Britain, Canada Flex Hard-Power Muscles in Showdown With Russia

Other NATO allies deploy fighter jets and naval forces to shore up its eastern flank.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian soldiers take part in a military training exercise.
Ukrainian soldiers take part in a military training exercise.
Ukrainian soldiers take part in the Rapid Trident 17 international military exercise at the Yavoriv shooting range not far from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Sept. 15, 2017. Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP via Getty Images

As the threat of a full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine looms, NATO allies are scrambling to ramp up their military presence along the alliance’s eastern flank, and they are warning Russia of severe economic and diplomatic consequences if its forces cross Ukraine’s borders. Yet only a handful of NATO’s 30 members are doing more to directly support Ukraine by providing shipments of defensive military equipment. 

Among the new “coalition of the willing,” as one NATO diplomat labeled it, Canada, Britain, and some Baltic nations have emerged as Ukraine’s strongest supporters, having more muscular and hawkish policies than their European counterparts. They’re aiming at backing the government in Kyiv, Ukraine, and deterring Moscow’s alleged invasion plans. 

On Saturday, the British foreign ministry issued a largely unprecedented statement flatly accusing Russia of crafting plans to overthrow the Ukrainian government and install pro-Russian replacements—going so far as to name likely candidates for the new puppet government. It follows London’s recent decision to ship next-generation, light anti-tank weapons to Ukraine’s military along with a small contingent of elite troops to train its military on the weapons. Britain has also dispatched surveillance aircraft over Ukraine to monitor Russia’s military buildup. 

As the threat of a full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine looms, NATO allies are scrambling to ramp up their military presence along the alliance’s eastern flank, and they are warning Russia of severe economic and diplomatic consequences if its forces cross Ukraine’s borders. Yet only a handful of NATO’s 30 members are doing more to directly support Ukraine by providing shipments of defensive military equipment. 

Among the new “coalition of the willing,” as one NATO diplomat labeled it, Canada, Britain, and some Baltic nations have emerged as Ukraine’s strongest supporters, having more muscular and hawkish policies than their European counterparts. They’re aiming at backing the government in Kyiv, Ukraine, and deterring Moscow’s alleged invasion plans. 

On Saturday, the British foreign ministry issued a largely unprecedented statement flatly accusing Russia of crafting plans to overthrow the Ukrainian government and install pro-Russian replacements—going so far as to name likely candidates for the new puppet government. It follows London’s recent decision to ship next-generation, light anti-tank weapons to Ukraine’s military along with a small contingent of elite troops to train its military on the weapons. Britain has also dispatched surveillance aircraft over Ukraine to monitor Russia’s military buildup. 

The Canadian government, one of the first to recognize Ukraine after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and with one of the largest Ukrainian diaspora communities in the world, has also taken a more hawkish approach against Russia in the crisis compared to other NATO allies. It is eyeing new plans to extend a military training mission in Ukraine that involves around 200 Canadian troops and provides more weapons and defensive equipment to Ukraine’s military. 

“This is a huge deal in domestic politics in Canada, so you can’t be too much on the side of Kyiv’s government,” said Peter Van Praagh, president of the Halifax International Security Forum. “The Liberal government is also taking pressure from the Conservative opposition for not doing enough on supporting Ukraine still, even though they have done quite a bit.”

The nature of that political debate isn’t an accident, former Canadian officials said. The Kremlin has aimed propaganda at Ottawa, claiming its stronger position on Ukraine is solely a result of the country’s large Ukrainian diaspora. But former Canadian officials insist that its privileged geography—an ocean away from Russia’s backyard—as well as democratic values have changed the debate since the Kremlin’s invasion of the Donbass in 2014. 

“Canada, as part of the NATO alliance, has the benefit of geography: 100 percent of our security is in our partnership with the United States,” said Shuvaloy Majumdar, former policy director for Canada’s top diplomat and now a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. “Our experience with Russia is different, and it provides political space for us to argue as Canadians exactly what the interests of our alliance are in confronting this threat.”

Changing perceptions began under former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, but the political transformation has continued under current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, becoming a mainstream feature of Canadian politics that’s not just driven by the outspoken Ukrainian diaspora. “There’s a lot more you can use now that in the 1980s and 1990s weren’t accessible at the time,” Majumdar added. 

This month, Canada deployed a small contingent of special forces to Ukraine and announced a new $120 million emergency loan to the Ukrainian government to “support Ukraine’s economic resilience” against Russian efforts to destabilize the country, Trudeau announced

“Canada, usually the voice of moderation, is playing the cowboy on [the] Ukraine crisis,” one recent Toronto Star op-ed puts it. 

Senior Russian officials are also readily recognizing the outsized role Ottawa is playing on the diplomatic front, after Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last month and visited Ukraine earlier this month. Oleg Stepanov, Russia’s ambassador to Canada, said in an interview with CTV News on Sunday that Joly has an “open invitation” to visit Moscow. “Canada is a really important and vocal player right now in NATO camp, in the situation around Ukraine,” Stepanov said.

