Michael Ignatieff on The War in Ukraine and its Implications for Global Security, NATO, Canadian Defence Spending, & Recruitment and Retention
A recent CBC article recently cited your “disappointment” with the level of military support from Canada. You said, and I am paraphrasing, that Canadians should be prepared for years of aid to Ukraine. What is your reasoning behind this perspective and what kind of commitment is required from Canada?
Well, the Secretary General of NATO has said a 2% of GDP is the floor of any nation’s commitment to NATO—it should be the floor, not the ceiling. Very few countries meet that floor, Canada is one of them. Canada’s GDP expenditure is 1.2 – 1.3%. This is having direct effects on our political credibility. If we think there will be a Canadian Secretary General of NATO, the answer is no, because we don’t make commitments equivalent to our economic power. The Russian economy is the same size as the Canadian economy—we’ve got the economic power to make a contribution of 2%.
I’ve been in politics. I know how unpopular it is to spend money on tanks and planes when you should want to spend it on roads, schools, and hospitals. I understand that. But we’re in a new world now. Through the late 1980s and ‘90s, Canada gambled on soft power, gambled on the fact that we’re a very attractive, democratic country with good values. We thought foreign policy was just social work, virtue signaling, and being nice. Soft power is important, we’re an attractive country, and that’s great, but we’re now in a world where we must understand the necessity of possessing military capabilities—not just to ship up to Ukraine, but to defend our borders, to make full commitments to NORAD, to our Arctic defence, to our maritime defence.
We’ve got Russian and Chinese penetration into the Arctic—these are going to be direct threats to our sovereignty. These are not bread-and-butter issues for Canadians, but they are fundamental to protecting our sovereignty and I think they’re fundamental to our self-image. This is about power. You can’t be a powerful country unless you have the capabilities to match. Virtue signaling, speeches, and press conferences are simply no substitute. I appreciate this is difficult. I’m not here to make cheap-shot comments about the current government, I don’t want to get into that business at all. But I think whoever’s in power in Canada in the next decade is going to have to spend a lot more money on defence, and we’re going to have to rethink our whole military configuration because the technologies are changing so rapidly that it’s anybody’s guess what we’re going to need by the end of the decade.
Nobody thought we would need drones, but we’re going to need drones. We need to invest in our cyber capabilities because we’re facing substantial infiltration into our digital space—even in our political systems. All these things just require us to take a hard swallow, dig into our pockets, and pay up—I just don’t see any way around this. I know what a heavy lift this is for any political leader, whatever their political stripe, but it’s got to happen. It’s not just the military. We’ve got fires raging across Canada, we need a civilian and a military capability to deal with environmental threats now. This is the world. It’s not just the geostrategic, it’s the environmental threats. With those two together, we need federal capabilities that we currently don’t have. That’s a challenge.
Building a strong military force also relies on attracting young Canadians to consider military service as a fulfilling career option. How can the Canadian Armed Forces effectively engage and recruit younger generations?
For my generation, it is deeply meaningful. My family saw military service in the Second World War, my grandparents saw military service in the First World War. This stuff is real to me, but it’s not as real to the coming generations. I’m incredibly respectful of Canada’s military tradition, and it’s a serious, inspiring tradition, in fact. We should never forget it.
The one thing I know about young people is that they want excitement. They want an encounter with danger, they want to prove themselves. They want to see the world, and they want to do the right thing if they can. They want to learn skills. All of this can be offered by a military that is open to them. But it has to be open to men and it has to be open to women. It is incredibly important to attract women to the service now. It’s important to attract people from every community in Canada, and the military does not have, at the moment, a good reputation for being an environment that is focused on equality, diversity, and openness. Those problems need to be solved and fixed.
We need great leaders. The younger generations will follow if we have leaders who inspire them, who excite them, and make them feel good. I owe my skin to our military. It was Canadian peacekeepers that fished me out of a very unpleasant encounter with some paramilitaries in the Balkans in 1992. They were tough, professional, and smart—got the job done. I thought God bless them. Of course, Canadians like this still exist. But we’ve got to change the narrative.
The narrative at the moment is that the CAF can’t get its act together, doesn’t have the right equipment, doesn’t have good leadership, isn’t a national priority, and is poorly led. All that needs to be fixed. It means that you need to have a minister and you need to have a political commitment that just sits there for 10 years and rebuilds the whole thing. But we can do it. We did it in the Second World War. We did it in the First World War. I’m confident we can fix it, mostly because I think military life in the 21st century is one of the most exciting and fulfilling careers you could have—but you need a good unit, good leadership, and political support.
You highlighted two missed opportunities for Russia to democratize, one during the czarist regime and another after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. How do these missed opportunities continue to shape the country’s political trajectory, particularly in its relations with Ukraine?
