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Blair Gibbs: Canada is being left behind. Joining AUKUS would change that

Commentary

 A consensus has quickly formed that the post-Cold War peace dividend is definitively at an end.  Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reinvigorated NATO and triggered many Western countries to bolster their defences. Even the Trudeau government has promised a new defence review.Liberal budget is vague on greater defence spending amid Ukraine war, pending ‘review’ However, the war in Europe has not yet forced Canada to confront some hard choices it will need to make to remain a safe and secure society in the decades ahead.  

Canadian MPs seem to accept that a more unstable world with new competing powers might now necessitate a more “engaged” posture—to use the favourite liberal terminology—but in practice, engagement requires some choices.  Which clubs should Canada be part of? NATO and G7 aid commitments are not enough. Even if NATO expands to include Finland and Sweden in the next few years, these old alliances will likely be supplemented with new partnerships, particularly in the Asian and Pacific arenas.  

Before last year, these new alliances were not much more than theoretical, but now other defence opportunities present themselves and it is time that Canada’s politicians paid attention. The defence pact between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.—AUKUS—first unveiled in 2021 is the most important so far.What is the Aukus alliance and what are its implications?

When suddenly announced in a three-way news conference with the heads of government in the U.K., U.S., and Australia in September last year, like most countries Canada was caught by surprise.Canada caught off guard by new security pact between U.S., Australia and Britain For Australia to exit the submarine deal they signed with France was a highly sensitive decision and for this reason alone, Canada (or other allies) could not have been given advanced notice of any kind.  

What makes it special is that AUKUS is a coalition of the willing between three countries that already collaborate extensively on national security intelligence. Canada meets all these conditions too, as a founding Five Eyes member, but Ottawa has yet to show any public interest in participating in AUKUS. So why should AUKUS be of interest to Canada?  

Initially, Trudeau suggested that AUKUS is not relevant to Canada because the country does not have, and does not want or need, a nuclear submarine capability. But this is a denial of what AUKUS already claims to be—an emerging defence technology and procurement partnership that extends into hypersonic engine technology and cyber. Publicly, the scope of the agreement has already widened since September, suggesting that there is a series of initiatives that will progressively deepen the collaboration between AUKUS members in the years ahead.Trilateral AUKUS defence pact expands to hypersonic missiles and electronic warfare

The AUKUS pact should really be seen as the forerunner of something more substantial—like the early Coal and Steel Community was for the European Community (EC) and the EU that came later. This is often how critical multi-lateral organizations start out. Important geopolitical alliances very rarely emerge fully formed. Speaking to former British defence advisors, they see some clear synergies between the areas of technology that all three nations already need to perfect and industrialize to outcompete the Chinese. These include space and satellites, 6G and 7G communications, and advanced computing and AI, which will have major defence policy implications. Canada should have an interest in all of these domains.  

And if the potential then expands beyond pure defence programmes, then it becomes even more important that Canada is a party to it, and Canada as a member would also have a lot more to offer. If the original defence partnership of AUKUS bears fruit this decade, then it will be natural and less controversial for Canberra, Washington and London to extend it into the mobility and trade domain, with clear opportunities for more university R&D collaborations, government exchange programmes, and probably free movement for scientists and engineers working on AUKUS programmes.  

Over time this could result in wider economic benefits too, for example in the type of advanced aeronautical engineering that could deliver ultra-high-speed passenger airplanes. Reaction Engines is an impressive example of a British start-up with a U.S. test site where the pursuit of hypersonic engines could end up revolutionizing civilian air travel, literally bringing Australia much closer to both key partners and integrating their economies more closely. A world where business travellers can get from London to New York in 45 minutes and to Sydney in 2.5 hours is utterly transformed and makes the geographic barriers to closer national alliances in multiple time zones much less relevant.

It is early days but AUKUS was always more than just a submarine procurement deal. It was a recognition that the world has become more dangerous and unstable and that like-minded countries should commit to spending more on defence and do so in a coordinated way, where they can level up their technologies to match China and exploit their other military advantages.  

And the backdrop to this new agreement presents a challenge to Canada on defence spending too. The governments of all three AUKUS countries—under whatever political party—are likely to increase defence expenditure consistently over the next decade or more. That is a direction of travel that was set before Ukraine, but it will now be cemented for the foreseeable future. 

However, this consensus is slow to emerge in Canada. In fact, Canadians have never prioritized defence spending at any time since the end of the last world war.Canada may increase its defence spending – but that doesn’t mean it’s serious about restoring our military As Kim Richard Nossal has argued, the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War led to major defence cuts that hollowed out the country’s state capacity to invest in and procure the right military equipment.Charlie Foxtrot: an essay on defence procurement in Canada For years Canada became just another unequal member of NATO—dependent on the nuclear umbrella provided by the U.S. and, until recently, matching Germany in its complacent lack of interest in paying for its own defence.  