Canada’s ongoing training mission for the Ukrainian military, which started in 2015, has also become more expansive in geographical terms than the U.S. effort, which has long been centered in western Ukraine. Canadian units can go to places like Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, and Odessa that are mostly untouched by other NATO militaries. The ability to send forces to study Ukraine’s modernizing military has allowed Canadian troops to expand their training from low-level tactical drills to the education courses given to Ukrainian troops. 

That geographic footprint has helped solidify changes to Ukraine’s military, which lacked basic supplies when Russian troops first invaded. Western officials argue it has also sent a signal to Russia about Western resolve over Ukraine.

Canada also played a key role in helping Ukraine establish a second combat training center for troops in the country’s south, and the presence of more NATO member troops is something that military officials believe could give Russian President Vladimir Putin pause before advancing deeper into the country, something the Canadian military mission emphasized when the Kremlin built up around 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine’s border in the spring of 2021.

“That’s something we really emphasized in the March buildup, highlighting everywhere we are in the country,” said one Western military official. “We see what you’re doing, and we’re here. If you are rolling through here, we are here as well, so there’s a good chance you’re going to roll over us.”

But there are limits to Ottawa’s support, even as Canada’s Liberal and Conservative Parties have jockeyed over who can be more forward-leaning on Ukraine. Canada has only sent nonlethal aid to the Ukraine military, and some think Ottawa could do more, such as sending small arms acquired from European countries to help Kyiv carry the fight to the Russians. Canada also does not provide satellite imagery to the Ukrainian armed forces, something some former officials would like to change. 

The latest moves from London and Ottawa stand in stark contrast with other NATO allies, most notably Germany—Europe’s economic powerhouse—which has balked at sending military aid to Ukraine and pushed for diplomatic avenues with the Kremlin to defuse the crisis. Berlin has caught flak from the United States and other NATO allies for not halting a controversial Russian pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, that would allow Russia to bypass Ukraine to ship its gas supplies to Europe, and for reportedly blocking fellow NATO ally Estonia from exporting German-origin weapons to Ukraine. 

Although neither the United Kingdom nor Canada can match the United States’ military might, many NATO officials and outside experts view both capitals as punching above their weight in supporting Ukraine. 

“In terms of what their countries’ capacities are, I think the U.K. and Canada are actually a bit ahead of the United States,” Van Praagh said. 

For London, the hawkish approach stems from three overriding factors, according to interviews with several NATO officials and former Western diplomats. The first is Britain’s efforts to set itself apart from the European Union with a more muscular foreign policy, two years after the messy Brexit debacle dealt a blow to London’s international standing. The second is the sharp deterioration in U.K.-Russian relations in recent years, punctuated by the 2018 poisoning of a Russian defector in Britain by Moscow’s intelligence operatives. Then there’s the historical factor of how Britain views itself as a guarantor of European security. 

“There’s a view in the U.K.—which is borne of its narrative, of its history through the Second World War—that appeasement doesn’t work and that you have to be clear that you are prepared to resist aggression,” said Adam Thomson, director of the European Leadership Network and former British ambassador to NATO. “Although the Russian threat is perceived to be against Ukraine, the Russians have chosen to wrap this up in a wider proposition that the present European security order is unacceptable to them.”

“So the action against Ukraine sends messages across the Euro-Atlantic space that [goes] far beyond just Ukraine,” he added. “All of that drives a conviction in London that Russia needs to be deterred from further military aggression.”

Britain has trained around 20,000 Ukrainian troops since 2015, and its training partnership with Ukraine will continue, a British Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office spokesperson said. Britain has also provided around $2.3 billion of financial support to Ukraine aimed at helping “develop Ukraine’s naval capability,” the spokesperson said. 

Other NATO allies have offered financial assistance and military training to Ukraine and have rushed to bolster its military presence along NATO’s eastern flank—but stopped short of sending direct military assistance to Kyiv in response to recent weeks’ flare-up of tensions. Denmark announced it would dispatch a frigate and four F-16 fighters to join NATO’s standing naval forces in the Baltic Sea region; the Netherlands and Spain will send fighter jets to Bulgaria; and France is considering deploying troops to Romania under a NATO command along the Black Sea region, where Russia has amassed new naval forces.

Meanwhile, the United States has put 8,500 troops on standby to deploy to Europe if tensions continue to escalate as well as dispatch a carrier strike group to the Mediterranean to conduct joint naval exercises under NATO command—part of a long-planned military exercise that U.S. officials said is now aimed at showcasing NATO’s military muscle to Russia in the context of the latest crisis. 

“In military terms, these moves are perhaps not going to change the equation at all,” Thomson said. “But politically, it might do so. It says to Moscow, ‘You go further down this path, and what you get is precisely the opposite of what you want.’”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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