In The Media

Arming Ukraine is a bad idea

by David Carment

February 23, 2015

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine appears to have reached a new plateau with neither side apparently willing to fully withdraw their heavy weapons beyond the neutral buffer zone as per the Minsk agreement from two weeks ago.

In recent days, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has taken a more hardline stance against the separatists, suggesting that, at least rhetorically, he is willing to commit all of his available country’s resources to the conflict.

He has put into law the recruitment of even more young Ukrainian men to join the army, he has come very close to declaring martial law as a way of   drawing on the country’s beleaguered resources to support the war effort, and he has made repeated overtures to foreign governments for more and more military support.

It is an approach that has a large following in the United States and the United Kingdom, whose governments have both decided to send military trainers to Western Ukraine, though none will be deployed in combat. Canada will likely follow in lockstep.

Poroshenko’s shift in direction comes on the heels of two recent disasters. The first was his failure to acknowledge a precarious situation of his own making by trying to take and hold the small but strategic railway town of Debaltseve in Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian forces were unnecessarily placed in harm’s way when they were subsequently surrounded and forced to retreat under heavy fire.

During the Minsk talks, Poroshenko either did not know or was unwilling to acknowledge that his troops were surrounded by separatist forces. Their hasty and disorganized withdrawal, leaving equipment and material behind, was clearly a low moment in his country’s year-long military effort to regain lost territory. In a post-withdrawal speech he gave to Ukraine’s troops, Poroshenko praised them, but also bizarrely painted the retreat as a victory because it showed the true face of the separatists who defied the ceasefire. If the goal was to use his men as bait then he might have a point.

More recently the lethal bombing at a pro-Maidan rally in the Eastern city of Kharkiv was met immediately with a carefully-timed response from Poroshenko who announced within hours that the four Russian "terrorists” apparently responsible for the bombing had been apprehended. Conveniently their arrest was caught on camera for the world to see, though their faces were completely hidden so none could be properly identified.

One might be forgiven for concluding Ukraine’s government has entered Wag the Dog territory by trying to deflect people’s attention away from the real problem at hand, namely Ukraine’s collapsing economy.

Canada, on the other hand, has no such excuse.

While fighting the separatists may have a rallying effect for Poroshenko, the benefits to Canada of providing lethal military aid are dubious at best.

For now at least, Defence Minister Jason Kenney has made no formal statement about Canada’s willingness to ship any lethal weapons to Ukraine, but he hasn’t ruled it out either. Here are some good reasons why doing so is a bad idea.

For starters, Ukraine sits in the somewhat unique position of being a target of both our bilateral aid and nascent free trade efforts, as well as a beneficiary of non-lethal military aid such as radarsat images, blankets and communications equipment.

In making Ukraine a formal recipient of our international development assistance Canada is, by law, bound to uphold its own Official Development Assistance Accountability Act, which the Harper government introduced in 2008. Poverty reduction and human rights are front and centre of that act as are aid effectiveness and anti-corruption measures.

Since the crisis began, Canada has made several commitments to Kyiv consisting mostly of loans for democratic reform, while over the last decade specific aid programmes have focused on overhauling the public sector, strengthening the agricultural sector and reforming business practices. If Canada were to start selling lethal weapons to Kyiv it would certainly be a perverse outcome for Ottawa to be paid through funds intended for Ukrainian economic and political development.

More specifically, for the Harper government to contravene its own accountability act, it would have to make the case to Parliament that Ukraine be exempt for reasons related to a declared emergency and that the deployment of Canadian forces necessary to train Ukraine’s army in the use of our military equipment is in Canada’s best interests.

Such a case would be even more difficult to make should Poroshenko introduce martial law and impose severe restrictions on civil and political liberties or should those within his own government be accused of human rights abuses, corruption or unsavory acts towards minorities.

More generally, any Canadian decision to support Ukraine’s war effort would stand in the way of Canada’s long-term commitment to improving the country’s economy, its public sector and its democratic structures.

There is also the problem of optics. Whether Ottawa recognizes it or not, the overwhelming majority of victims in this conflict are Ukrainian citizens. The humanitarian disaster visited upon eastern Ukraine remains an unmet challenge that few Western governments have taken seriously. Both sides to this conflict share responsibility for the estimated 5,700 deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more. That said, Kyiv stands accused of indiscriminately shelling towns and cities in Eastern Ukraine and for its purported use of cluster and phosphorous bombs.

Corruption and economic instability are in reality the two biggest threats facing Ukraine right now, and should be Canada’s highest priorities. Ukraine’s economy is in tatters, and the only thing keeping it from immediate collapse is the 20 billion in loans Kyiv received from the IMF and the EU. Those loans should see Kyiv through to 2017, after which it is anyone’s guess how the economy can remain functional.

The hryvnia now trades at less than 50 per cent of the value it had just a few months ago, the inflation rate is running at around 25 per cent and the country has nearly depleted all of its gold reserves. Its economy has been shrinking since 2013. It is estimated that at least 30 per cent of the economy is in the untaxed informal sector, making it difficult to generate accountable and effective government and market efficiencies. Kyiv owes Russia about 1.6 billion euro in gas payments.

In a hastily improvised effort to placate its international lenders, and to pay off its debts, the government will be cutting by half the number of workers in the public sector, and will break up the monopolistic gas giant Naftogaz into three distinct more competitive entities. As a result, unemployment is expected to increase rapidly as is the number of the poor living on government subsidies.

If the economy is mostly all bad news, corruption, which has been endemic to this country since Leonid Kuchma came to power in the 1990s, is an even greater problem. Ukraine has the unenviable title of being Europe’s most corrupt country. In the health and education sectors, corruption is so ingrained it is surprising that the government has played any public policy role at all. Canada would want to think twice about sending expensive military hardware, which is just as likely to find its way to the black market than it is to the front lines.

There is also the question of whether strengthening Ukraine’s ability to defend itself might embolden Kyiv to project its power eastward in an effort to reclaim lost territory. That would certainly be a tempting proposition for Poroshenko, but is it one that Canada could live with, knowing that any realistic hopes of a cessation of hostilities would be lost and with it a substantial increase in civilian deaths?

In answer to John McCain’s suggestion that arming Ukraine would be an effective deterrent to Russian involvement, Angela Merkel noted correctly that no amount of weapons would successfully resolve this conflict. Ottawa would be wise to heed her words, but so far there is no indication that it will.

In fact, the Harper government seems more comfortable talking about how it will support Ukraine’s war effort and punish Russia in the process than it does presenting solutions to the more pressing issue of saving Ukraine from economic and political failure.

David Carment is senior fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, CDFAI fellow and editor of Canadian Foreign Policy Journal at Carleton University.
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