Well, the first missed opportunity came after a defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1905. Military defeat is often a catalyst for change, both positive and negative, and in this case, the Czar was forced to recognize that the defeat was not just a military defeat, it was a failure of the whole society. That led to the beginnings of a kind of—what in Canada we would call—responsible government, a duma, and parliament. Had the Czar not aligned with the Serbs in 1914, had he kept Russia out of the war, it’s conceivable that the Czarist regime could have evolved towards some form of a constitutional monarchy on British lines.
Certainly, many Russians of that era hoped that would happen, and it didn’t. What followed was military collapse on the Eastern Front in the First World War, followed by revolution, and 80 years of communist dictatorship. That was the first missed opportunity. It affected the history of the 20th century in decisive ways, and in some sense, had Russia not been a communist dictatorship, it’s conceivable that Hitler would have never come to power. Russia’s failure to democratize from 1905 to 1917 was one of the decisive missed opportunities of the 20th century.
The second opportunity occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This moment of defeat was a moment of democratic opportunity, but here, I think two things happened. First, the Western advisors flooded in and said, “Liberalize the economy first, and we’ll build the institutions later,” and economic liberalization had devastatingly destabilizing effects on the whole population. Secondly, there just weren’t enough democrats in Russia to build a democracy. That decade of the 1990s—which was the Wild West in Russia—ended with Putin taking power, and he’s been in power ever since. This was tragic because a democratic Russia could have been a partner of NATO expansion eastwards.
One of the right-wing conservative arguments about the Ukraine war is that it was caused by aggressive NATO expansionism. That’s false because it neglects the important degree to which countries in Eastern Europe—Poland, the Baltic states, and Czechoslovakia—insisted on NATO membership as the condition of their democratization and stability as sovereign states. The idea that America pushed to the Russian frontier neglects the pull from countries in this region, including Ukraine. One of the mistakes that were made about Ukraine was taking the Budapest agreement in ’94, which denuclearized Ukraine, for sensible reasons, because the nukes weren’t under very effective control, but it had the effect of essentially disarming Ukraine in the face of a resurgent Russia that became steadily more authoritarian over the ensuing 25 years.
There’s a deep connection between the outbreak of war on February 24, 2022, and the failure of Russia to democratize—a democratic Russia, even a very imperfectly democratic Russia, like an imperfectly democratic Ukraine, would never have gone to war with each other. But a revanchist, resentful, authoritarian, Russia was bound sooner or later to regard a democratic state on its border as a threat. This war didn’t begin in 2022—the overt face of combat began in 2014. The Ukrainians have been at war for almost nine years.
How do the ultimate objectives of Ukraine and Western leaders differ concerning the end of the war in Ukraine, and what implications does this have for the resolution of the conflict?
That is a fundamental question because there is a fundamental disagreement, I think, between Ukraine’s objectives, which are to throw the invader out of all Ukraine’s territory—that is, back to the borders that Ukraine occupied before 2014 and before the takeover of Crimea. That is the historic territory of the Ukrainian state since 1991, that is the ultimate objective of every Ukrainian regime since then, and that is the objective of Mr. Zelenskyy. Everybody acknowledges why that should be so. As long as any portion of Ukraine is occupied by Russian forces, it is a permanent casus belli. Ukraine will never accept the presence of Russian troops on its territory, nor should they.
The Western objective is completely different, which is to show the Russians that military aggression does not pay, to defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but not all of it, and to prevent a direct military confrontation with NATO and the risk of a nuclear exchange. These are just different objectives, and how will it be resolved? It will be resolved on the battlefield. As we speak, I think the full offensive capabilities for the Ukrainians have just been committed literally in the last day or two. We’ll see whether they can punch a hole through to the Sea of Azov, split Russian territorial gains in two, then begin to make the front collapse and do what they did in the offensive in the northeast of Kharkiv in the autumn of 2022. They’re obviously hoping to do that.
My view, not being a military strategist of course, is that because they don’t have air superiority their chances of achieving all their military goals are not good, and the Russians have dug themselves into 30 kilometres worth of military defences, and ‘defence is easier than offense’—all these cliches, I think, are true. I hope I’m wrong, I want to emphasize that, but I don’t see the Ukrainians gaining such a breakthrough until the weather turns in November. I don’t see them, in this period, gaining such military gains that they force the Russians to the table, and I don’t see the Russians coming to the table short of something approaching a military collapse on the front line. Observers at this distance have been wrong about this war since the beginning, and I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see it at the moment.
The next phase might be at the end of 2023. With an American presidential election coming in 2024, and the possibility of a change of regime in the United States, the Americans basically might say to Zelenskyy, “We’re going to have to turn off the tap, the logistic tap, of resupply.” The Europeans might begin to say something similar—it’ll all be said quietly. That might then force Zelenskyy to seek, essentially, a ceasefire.
