Like The Hub?
Join our community.

Joe Varner: Russia’s game of brinkmanship could easily spiral out of control


The West is at their “Munich moment” again, offering largely moral support for a vulnerable democracy in Kiev and very limited military aid, all while trying to appease a hungry dictator in Vladimir Putin. Ukraine and parts thereof are simply seen as terms for negotiation, with Kiev not even at the table. Russia has succeeded in its key strategic goal of splitting NATO, showing just how brittle the alliance is under shaken U.S. leadership.

Recent media reports suggest that Canada’s cabinet is split on the question of limited military aid. Western European petrol stations faced a massive and disruptive cyberattack last week. Hungary openly broke with other NATO countries and supported Moscow’s actions in Eastern Europe. France, Germany, and Turkey have made offers to Moscow to mediate the crisis. The UK, Poland, and Ukraine announced their intentions of signing a defence pact while the United States placed 8500 troops on alert and commenced deployments of 2000 soldiers to Poland and 1000 more to Romania. But in real terms, outside limited NATO military aid and training, Ukraine is on its own. The dictators in Moscow and Beijing are elated and salivating at the prospect of further alliance splits, concessions, bloodless conquests, and territory seizures.

The only thing missing for Ukraine’s “Munich moment” is a relieved U.S. President Joe Biden waving a piece of paper and declaring “peace in our time” at the expense of Ukraine’s existence. Russian and Chinese leaders, Presidents Putin and Xi, met last week, with Beijing restating its support for Moscow’s actions against Ukraine and warning NATO not to intervene.

A sign of Moscow’s confidence being bolstered by Beijing is that it has left its Eastern Military District very weak, instead deploying some 12 of its Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) to Belarus. Beijing’s Winter Olympics end on February 20th and will likely be followed by Russian military intervention in Ukraine, but this could come as soon as February 9th. It should be noted that winter has frozen the ground solid in Ukraine making it optimal for off-road armoured operations geared for invasion and deep penetration.

Russia has now deployed elements of 10 Combined Arms Armies and one Tank Army opposite Ukraine from the north, east, and west. Some are now reportedly moving into staging areas from north to south, including the 29th, 35th, 5th, 36th, 41st, 20th, 6th, 8th, 49th, and 58th Combine Arms Armies and 1st Guards Tank Army, along with the 22Nd Army Corps. This represents well over 136,000 troops in 84 BTGs, with 14 more en route. There are only 170 BTGs in the Russian Armed Forces in total.

When Russia’s Airborne forces are included, the bulk of Russia’s combat power is now opposite Kiev’s borders. Some 30,000 Russian troops are now in Belarus—the largest deployment since the Cold War. Some are engaged in joint live-fire exercises with the Belarusian Army. Russian ground attack Su-25SM fighter-bombers have been deployed from the Far East Military District to Belarus, along with S-400 air defense missile units and Iskander short-range nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

Some 10,000 reinforcements have been sent to Crimea and are on high alert. Reinforcements have also been sent to join Russian troops in Transnistria and are also engaged in war games. The Russian amphibious force in the Black Sea has increased its BTG strength in recent days by one and a half units and six large Russian amphibious ships from the North and Baltic Seas Fleets have left Taurus, Syria for the Black Sea. These ships are likely carrying several BTGs and are capable of landing heavy tanks on Ukraine’s coast. They will join another five amphibious assault ships already in the Black Sea. Russia’s naval exercises continue in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans and surrounding seas, and the Strategic Rocket Forces will be carrying out missile drills in mid-February to warn-off NATO. According to U.S. intelligence, the Russians are preparing to film a staged attack on Russians by NATO-backed Ukraine forces as pretence for military action.

U.S. intelligence has said that Russia has only 70 percent of the forces in place that it needs for a full, all-out invasion of Ukraine. But Moscow has several options to deal with Kiev. It could simply say that the Donbas and Crimea are Russian and back away without further action. Putin could use the crisis to make Ukrainian businesses uninsurable and destroy the economy, and it could unseat or topple the Ukrainian government all without bloodshed.

In military terms, short of full invasion Moscow could seize Ukraine’s coast, again wrecking the economy. Russia could launch a limited offensive to seize the city of Kharkov, home of Ukraine’s defence industry. Or, it could take territory up to the Dnieper River, giving President Putin the strategic depth he longs for—both for Russia and for the seized Donbas. Lastly, Russia may be prepared for an all-out invasion of Ukraine, taking it all in one massive attack. The Ukrainian Army of 2014 is not the Ukrainian military of today. It is much more combat-ready, and better trained and equipped. But it is a David versus Goliath fight and bets are on Goliath.

The danger for the West is that the crisis continues to erode confidence in NATO, the EU, and the Liberal Democratic rules-based order that has existed since the Second World War. This is what the dictators want. The failure of NATO and the EU to deal effectively with the crisis and deter Russia will have global implications as China, North Korea, and Iran follow Russia’s lead and act out against their neighbours with the proven knowledge that the U.S.-led alliances are brittle and may break under the strain. Russia and China know this, and Putin is still hoping that the West will force Ukraine to make concessions to Moscow without a shot being fired. But Russia is not pinning its hopes on a peaceful solution. The Kremlin is prepared for war.

