The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canada must do more to back Ukraine. Hashtags are not enough.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Jan. 26 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Michael Taube, a columnist for Troy Media and Loonie Politics, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

The long-standing Russia-Ukraine conflict is teetering on the brink of a full-scale war. While most nations hope a diplomatic resolution is forthcoming, leaders are also planning strategies to combat Russian President Vladimir Putin’s potential militaristic overreach.

President Biden, for instance, recently described this tense situation as “the most consequential thing that’s happened in the world in terms of war and peace since World War II.” He put 8,500 soldiers on alert last week. The United States also formally rejected Russia’s demand to keep Ukraine from ever opting to join NATO.

What about Canada? My country’s response has been little more than the soft, fluffy rhetoric that’s often defined Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s weak, ineffective leadership.

First, Canada offered a $120 million loan to Ukraine on Jan. 21. According to two CBC News sources, the Liberal government is “considering sending … small arms, protective vests and goggles,” which would be “part of a package of both ‘lethal and non-lethal equipment.’ ” The date is still to be determined, and it remains to be seen whether a more significant number of Canadian troops would be deployed.

Second, a social media campaign has started in (mostly) Canadian progressive circles. There are various photos of Liberal politicians such as International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan holding flimsy placards with the hashtag #StandWithUkraine. There are also Liberal MPs such as Adam van Koeverden making meaningless gestures and taking selfies.

Other than this, Trudeau’s political cupboard has been pretty bare. He recently extended Canada’s 200-troop training operation in Ukraine (Operation Unifier) for three years, and agreed to immediately deploy 60 additional troops “in the coming days.” The entire mission could grow to 400 troops.

I’m obviously not criticizing the sentiments behind these decisions. Most right-thinking (and left-thinking) Canadians support Ukraine in this conflict. They’re fed up with Putin’s dream of attempting to rebuild the Iron Curtain that once encompassed the old Soviet Union. They don’t want to see anything that could potentially ignite World War III.

At the same time, the Liberal government’s strategic position is ridiculous. What the Ukrainians need is weapons and military aid, not impending loans and flimsy paper signs. That’s the best course of action to help defeat Putin’s growling Russian bear.

Don’t expect Canada’s Liberals to shift gears, however.

Trudeau isn’t a strong or confident leader. He accepts Canada’s status as a middle power and prefers to follow larger countries rather than take a leadership role. With a few exceptions, including the Syrian civil war and recognizing the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, Trudeau seems perfectly content to be a small participant on the big world stage.

He’s also consistently refused to punch above his weight with respect to foreign relations and international conflicts, as his predecessor (and also my former boss), Stephen Harper, did. He certainly doesn’t have Harper’s confidence or courage to tell Putin to “get out of Ukraine,” as he did in a tete-a-tete at the Group of 20 Summit in 2014.

This also helps explain why Biden has seemingly lost some faith in Trudeau’s leadership. While the two are like-minded on quite a few political issues, the former takes a much tougher stance when it comes to foreign policy, safety and security. It’s one of the few areas where U.S. conservatives (and others) regularly find common ground with Biden. Canada’s notable exclusion from the AUKUS nuclear submarine pact last fall may have caught some political observers off-guard, but it’s not that shocking when you consider how different these two leaders look, act and react with respect to international relations.

Here’s the reality of the situation. Trudeau is only going to take baby steps when it comes to Russia and Ukraine. That’s always been his leadership style, and it won’t change. While the Ukrainian government was appreciative of Canada’s gestures and the “special partnership” between the two countries, because you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, it won’t help them fend off the powerful Russian armed forces for even a nanosecond.

If Canada really stands with Ukraine, waving flimsy paper signs isn’t enough. In this important moment in history, Trudeau needs to find something he’s always lacked as a world leader: a backbone.