Since the Russian assault on Ukraine, it now looks like the Trump doctrine of NATO allies paying their fair share of 2 percent of GDP on defence is likely to become reality among most European members. But even based on the latest budget, the boost needed for Canadians to start spending more than 1.5 percent of GDP on defence will take until 2025 to be delivered, so there is much further to go. And Western countries left underwater by excessive spending and Covid debt will need to follow through once the immediate Ukraine emergency has ended.  

Even despite this fiscal hurdle, a new alliance like “CAUKUS” could come to define the West’s security for the coming China challenge. But with chronic underinvestment in defence and security, would Canada even be a valuable partner in such a pact? The answer may be in the broader benefits that Canadian membership might offer AUKUS, beyond military spending itself.  

The incentive for AUKUS nations would be to use collaboration on defence technology and exchange to bring Canada to the table and then encourage Ottawa to step up where they can add the most strategic value. Two areas where Canada can and should offer advantages for a future CAUKUS pact are Artic defence and energy and mineral security.

For years many defence experts have arguedOn the Arctic Watch: Why we need to protect Canada’s sovereignty and security in the Far North: Jeff Collins for Inside Policy that the threat to Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic should be taken much more seriously. Increased defence spending and permanent deployments in the Arctic region would signal that Canada is prepared to take a lead in guaranteeing the security of a critical region that will become easier to exploit militarily (and more valuable economically) as climate change transforms the sea lanes and the trade and mining potential.  

With rising global temperatures comes a shift in the strategic value of the Arctic and the manoeuvre space in the maritime domain. This is one area where climate change offers benefits to Canada that ought to be recognized and exploited, but it also exposes NATO’s largest territorial member to more geostrategic risk and confers more of an obligation to lead in the defence of this region.  

But Canada’s contribution to AUKUS could be more than just defensive. Shared defence procurement will need expertise from all countries and robust and reliable defence export agreements. Critical industries will need resilient energy supplies. Just for its own sake, Canada should be racing ahead and exploiting its rare metal resources and also leveraging energy exports, especially Liquified Natural Gas, to help Europe and countries like India that will otherwise continue to depend on Russian imports.  

Like Australia, Canada should see itself as a key supplier of the critical minerals and raw ingredients that the high-value tech sectors of the U.S. and Europe increasingly need to support their economic growth and diminish their supply chain dependency on China. Not to mention the fissile material and rare earth metals that are used in advanced defence technologies that AUKUS wants to develop.

Finally, Canada has much more to offer a partnership like AUKUS than a nation like New Zealand, or even arguably Japan. It is larger than Australia and with a landmass facing three major oceans and with more natural resources to exploit. The swift addition of Canada to create a CAUKUS pact that goes beyond defence into trade, R&D, and energy collaboration would make AUKUS a more coherent and meaningful partnership that has clear practical utility to all members.  

NATO will endure and Canada will continue to play a vital role there but it is never going to evolve politically into a deeper partnership because the alliance’s membership is too large and its member interests are too diverse. By contrast, AUKUS has real potential. It is the first example of a new trilateral partnership that could evolve into a serious trade, technology, and defence alliance that will help protect our economies and societies from the strategic threats to our way of life in this century posed by China and other autocratic states. Canadian politicians should want to participate in it, and it should come with some willingness to pay for the collective benefits.  

If Ottawa wants to get onboard with AUKUS, then key domestic decisions around increasing defence spending, or barring Chinese involvement in domestic telecoms (the “Huawei decision”) would need to be resolved soon so that Canada aligns its policy with the U.K., Australia and the U.S. Currently, this does not seem to be on the Liberal government’s agenda and the best explanation for this is because Canadian high politics under Trudeau has become far too narrow spectrum—devoting most of the ministerial bandwidth in Ottawa to carbon, human rights, domestic reconciliation, and welfare entitlements like childcare and dental coverage, to the exclusion of topics that only the federal government can lead on, like trade, defence, and how to combat hostile states and rising foreign competition.  

Ultimately Canadian voters would need to support the CAUKUS concept. It must be positioned as a venture that will support Canadian jobs, create new trade opportunities, and deliver a new security architecture that helps revive Canada’s depleted military. That is the prize, but first, they need to be sold the proposition. This would require some ambition and vision from Canada’s political class and a recognition of how much Canada needs to do to stay relevant in a more insecure world. And for now, that feels like too much to hope for. 

Joe Varner: Ukraine fights on—The state of the Russia-Ukraine war two months in

Commentary

Right now in Europe a legendary war is being fought between a “David and a Goliath” in Ukraine and Russia. David, against many expectations, is doing surprisingly well on the battlefield. Goliath? Not so well. In war, you succeed and win when you obtain your strategic objectives or your war aims. In this case, Russia’s war aim or key strategic objective was to take over the entirety of Ukraine and replace its government with one more friendly, a puppet if you will. Ukraine’s objective in this war has been to hang on, and if possible retake its lost territories in the Donbas and the Crimea. Neither side seems close to achieving their war aims or winning this war in real strategic terms at this point.

