On April 25,2022, the Policy Insights Forum (PIF) was pleased to welcome Lieutenant General (ret’d) the Honourable Andrew Leslie, along with Joseph Varner, Adjunct Scholar at West Point’s Modern War Institute, to discuss the strategic and operational intricacies of the ongoing War in Ukraine. Their one-hour conversation was moderated by Vice-Chair of the PIF and Senior Academic Advisor at Samuel Associates, Colonel (ret’d) J. Paul de B. Taillon.
At the outset of the panel, both speakers highlighted the poor performance of the Russian military leadership in the first month of the war. “Putin has vastly overestimated his prowess as a strategic commander”, said Lt.-Gen Leslie, while Mr. Varner noted that Russian officers were lacking in knowledge, initiative, and aggressiveness. There is a wide disparity in readiness and combat capability within the Russian forces operating in Ukraine. Only Southern District Commander Aleksandr Dvornikov has demonstrated sustained tactical success, for which he will probably be rewarded with a position of Defence Minister or Chief of General Staff.
Russian intelligence and decision-making have also been found short. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was tainted by the politicization of the intelligence agencies, cognitive dissonance, and hard-edged views in the general Russian population and among Russian elites regarding Ukraine’s place in the world. In contrast, Ukrainian decision cycles have been nimbler and more focused on using the skillsets of their troops. Mr. Varner noted that the Russians underestimated the West’s ability to enforce economic sanctions rapidly and that the Ukrainians are benefiting immensely from years of training with Western military forces. Indeed, from President Zelensky to the mayors of major cities, Ukrainians have been motivated and infused with a sense of initiative and optimism that the war is winnable.
The discussion gradually shifted to the implications of this confrontation for Canada and NATO and how military doctrine might integrate the effective use of low-flying combat drones. Lt.-Gen Leslie noted that while Canada does not have combat drones, the cost to acquire these much-needed technologies is not extensive. It is all the more important to build capacity as Russia and China have spent years subverting NATO with considerable success. Indeed, the Ukraine War constitutes a test of the rules-based international order as Putin has further designs in the Baltics, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the Arctic. Additionally, China has declared itself a “Near-Arctic Power” with eyes to Canada’s North. Now is the time for Canada to defend and deter aggression by modernizing NORAD and investing in upgrades, enhancements, and increased defence spending in line with the country’s NATO commitments.
Both Speakers had multiple recommendations to enhance Canada’s military position. These included the purchase of F-35s, anti-tank systems, an integrated family of drones, long-range precision strike capability, maritime patrol aircraft, air defence, and Arctic submarines, as well as the formation of a permanent reserve unit in the North. Additionally, it was estimated that the armed forces are currently over 10,000 soldiers short of ideal readiness. Mr. Varner shared his view that the current recruiting system is broken, with new recruits facing frustratingly long waits and processing times. Lt.-Gen Leslie argued that leadership begins in the Prime Minister’s Office and that support from the executive power will be needed to fund and deliver the best outcomes for Canada’s armed forces.
In the closing moments of the conversation, Mr. Varner pointed out that the current government has shown a “very provincial understanding of national security and international affairs.” Through the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Canadian government has been shocked and spurred into action on this front. Likewise, Lt.-Gen Leslie suggested that perennial under-spending on defence has created the conditions allowing for the Russian invasion. As two geopolitical camps are re-emerging globally, with democracies being pitted against dictatorial powers unconcerned with international law or human rights, he concluded: “Prepare for peace by preparing for war [Si vis pacem, para bellum]. If we don’t have that deterrence capability… that is the tragic message with Ukraine. We [The West] weren’t ready. The political and military systems were not ready.”