Ukraine has fought heroically, the people are exhausted, and the losses have been staggering. Zelenskyy might conclude—he is facing a presidential election—that it is in his interest to just have a ceasefire. But Zelenskyy has been clear that a frozen conflict is not in his interest, either. He knows what frozen conflicts are like in this region of the world—Nagorno-Karabakh, next door in Moldova—he doesn’t want that, nobody wants that.
A ceasefire would necessarily be literally a ceasefire, not an armistice, not a long-term cessation of hostilities. The Western powers Can turn off the logistic tap, but I don’t think this ends the war. I think we’re in for a very long haul into 2024, possibly 2025. Essentially, what the Ukrainians have been saying all along is true—until there is regime change in Russia, there will be no end to this conflict. The reason that the conflict will not end is that this is regime-critical to Putin—if he loses the war, it’s over for him personally and the entire regime that he’s built over the last 23 years.
Prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, there had been debate and discussion regarding NATO’s role and relevance in the 21st century. What implications does the current conflict in Ukraine have for the Alliance now and for its future?
It must be a good sign that the entire Baltic region is now a NATO area with the addition of Sweden and Finland. It must be good that Europe and the United States are working so closely together in logistics and resupply. The partnership, for example, between Poland and the United States is extraordinary. The key thing in a longer historical perspective is that for a long period after the end of the Cold War, NATO was involved in expeditionary activity in the Balkans, and then out of area altogether in Afghanistan and other regions. I think that the war has simply stripped that all away. NATO is now in its core mission, which is to defend the territorial integrity of the Euro-Atlantic area, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s what NATO is there for. Its expeditionary ambitions often turned out to be frustrated. They were not successful in these out-of-area missions, although they did an important job stabilizing the Balkans.
The war has focused NATO on its core mission and added two crucial members that make the Baltic part of the NATO alliance. But it has also highlighted the thing that has been true about NATO since it was founded, which is that it’s an American-led Alliance. The downside of NATO has been that it’s provided European security on the cheap and allowed Europe to develop enormous economic strength and rebuild after the Second World War, which is fantastic. But it’s meant that all of these countries have let their militaries waste away, with some exceptions—the British have kept their capability and the French have some capability.
Who would have thought that Germany, one of the greatest military powers in Europe for two centuries just traded away its military capability almost altogether? Across Europe, every NATO member is now having to reassess for the very long term, reinvestments in their militaries, which puts tremendous political strains on European leaders because they’re going to have to find the money for tanks and weapons that they haven’t had to find for 60 years. This is going to pose very considerable budgetary, social, and political strains on them domestically. I think it’s crucial to the future of the Alliance that America find some partners that are credible, serious, and meet their targets, and at the moment, America is carrying much more of a burden than it should.
How might international responses to the war in Ukraine impact China’s actions in the Indo-Pacific, perhaps specifically vis-à-vis Taiwan?
Anybody who thinks China could make a quick, snap invasion of Taiwan—first blockade it, then land forces, and wrap it up quickly—forget about it. It will be long, bloody, and difficult, and I hope the Ukraine war has made the Chinese aware that this is very costly.
Conversely, I think it’s brought home to the Americans just how incredibly difficult it’s going to be to defend Taiwan. I hope both sides look at this and think, “We really don’t want to do this. We want to keep the status quo going.” But again, these things are what a rational actor would think. The war in Ukraine is reminding all countries of middle military capability just how unpredictable, dangerous, violent, and costly military engagements of all kinds always are. That’s lesson number one.
The difficulty here is that’s what reason would tell them. Everybody needs to remember that Taiwan is not just a little island off China, a little piece of real estate that would be nice for them to incorporate. It was the historic site of the Guomindang, the historic enemies of the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang’s last refuge after it lost the Civil War in China. This is major unfinished historical business for the Communist Party of China.
Achieving the reunification of China and Taiwan is a world-historical task for someone like Xi Jinping, and if we have been appalled that Putin would dare to launch an attack on Ukraine, it’s because we forgot that for Putin, the reunification of Russia and Ukraine was a world-historical task that would cement his place in history forever. By analogy, the same is true of Xi Jinping and Taiwan, and that’s what’s imponderable, frightening, and potentially so worrying about this.
At a rational level, no one should want war in the South China Sea. At a historical level, it’s extremely tempting for Xi Jinping, just as Ukraine was extremely tempting for Putin. That’s why this is a scary world. The world is scary because of the sheer weight of these unfinished historical projects, which should be forgotten about. We should put them away, we should not be trying to solve history’s problems into the future, we should forget about them. But we don’t. That’s what’s painful and difficult.