The daunting challenge of keeping Ukraine in the fight

17 February 2023

Defence Minister Anita Anand is back in Ottawa after her latest visit to Brussels, where she participated in a NATO ministerial summit and the ninth monthly meeting of the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group at a time when the West is under growing pressure to ship more weapons and materiel as Russia steps up its year-old “special military operation” against Ukraine.

“I reaffirmed Canada’s unwavering support […] and our commitment to continue providing meaningful contributions to the Alliance,” she said in a statement. “We will continue to work closely with our NATO Allies to strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence posture, which is more important than ever.” Anand also said the alliance’s “collective resolve has had an important impact on Ukraine’s ability to defend its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”

The seminal question is whether Canada can continue to sustain its support, having already dug deeply into its stockpiles of munitions as well as sending four German-built Leopard 2 main battle tanks from that aging fleet. Ten other countries have also committed tanks to the counteroffensive.

Since the Russian invasion began in February 2022, Canada’s more than $1 billion in military donations also included some 200 armoured personnel carriers, a surface-to-air missile system and munitions, 39 armoured combat support vehicles, anti-tank weapons, small arms, M777 howitzers and ammunition, high-resolution drone cameras, and more.

Over the longer term, beginning when Russian invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, Canada has committed more than $369 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Last year, $320 million was committed to UN agencies, as well as to the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations, to support delivery of urgent assistance.

The Contact Group meeting on 14 February was an opportunity to coordinate NATO’s response assistance and address Ukraine’s current and longer-term defence priorities. Anand noted that the four Leopards are being delivered one-at-a-time by Boeing C-1777 Globemaster III transports to Poland, where Canadian Armed Forces trainers are familiarizing Ukrainian crews with the tanks. The first tank arrived in Poland on 6 February.

As for the ministerial summit, deterrence and defence posture was at the centre of discussions. Anand reiterated, yet again, Canada’s commitment to NATO and European security, highlighting our leadership of the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battle Group in Latvia, one of four on NATO’s eastern flank. The others are in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland, led respectively by Britain, Germany and the United States.

On the fringes of the summit, she had one-on-one and multilateral “engagements”, including with her Latvian and Spanish counterparts, Ināra Mūrniece and Margarita Robles, as well as others to discuss current and potential eFP roles.

Anand wound up her visit by signing a Memorandum of Understanding for the Multinational Ammunition Warehousing Initiative, which focuses on stockpiling and storage options to support NATO Operations and friendly non-alliance states, as well as two Letters of Intent. One was for a project to identify a military off-the-shelf aircraft to partially replace NATO’s fleet of Boeing E-3A Sentry airborne early warning and control platforms, based on the 707 commercial jet, before that fleet is retired in 2035. The other LOI involves the Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space project to integrate and share satellite-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data.

More immediate, however, is Ukraine’s need to respond to Russia’s ongoing and increasing onslaught, including targetting civilian infrastructure, notably Ukraine’s electricity grid, as winter settled in. Clearly trying to soften up Ukraine forces before a spring offensive, Russian troops have been firing an estimated 20,000 artillery rounds daily. In contrast, Ukraine has been able to respond with about a third of that, still a staggering volume, which has drawn down what Ukraine has received from the West. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance has been providing “unprecedented support” for Ukraine to “help uphold its right to self-defence” and that “from the start, we have been working very closely with the European Union, on the terms to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wants that support stepped up, including fighter aircraft which NATO has generally resisted for fear of further escalating the conflict. The U.S. specifically rebuffed the idea of sending F-16 Fighting Falcons, but France has said there is “no taboo” about sending fighters. Britain has offered to train Ukrainian pilots on western platforms, but that would be for post-war operations.

“The issue of aircraft is not the most urgent issue now,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg insisted before the ministerial summit. “But it is an ongoing discussion and, and as I’ve said before, we have ongoing consultations among allies on the type of systems allies should deliver to Ukraine.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has pushed back on the idea that Russia is about to mount a major air campaign, likely because of Ukraine’s enhanced air defence capabilities. “We don’t currently see that,” he said. “We do know that Russia has a substantial number of aircraft in its inventory and a lot of capability left. That’s why we’ve emphasized that we need to do everything that we can to get Ukraine as much air defense capability as we possibly can.”

Austin acknowledged that donated U.S. Patriot surface-to-air missile systems as well as others offered by Italy and France are “not enough” and that the Contact Group partners would “keep pushing until we get more” to help address the Russian threats. “Our effort currently is to get these capabilities into country as quickly as we can, and then integrate those capabilities.”

In the days leading up to the Contact Group and defence ministers’ meeting, several NATO members expressed concern about their own depleting munitions and their ability to replenish. That prompted Wendy Gilmour, NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Defence Investment, to express concern at a conference in Helsinki organized by the Association of Finnish Defence and Aerospace to discuss munitions stock and production. It is time, she saids,for NATO to get “smarter” about procurement..

A Canadian with 32 years at Foreign Affairs and the Department of National Defence – including time as a political advisor to the first three commanders of the NATO force in Kosovo and as the federal government’s Deputy National Armaments Director – Gilmour pushed for more multinational projects and procurements to achieve greater “economies of scale” within alliance programs.

“It’s more important for NATO, and invitees Finland and Sweden, to join and work collectively, and work with industry to meet these high-intensity demands,” she said. “When nations come together to procure capability together, it ensures interoperability and also means we get the full gambit of technology and ideas into the capability to allow us to fight together better.”

Stoltenberg picked up on that at the NATO ministerial, saying that the alliance had recently completed an “extraordinary survey” of munitions stockpiles with plans to increase targets through the NATO Defence Planning Process.

“The war in Ukraine is consuming an enormous amount of munitions and depleting allied stockpiles; the current rate of Ukraine’s ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production,” he said. “Orders placed today would only be delivered two-and-a-half years later, so we need to ramp up production and invest in our production capacity.”

Ken Pole