Games of brinkmanship are dangerous and can easily escalate. When the “balloon goes up” no one knows where it will stop. What happens if Russian or Belarusian forces cross over into Romania or Poland or there is a low-level firefight with a Baltic State? What happens if Russian or Belarusian forces seize the Suwalki Gap by “accident”? What will NATO and the EU do then? There is a great deal of room for strategic miscalculation here by both sides. More than 14,000 people have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and seized Crimea. A new Russian invasion is expected to kill or wound another 25,000 Ukrainian soldiers, 4000 Russian troops, up to 50,000 civilian casualties, and create up to 5 million refugees. Surely the time has come for the West to bring in the devastating economic sanctions package they have talked about for a month as a preemptive move to get Moscow’s full attention and to deter a war before it starts. Targeted cyber action to remind Moscow that war is not without heavy cost would also be appropriate. Finally, the time has come to give Kiev the arms it needs to fight back. We may need them as a strong ally in the very near future.

Sean Speer: Unions need serious renewal if they want to make it in the modern economy


In a forthcoming episode of The Hub’s podcast, Hub Dialogues, slated for February 15, I ask Brian Dijkema, the Cardus Institute’s vice president of external affairs, about what he thinks trade unions need to do to remain relevant in the modern economy. His answer is as follows:

Our [labour relations] system and the structure in which labour and capital are set up in North America was built in hell. We have a system that was adopted in 1945 [and] adapted from the Wagner Act in the United States, which is passed in the 1930s. The North American labour environment is therefore one where you have the Americans adopting it in the midst of the Great Depression and the Canadians adopting it at the end of the Second World War. So I say it’s been basically built in hell.

One of its key assumptions is that there’s an antagonistic relationship between labour and capital. But that assumption is disputable, and I just say is not actually true. When you look at it, there always going to be differences between labour and capital. Their interests are not always perfectly aligned. But I think we in North America, I think trade unions themselves, live too much into that adversarial relationship. And that, like any other time when you have any polarized debate, it spins the two off against each other, and that actually breeds a lot of suspicion and distrust. One consequence is that in North America you can see that a lot of people don’t actually care for unions. But I don’t think that’s necessary. There are many other examples around the world where there’s a more collaborative approach built into the legal regime for labour relations.

It’s a must-read analysis from someone with deep roots in the Canadian trade union movement. He’s in effect saying that our model for labour relations was conceived in a particular moment and context and hasn’t kept up with structural changes in our economy and society. The old industrial model has since been reshaped by the shift from a goods-producing economy to a service-based economy. Yet North American trade unions still haven’t reconceptualized their mission, purpose, and operations accordingly.

The result is an ongoing adversarialism that seems out of step with the rise of new, unconventional forms of work including so-called “gig work” which spans from an Uber driver to me. Jamming both of us into the same, old model of labour relations is self-evidently dumb.

As Dijkema has written elsewhere, these evolving labour market developments require a “revival of solidarity” which he defines as a form of labour subsidiarity that eschews national politics for a community-centred model of unionism that prioritizes workers and their families. The idea is that unions ought to come to see themselves as civil society institutions rather than hyper-political organizations uniformly dedicated to various left-wing causes.

The risk of course is that otherwise trade unions will continue to fade into obscurity due to what he characterizes as a mix of “continual decline in membership, inability to attract the next generation, growing distrust, and [other] structural challenges.” This can hardly be overstated: labour unions face something approaching an existential crisis.

Readers will likely know that union density, which measures the share of the workforce represented by a union, has fallen precipitously in the past several decades. The total unionization rate has dropped from 37.6 percent in 1981 to 30.9 percent in 2021. But this number is inflated by the ubiquity of unionization in the public sector. Consider, for instance, that the country’s private-sector unionization rate has fallen from 19.9 percent to just 15.3 percent between 2001 and 2021 alone.

The key question, then, is whether unions can move beyond the old model of labour organizing and adapt to these new developments?

What’s interesting is a few days after recording the podcast episode we had an announcement from Uber and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada on a new, innovative partnership that would enable Uber workers to avail themselves of the union’s services and supports in various aspects of their interactions with the platform-based company.

This is a big deal. Just think there are roughly 100,000 Uber drivers and delivery people in Canada. Although these workers won’t be members of the unions per se, they’re now part of its broad orbit and come with a combination of new resources and responsibilities. It easily amounts to one of the biggest cases of union renewal in Canada in recent years. It’s no accident, for instance, that NDP MP Charlie Angus described the arrangement as “a strong step forward.”

As for the workers, while the agreement doesn’t give them collective bargaining rights, it does extend a new range of workplace protections including third-party representation in dispute resolution as well as Uber-UFCW collaboration on advocacy for broader policy reform with respect to gig work. This should help to bring greater balance to the relationship between Uber and the drivers and delivery people who use the platform.

It’s difficult to know where this agreement goes from here. The joint press release from Uber and the UFCW has the latter’s Canadian president referring to the agreement as “a start in advancing a better future for app-based workers.” It’s possible of course that the UFCW sees it as an entry point to actually organize among platform-based workers.

But it may be that the Uber/UFCW arrangement creates a contemporary model of labour relations in which workers are able to leverage aspects of union representation and supports in new and different ways. Some may involve traditional union dues. Others may rely on forms of so-called “company-union” deals. Some might entail conventional collective bargaining. Others might instead emphasize other auxiliary services and supports such as skills training or portable benefits. This type of trade union pluralism would be a positive development for workers and for the unions themselves.

The key point though is that if unions are to have a future in the modern economy outside of the public sector, they’re going to need to go through a process of rebirth. The good news is that the Uber/UFCW agreement could be the basis for such a new and different future—one built in a renewed spirit of solidarity and pragmatism rather than in hell.