The anti-tank weapons Canada sent to Ukraine?
They’re obsolete, according to Gen. (Ret’d.) Rick Hillier, the former head of the Canadian Armed Forces.
The M777 Howitzers? The Russians have more artillery with which they can fire further.
And while Canadians basked this week in the glow of Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy saying the country was helping as much as it could, Hillier, who served as chief of defense staff from 2005 to 2008, guffawed and grumbled.
Back from a trip to Ukraine, where he met with politicians, defense and military officials, and some of those Ukrainians who have volunteered to fight for their country, he recounted a visit to Bucha, the Kyiv suburb that was the alleged site of civilian executions , rapes and other atrocities by retreating Russian forces.
“It’s all good to say we’re going to hold to account people who rape Ukrainian women. I’m not sure how we’re going to do that — I hope we can,” he said. “But I would much rather say that if we don’t do everything in our power to prevent that from occurring to start with, then we are somewhat complicit in it from there onwards.”
Anyone who remembers Hillier from his time running the Canadian military knows that the man is not shy about sharing his opinion, regardless of whom it puts on the defensive. As head of the military, he coined the term “Decade of Darkness” to characterize the impact of defense budget cuts under previous Liberal administrations, and famously characterized al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan as “murderers and scumbags.”
After four months of war in Ukraine — and four months of complaining about the gap between what Canada was doing and what it should be doing — Hillier said it was his wife who told him to put up or shut up.
“’Instead of just being a critic, you should actually go out and do something,’” he recounted to the Star on Friday. “I think she’ll regret that but, look, I always try to couple advice and criticism with action.”
Action, in this case, is partnering with the Ukrainian World Congress as chair of an advisory council made up of former generals and defense experts whose goal is to advocate and raise funds for the equipment and other resources that are desperately needed by Ukraine’s military.
Particular attention is being paid to the Territorial Defense Forces, a civilian volunteer militia being deployed to the frontlines of eastern and southern Ukraine as fast as they can be trained and outfitted — often faster.
“My assessment…is grim. Ukrainian defense forces have everything in the shop window in Eastern Ukraine right now — everything in the shop window,” he said. “They don’t have a reserve, they don’t have a counter attack force, and they’re hanging on desperately to their country.”
One official told Hillier that the volunteer forces were driving unarmored civilian vehicles to the front.
“I said, ‘Oh my Lord! Surely we can help them better than this,’” Hillier said.
The goal is to see the underequipped soldiers sent into battle with the basic minimum: ballistic helmets and goggles, flak jackets, modern tourniquets to control bleeding, a medical kit, knee pads and combat boots.
The package costs an estimated $2,500 US per soldier and the fundraising effort aims to outfit 100,000 volunteers, so the goal is $250 million US.
That sum is chump change for governments, but may prove an ambitious goal as war fatigue sets in, and peoples’ minds turn to summer or to the spiking costs of energy, gasoline and the costs of living, which have all been driven up as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Hillier says they’ll be seeking donations from individuals, from governments and from corporations.
“We’re going to ask the oilpatch,” he said. “’Hey, you’re making record profits, but now is the time to help stabilize this world.’”
Ukrainians are doing their part, as Hillier saw first hand.
“I met deputy mayors, doctors, construction workers and farmers who had all shown up and are now fighting in Eastern Ukraine,” he said.
Among them was Sniper and Dragon, the call signs for a father-and-son “tank-hunting team” who took out four Russian T-72 tanks using an antiquated RPG-7 missile launcher.
“One of the tanks took 21 shots to knock out and yet they persisted till they did it,” Hillier marveled.
He said it behooves Canada and other western countries to dig deeper, to help more in the face of such Ukrainian bravery, including:
- Bankrolling the creation of a Ukrainian armored reserve force consisting of 250 Canadian Light Armored Vehicles (LAV-3s), 50 Leopard tanks, the entirety of Canada’s M777 Howitzers, as well as reconnaissance and repair vehicles, a spare parts package and ammunition;
- Setting up a more intensive training mission for the Territorial Defense Forces, either using Canadian soldiers or paying the contract for a private company to do the work in Poland or western Ukraine; and
- Assisting the Ukrainian government in establishing its Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs to assist and support those who have served — or whose family members have served — the country in the war that began in 2014, as well as the many more who will be killed or injured before the war with the Russians ends.
“I can beat on the government all day and say the government doesn’t want to do it, or they’re not interested, or they’re incapable of doing it, but I’m not going to say those kinds of things, Hillier said. “I don’t know why Canada’s not stepping up to be the kind of life-changer for Ukraine that we could be, and I’m puzzled by that to a huge extent.”
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