We have watched Russia’s military strategy shift several times during this war. In the first phase of the war, Moscow moved quickly to seize Kyiv and replace the Zelensky government with one of its own. In the second phase of the war, we saw a battle of attrition around Kyiv and Kharkiv. In the third phase of the war, Russian forces were defeated in the north above Kyiv and to the northeast, with Russian forces falling back into Belarus and Russia with heavy losses. Now we have entered the fourth stage of the war, which is the battle to secure the Donbas and to take the southern coast to Moldova, and maybe even Moldova itself.

Russian forces are starting to fight according to their own doctrine of using heavy artillery barrages and airstrikes to support ground operations but continue to struggle with low morale. To date, eight weeks in, Russia does not have air superiority. As well, the United Kingdom reports that Russia has been forced to merge and redeploy depleted and disparate units from failed advances in northeast Ukraine.Depleted Russian units that failed to take Kyiv are merging, says MoD Russia is using penny packets of tactical battalion groups and regiments to attack objectives instead of using overwhelming force. There is a reluctance to employ airpower in support of ground power. There are clear gaps in logistics, sequencing, and planning, although it is improving. Russian commanders, in their drive to the cities, have seen their field hospitals left far behind the front.

One of the great lessons learned coming out of this war will be how well Ukraine controlled the information flow in the age of social media. We know everything that Ukrainians want us to know, but we know less about the cost of the fighting for Ukrainian men, women, and materiel. But thanks to a dominant Ukrainian and NATO narrative, we know almost everything about Russian losses in this conflict. Russia has seen 15,000 dead according to the British Ministry of Defence.Russia so far lost 15,000 troops in Ukraine: UK defense secretary There are at least three times that number of wounded. This means that of Russia’s invading force of 190,000 to 200,000 men, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 60,000 are now rendered ineffective.

A specialized blog, Oryx, counts Russian losses and documents them with either photographic or video evidence;Destination Disaster: Russia’s Failure At Hostomel Airpor evidence that strongly suggests that Russia has lost at least 500 main battle tanks and more than 300 armoured fighting vehicles. In a force of more than 120 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) Russia has probably lost somewhere in the neighbourhood of at least 30 BTGs. Russia has drawn on reservists, its proxy Militia in Ukraine, and mercenaries from Chechnya, Syria, and Libya to replace its losses. In real terms, Russia has enough force for one last offensive in the Donbas before it either re-entrenches, pushes back from the table, or mobilizes for war. Russia has not mobilized its entire force for war yet, but if it’s looking for a victory it may have to do so.

Ukrainian losses have been harder to determine as we enter almost two months of the war. We don’t know the real cost to Ukraine in military terms, in civilian lives, infrastructure (which is by all accounts destroyed in the country in the east and in the south), treasury, lost talent, and cultural, artistic, and historic items that are intrinsic to Ukrainian culture and can never be replaced. Some estimates suggest that even with frozen Russian assets it will be two or three years before Ukraine can rebuild much of the country that is now a wasteland. But some things are lost forever. Reportedly, Russian war crimes continue to be as savage as those we saw during the Second World War on the eastern front.Ukraine initiates more than 9,000 cases over Russia’s military crimes Russia’s war on Ukraine is a genocide—clearly an attempt to wipe out a people, a culture, and a history. 

The United States and NATO were at first slow to respond to Russian aggression, issuing threats of sanctions while at the same time clearly signalling to Russia that they would contribute no boots on the ground and would not impose a no-fly zone. In short, the West offered Ukraine every support short of help and assistance. When the Russian invasion came, NATO countries ramped up both military aid and punishing sanctions targeting the Putin regime, Russia’s security apparatus, and its economy.

Now NATO and Western countries are coming to the conclusion that we either stop Russia in Ukraine using weapons we have in our war stocks or we fight Russia later in our own countries. NATO and other like-states are providing training, repair of equipment, provision of small arms, and even now heavy armour and combat aircraft. These moves have reportedly given Ukraine tank parity with Russia. Additionally, NATO has sent anti-tank, anti-air, and anti-ship missiles to Ukraine which the Ukrainian military has used to great effect. Two months into this bloody war, Russia still does not control the sky over Ukraine. 

The end result on the battlefield is that the Russians maintain enough forces to the north in Belarus and Russia to hold Ukrainian forces in and around Kyiv in place. This denies Ukraine from redeploying forces to aid in the defence of the east and south of the country. According to senior U.S. defence officials, Russia continues to bolster its forces in eastern Ukraine, bringing the total number of its Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) to 85. The Russians continue to isolate and blockade Kharkiv. At the same time, the Kremlin is making a massive effort to take the Donbas in a series of north and south pincer movements and to secure the Ukrainian coast up to and including Odesa and Transnistria.

