Tag Archives: Canada

The Russians are coming!

Macleans magazine, which, roughly speaking, is Canada’s equivalent of Time or Newsweek, has published a couple of articles this week on the topic of the day – Russia.

The longer of the two, entitled ‘The Return of the Tsar’ is fairly innocuous. I have to confess that I’m not quite sure what it’s trying to achieve, apart from expounding some vague cliché about Russians wanting a strong ruler. It’s a fairly typical piece of impressionistic journalism, in which the author wanders around a Russian town, speaks to a few people, and based on a handful of anecdotes infers some broad-sweeping conclusions about the eternal ‘Russian soul’ and the like. By all means read it if you’ve got nothing better to do, but to be frank I don’t think you’ll get much from it.

The other article, by contrast, deserves a long reply, as it exemplifies fairly well what’s wrong with so much commentary on things Russian nowadays. You can get a sense of the thing just from the title: ‘Russia’s Coming Attack on Canada’. Watch out, Canadians, the Russians are coming, author Scott Gilmore warns, starting out by saying:

Moscow has been waging an increasingly daring clandestine war against western democracies. Under the direction of President Vladmir Putin, Russia is targeting most of the major members of the western alliance. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned of Russian attempts at cyber attacks. In France, Moscow has funded right-wing populist Marine Le Pen and is alleged to be spreading false propaganda about her opponents. There are now reports from British parliamentarians that Russia may have meddled with the Brexit campaign. And, of course, Putin’s interference in the U.S. Presidential election has lit a tire fire in Washington that may bring down the Trump administration.

Let’s take a look at this. Gilmore takes a bunch of allegations (Merkel has ‘warned’; Moscow is ‘alleged’ to be targeting Le Pen’s opponents; a single British MP (Ben Bradshaw to be precise) claimed that Brexit was the result of Kremlin interference’, etc), and without producing any evidence to substantiate these allegations uses them to claim that it is a definite fact that ‘Russia is targeting most of the major members of the western alliance.’ But accusations aren’t by themselves evidence. So what proof is there?

Well, according to Suddeutsche Zeitung, the German state security service, the BND, has found that ‘there is no evidence for Putin’s disinformation campaign’.  In France similarly, no evidence of Russian involvement of leaks targeting Francois Fillon has been forthcoming, and it would be odd if it were given that Fillon is considered ‘pro-Russian’. In Britain, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson declared a couple of days ago that ‘We have no evidence the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic processes at the moment. We don’t actually have that evidence.’ All the British have, according to Johnson, is ‘evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that,’ which is not at all the same thing. And finally, in the USA, according to a recent report, ‘Even some Democrats on the Intelligence Committee now quietly admit, after several briefings and preliminary inquiries, they don’t expect to find evidence of active, informed collusion between the Trump campaign and known Russian intelligence operatives’.

So much for all that.

Undeterred by the lack of facts to support his thesis, Mr Gilmore nonetheless ploughs on, as follows:

Moscow is being forced to play these aggressive and risky games out of desperation. The country is in bad shape is getting worse. The once great superpower now has an economy smaller than Canada’s and it continues to shrink. … Even the ragtag Ukrainians have fought them to a standstill. Diplomatically, Moscow has never been so isolated and powerless. You can count its friends on one hand, and it’s not an impressive list: Syria, Iran, Belarus.

How true is all this?

To be sure, the Russian economy isn’t in great shape. It has pretty much stagnated over the past 10 years. But it isn’t ‘getting worse’ and it doesn’t ‘continue to shrink’, as Gilmore claims. In fact, the economy has begun to grow again (not by much, to be sure, but growth isn’t shrinking), consumer demand is rising, and inflation is the lowest in post-Soviet history. As for ‘ragtag’ Ukrainians fighting Russia ‘to a standstill’, that is a very odd description of events in Donbass – a more accurate description would be that it was a ‘ragtag’ bunch of rebels (with some help from Moscow) who fought the Ukrainian army to a standstill. And finally, as for Russia’s friends, they go beyond Syria, Iran, and Belarus. What about China, for instance? For sure, Russia has fewer friends than it did a decade ago, but it’s hardly ‘isolated’.

And here we reach a serious contradiction in Gilmore’s thesis – Russia is supposedly at one and the same time ‘powerless’ and a deadly danger. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Nevertheless, the article claims that Canada is likely to be the next target in Russia’s sights. Gilmore writes:

Russia has three objectives as it goes after Canada. The first is to undermine any policies or politicians seen to be against Moscow’s interests. For example, the Russian Embassy has already been trying to discredit Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, an outspoken advocate for continued sanctions, with a smear job about her grandparents. Russia also wants to discredit the broader political system, to undermine Canadians’ faith in “the system”, be it our own election process, our system of government, or parliamentary affairs. Finally, it wants to undermine Canada’s support for our allies, and for the international system including NATO and the United Nations.

