The Economist has published an excellent article in which it suggests how the US led West should move to contain what it calls “Vladimir Putin’s deadly, dysfunctional empire.“ First the authors say, we need to understand that despite the facts that “Every week Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, finds new ways to scare the world. Recently he moved nuclear-capable missiles close to Poland and Lithuania. This week he sent an aircraft-carrier group down the North Sea and the English Channel. He has threatened to shoot down any American plane that attacks the forces of Syria’s despot, Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s UN envoy has said that relations with America are at their tensest in 40 years. Russian television news is full of ballistic missiles and bomb shelters. “Impudent behaviour” might have “nuclear consequences”, warns Dmitry Kiselev, Mr Putin’s propagandist-in-chief—who goes on to cite Mr Putin’s words that “If a fight is inevitable, you have to strike first,” the simple fact is that “Russia is not about to go to war with America. Much of its language is no more than bluster. But it does pose a threat to stability and order. And the first step to answering that threat is to understand that Russian belligerence is not a sign of resurgence, but of a chronic, debilitating weakness.“
“As our special report this week sets out,” the authors say, “Russia confronts grave problems in its economy, politics and society. Its population is ageing and is expected to shrink by 10% by 2050. An attempt to use the windfall from the commodity boom to modernise the state and its economy fell flat. Instead Mr Putin has presided over a huge increase in government: between 2005 and 2015, the share of Russian GDP that comes from public spending and state-controlled firms rose from 35% to 70%. Having grown by 7% a year at the start of Mr Putin’s reign, the economy is now shrinking. Sanctions are partly to blame, but corruption and a fall in the price of oil matter more. The Kremlin decides who gets rich and stays that way. Vladimir Yevtushenkov, a Russian tycoon, was detained for three months in 2014. When he emerged, he had surrendered his oil company … [and] … Mr Putin has sought to offset vulnerability at home with aggression abroad. With their mass protests after election-rigging in 2011-12, Russia’s sophisticated urban middle classes showed that they yearn for a modern state. When the oil price was high, Mr Putin could resist them by buying support. Now he shores up his power by waging foreign wars and using his propaganda tools to whip up nationalism. He is wary of giving any ground to Western ideas because Russia’s political system, though adept at repression, is brittle. Institutions that would underpin a prosperous Russia, such as the rule of law, free media, democracy and open competition, pose an existential threat to Mr Putin’s rotten state … [meanwhile] … For much of his time in office Mr Obama has assumed that, because Russia is a declining power, he need not pay it much heed. Yet a weak, insecure, unpredictable country with nuclear weapons is dangerous—more so, in some ways, even than the Soviet Union was. Unlike Soviet leaders after Stalin, Mr Putin rules alone, unchecked by a Politburo or by having witnessed the second world war’s devastation. He could remain in charge for years to come. Age is unlikely to mellow him … [but] … Mr Obama increasingly says the right things about Putinism—he sounded reasonably tough during a press conference this week—but Mr Putin has learned that he can defy America and come out on top. Mild Western sanctions make ordinary Russians worse off, but they also give the people an enemy to unite against, and Mr Putin something to blame for the economic damage caused by his own policies.“
The Economist concludes by asking: “What should the West do?“
“Time,” it answers, “is on its side. A declining power needs containing until it is eventually overrun by its own contradictions—even as the urge to lash out remains … [and] … Because the danger is of miscalculation and unchecked escalation, America must continue to engage in direct talks with Mr Putin even, as today, when the experience is dispiriting. Success is not measured by breakthroughs and ceasefires—welcome as those would be in a country as benighted as Syria—but by lowering the chances of a Russian blunder .. [but] … Another area of dispute will be Russia’s near abroad. Ukraine shows how Mr Putin seeks to destabilise countries as a way to stop them drifting out of Russia’s orbit (see article). America’s next president must declare that, contrary to what Mr Trump has said, if Russia uses such tactics against a NATO member, such as Latvia or Estonia, the alliance will treat it as an attack on them all. Separately the West needs to make it clear that, if Russia engages in large-scale aggression against non-NATO allies, such as Georgia and Ukraine, it reserves the right to arm them … [and] … Above all the West needs to keep its head. Russian interference in America’s presidential election merits measured retaliation. But the West can withstand such “active measures”. Russia does not pretend to offer the world an attractive ideology or vision. Instead its propaganda aims to discredit and erode universal liberal values by nurturing the idea that the West is just as corrupt as Russia, and that its political system is just as rigged. It wants to create a divided West that has lost faith in its ability to shape the world. In response, the West should be united and firm.“
So, we need to face Russia wherever and whenever it decides to poke it nose (and claws) into the territories of other, unwilling, neighbours. Thus, our (eventual ~ Spring 2017?) deployment to Latvia is a correct response.
But there is more, of special concern to Canada.
Russia has Arctic ambitions, maybe dreams, as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute calls them, in an article which say that “The Arctic is a region where great power competition will play out in coming years. Russia has significant strategic and economic interests in the region, and for China the Arctic may prove to have important security and economic benefits bearing on East Asia and on energy and food security. The US and its allies also have sovereignty, security and resource interests in the Arctic. And global warming is rapidly changing the playing field in the Arctic region … [and] … The main contenders for a piece of the Arctic Ocean are NATO and Russia. The international Arctic governance mechanism—the Arctic Council—is dominated by NATO members. While NATO members bordering the Arctic Ocean—the US, Canada, Denmark, and Norway—are also pursuing their own national claims, Russia and NATO still see each other as their greatest security threat. Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic and a call from the Atlantic Council for NATO to be ‘prepared to defend its boundaries and interests in the region in the face of growing Russian capabilities’ reflect this tension. Blunt references in NATO’s Warsaw communique to Russia’s aggression and the undefined nature of the commitment ‘to protect and defend our territory and our populations against attack’ sits behind Arctic relations.“
Canada needs to get on, quickly, with building icebreakers, like the John G Diefenbaker and, one hopes, two or three sister ships. The Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships for the Royal Canadian Navy are being built now, but it is unlikely that the Navy will get as many as it (based on expert analysis) said it needed. This government does not appear to give a very high priority to protecting Canada’s Arctic sovereignty which must include Northern bases and stations and a replacement for the venerable CF-18 jet fighter/interceptor.
Oil and gas are also used, by Putin’s Russia, as a weapon, and here, again, Canada can help to contain Russia by building pipelines and terminals to get prairie oil to the world markets. But, once again, this does not seem to be a high priority for the Trudeau regime.
Russia, most experts seem to agree, needs to be contained. Canada, as a G7 nation, should be doing a lot more to help with the containment exercise.