Now, the war in the Donbas is moving in slow motion and whether that pace will pick up will depend on a number of factors including the weather over the next 10 days. The upcoming warm weather will see favourable conditions for  Russian offensive operations. As the ground dries up and the mud starts to come to an end, we’ll see the Russian army have the ability to go off-road and move to mobile warfare. We will also see the advantage likely shift for a time to Russia with its force concentrations in the east and south free for maneuver warfare while Ukrainian forces have to guard the entire country stretched to the limit and stretched too thin.

Having said that, for successful offensive operations Russia would have to have a three- or five-to-one advantage over the defending Ukrainians. At best they have two-to-one. If the Russian military is not careful their phase four offensive in the Donbas may bleed their existing infantry and armoured forces white. For Russia to even come close to saving face it has to at least seize the Donbas, the coast to Moldova, and maybe Moldova itself. The pressure is on, with the almost-holy day of Victory celebrations in Moscow—taking place on the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe May 9th—a week away. 

What does all this mean for the future of the Russo-Ukrainian War? For Russia, victory on the battlefield and in the war itself remains a gamble and is not certain by any stretch. Russia needs a rare quality in war, and one that it has lacked to date: luck. Does Russian President Vladimir Putin get lucky and have his hit teams kill Zelensky and his inner circle so that the Ukrainian government collapses? Does Russia get a battlefield breakthrough and make it to Odesa? Will the Belarusian army cross the frontier and take a distracted Kyiv from the north? Will Vladimir Putin announce a declaration of war with Ukraine on May 9th, Victory Day, and declare mobilization of the country’s reserve army for war? Can Russia take Moldova by surprise through hybrid and/or conventional war and feed the Russian domestic audience some fresh meat for May 9th? Maybe Western resolve collapses and sells out Ukraine at the bargaining table to Russia.

Taking Ukrainian territory and holding it are two different things.

Then there are the worst-case nightmare scenarios: does Russia target and destroy the massive dams on the Dnieper River, flooding large areas of the country with devastating effects? Will Putin resort to increased use of chemical weapons in order to break through on the battlefield or terrorize the civilian population into surrender? Does a desperate Russia use captured Ukrainian nuclear facilities as improvised radiological devices? Could a very desperate Putin use tactical nuclear weapons? None of these can be discounted if Putin’s regime is at stake. 

For Ukraine, it is a matter of protecting its legitimate government and holding as much of its sovereign territory as it can by wearing down and even defanging the Russian war machine. Ukraine’s conduct of this war from the grand strategic level to the small unit actions of Mariupol are going to be studied in Western military academies and beyond for a long time to come. Ukraine has become NATO’s proxy war with Russia, and as long as it continues to get lethal aid from the West and training it is still in the game. The chance of Kyiv getting back territory in the east or south of the country in battle or peace treaty with Russia is low. Over the long haul, the chance that Ukraine retakes it after a bloody insurgency against a sanction-strapped Russia unable to reconstitute its army is medium to high. Taking Ukrainian territory and holding it are two different things. 

For NATO, it has entered its first real proxy war with Russia since Afghanistan in 1979. It is hoping for a replay of that war with Russia emerging with a greatly diminished military machine. Russia’s long-standing strategic goal of splitting the U.S. and NATO from one another or pulling apart the EU has ended in failure, likely for the long haul. While some alliance members went weak, others have stepped up to the plate and an increase in overall NATO defense spending and combat readiness in the short-term is a certainty. NATO states know that they have to rebuild their combat power before Russia rebuilds theirs and before China becomes too big to stop.

Lastly, a bellicose China has gone quiet and shown a cold shoulder to its failed strategic partner Russia. The Chinese Communist Party’s recent dreams of carving up a sphere of influence from New Delhi to the Philippines, Taiwan, the Senkakus, and the Solomon Islands are no longer assured. China has been shocked by the power of the Western sanctions and others against Russia. Beijing has been taken aback by previously neutral counties like Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland choosing sides against Russia. Chinese President Xi is reportedly astounded by the triumph of Western military power over Russian military power and the superiority of Western arms over those of Russia’s—and China’s by extension. China can no longer ignore the power of a Taiwan with a “hedgehog” defense bristling with anti-air, anti-ship, and anti-tank missiles or automatically count on the success of a Chinese invasion fleet. The fact that Ukraine, using old weapons, has destroyed eight Russian warships (including the Black Sea flagship the cruiser Moskva), a frigate, and a large amphibious warfare ship, in a ground war, without a navy, has not gone unnoticed in Beijing.