiv to formalize “our enduring support to Ukraine as it defends its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Since the war broke out, Canada has provided $2.4-billion in military assistance to Ukraine. It sounds generous, but is marginal in terms of Ukrainian needs. The cost of just one of those thousands of artillery shells fired each day can run as high as $10,000. Major equipment assistance from Canada, including tanks and artillery, has been modest. According to one estimate, Canada ranks 17th in the world in military assistance to Ukraine as a percentage of GDP.
Canada’s contributions have also been ad hoc and piecemeal, driven by pressure from partners or media coverage. A long-term plan that matches the Prime Minister’s rhetoric remains elusive.
Canada is now apparently finalizing its security arrangement with Ukraine. The Canadian Armed Forces are tapped out and can provide no further assistance of any significance. Canada’s bilateral agreement, therefore, needs to focus on a long-term financial commitment to procure materiel for Ukraine until a ceasefire is reached, Russia withdraws, or some other agreed-upon metric of Ukrainian victory is achieved. We suggest a bare minimum of $500- to $750-million per year.
This would demonstrate Canadian leadership: the first G7 and NATO state to make a predictable, permanent annual financial/materiel commitment to the Ukrainian war effort. It would set an example, help restore Canada’s sagging international reputation, and get noticed in Washington, which remains deadlocked over its own support for Ukraine. Most importantly, it would contribute to Canada’s national security and that of our allies. The last thing Canada needs is another Cold War in Europe, with thousands of Canadian Armed Forces personnel permanently stationed overseas, at massive cost.
The government is running a budget deficit of about $40-billion, projected to decline to $24-billion in four years. Mr. Trudeau is facing many demands to increase spending, including meeting NATO’s 2-per-cent-of-GDP defence-spending target, estimated by the Parliamentary Budget Officer to cost an additional $18-billion per year. This is not realistic given the fiscal position and competing domestic priorities of the government. With 2 per cent off the table, and the promised Defence Policy Update nowhere in sight nearly two years after it was launched, the government must at a minimum take action on a separate track to provide Ukraine with sustained military assistance. It is a small yet important investment in the survival of Ukraine, the security of NATO, and the defence of Canada.