Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ukraine awaits real help

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Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has assured NATO's eastern members Canada will stand with them "in the face of aggression." It was a largely meaningless gesture, but it might have been a little less ridiculous if Canada were actually capable of backing up its rhetoric.

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Canada is sending six CF-18s and a naval ship to the region in support of other NATO forces that have also beefed up their presence in a show of solidarity and protest over Russia's intimidation of Ukraine.

No one expects fighting to break out between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, but the deployment of big guns is a traditional way for nations to express their disapproval of another country's conduct.

Ukraine itself may have preferred money over muscle.

Canada's puny show of force, however, serves as another reminder the country's military is entering another period of decay and decline.

The recent federal budget cut $3.1 billion in planned spending on new equipment, raising doubts as to whether Canada will even have a new jet fighter before the existing fleet of F-18s begins to fall out of the skies from old age.

The navy and army are also working with outdated equipment, while funds for training have declined.

Canada spends about 1.3 per cent of GDP on defence, one of the lowest ratios in NATO, even though we are one of the world's richest nations and a member of the G8.

The justification for the defence cuts was partly related to the government's determination to balance the budget by next year, but there is also a sense that, now that the Afghan mission is over, Canada will not be required to make another major commitment in the near future.

That attitude prevailed after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when major countries talked about reaping a peace dividend. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait, followed by troubles in the Balkans and, of course, the so-called war on terror, Libya, Nigeria and so on.

After the First World War, Great Britain imposed the 10-year rule, which forbade new military spending for 10 years on the assumption Britain would not face a major threat for at least a decade.

The restraint was lifted when the Nazis came to power in 1933, but by that time the country, along with France, was weakened militarily and unable to honour its security agreement to Poland in 1939.

As Mr. Baird continues his tour of eastern Europe, he may wish to focus more on concrete assistance for Ukraine, rather than evoking a gunslinger pose that is out of all proportion to the current situation and Canada's real abilities.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has released the demons of virulent nationalism in Ukraine, which now seem even out of his ability to control. It may not have been his intention when he annexed Crimea, but the genie, as they say, is out of the bottle.

The situation on the ground in Ukraine is now so confusing, with authority collapsing across the Russian portions of the country, it's unclear if the old regime can ever be restored.

This is where Russia must display a leadership role, assuming Mr. Putin is interested in halting the spread of violence, including a revival of the ancient hatreds of Jews.

The Russian leader himself may be uncertain about what he should do next, although the prevailing consensus is he will be happy to pick up the pieces left behind by civil strife and discord.

Canada's role, along with its allies in Europe and the United States, should involve a more serious effort to bail out the financially strapped country, while pressing Mr. Putin to act responsibly or face crushing sanctions.

Gunboat diplomacy won't intimidate Mr. Putin, but he would certainly be impressed by an economic and political offensive in support of an independent and prosperous Ukraine.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2014 A12

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