All countries try to undermine policies which go against their interests. There isn’t anything odd about that. But the idea that the Kremlin wishes to undermine any ‘politicians seen to be against Moscow’s interests’ is rather problematic in the Canadian context, because that would be just about every politician. Say the Russians were somehow able to discredit the ruling Liberals. What then? They’d just get the Conservatives, who are every bit as Russophobic. Why would that help? Moreover, it’s rather strange to blame the Russian Embassy for the ‘smear job’ about Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather, as the story began not with the Embassy but with independent journalist John Helmer and spread thereafter, without the need for any outside help, via social media. As for whether Russia wants ‘to undermine Canadians’ “faith in the system”,’ that is pure conjecture. And while Russia might indeed wish to undermine NATO, it has repeatedly stressed its desire for an international system resting on the United Nations (UN), blaming Western states for discrediting the UN via actions such as the invasion of Iraq and the 2011 bombing campaign in Libya.

Gilmore’s accusations are unsubstantiated, and frankly more than a little bizarre. What possible good would it do Russia to launch an underground war against Canada? And how on earth could such a weak and ‘powerless’ country actually hope to succeed in a war against such a prosperous and stable proponent? And where is the evidence that it is doing any of this, anyway? It is perhaps more than a little appropriate, therefore, that Gilmore concludes by saying that:

To achieve these goals, Moscow will likely rely on the same methods it has used relatively successfully in the United States and elsewhere. It will spread disinformation—false stories that create confusion around a controversial and heated issue.

‘Disinformation’ and ‘false stories’ – like this one, maybe?

Bad legislation

A lot of bad legislation has been floating around the world’s parliaments lately.

First up is a bill before the Russian Duma to decriminalize certain acts of domestic violence. As The Independent explains, if the law is passed:

… battering a spouse or child will become punishable by a fine of less than $500, a nominal 15 days of ‘administrative arrest’, or community service. Only broken bones or concussion, or repeated offences, would lead to criminal charges.

The bill  follows a Supreme Court ruling and previous legislation which seemed to punish violence within families more heavily than violence committed by non-family members. In seeking to rectify this apparent discrepancy, the bill’s drafters have gone rather too far, however.

Commenting on the bill, Vladimir Putin distanced himself from its provisions. ‘Look, it’s better not to spank children and not to cite any traditions as justification. There’s too little distance between a spanking and a beating’, he said. But he added that, ‘unceremonious interference with the family is impermissible.’

This would suggest that the legislation is not Putin’s idea, and that he doesn’t much like it, but also that he isn’t inclined to use his authority to stop it. That in turn rather undermines the theory that everything which happens in Russia is due to Putin’s personal initiative. It also suggests that Russia is perhaps a bit more ‘democratic’ than often claimed. But at the same time, it’s not a ‘liberal’ democracy, and if it were even more democratic, it might actually be even less liberal.

Second up is a bill introduced in the Ukrainian Rada by 33 deputies from a variety of political parties, including the ruling Poroshenko Bloc. If passed, this would strengthen the position of Ukrainian as the country’s sole official language. As Vzgliad explains, the bill restricts the use of Russian language to 10% of total output on TV and radio, and

… would make the use of Ukrainian obligatory in all spheres of state and social life, and also in the mass media. The document proposes a total Ukrainization – the Ukrainian vernacular would become mandatory for the organs of state power and for education, teaching in universities will be exclusively in Ukrainian … All mass cultural undertakings would be obliged to take place exclusively in the state language. Theatrical shows in other languages would have to have Ukrainian subtitles, the circulation of newspapers in other languages could not be greater than of those in Ukrainian.

The bill also proposes the creation of a language inspectorate which would impose fines upon offenders. It is expected that the Rada will vote on the bill in February. As various Ukrainian and Russian commentators have pointed out, if passed, the bill will signal that Kiev has turned its back on the idea of reintegrating Donbass. It could also further destabilize and divide Ukraine at a time when the country desperately needs to remain united. For these reasons, I would be astounded if the Rada was stupid enough to make the bill law. Most likely it is just a form of nationalistic posturing. We shall see.

Third, Mark Levine, a member of the California legislative assembly, says that he will introduce a bill ‘to change school curricula to include the role of Russian hacking in the 2016 presidential election. “Students need to understand how Trump’s policies are colored by the way he rose to power”, said Levine.’ Again, I interpret this as political posturing rather than as a serious attempt at lawmaking. But, it is rather sad that democratic politicians think that they can dictate history curricula to suit their own personal agendas.

Finally, in December last year, Canadian MP Kerry Diotte introduced a private members bill to ‘designate the eighteenth day of May, in each and every year, as “Crimean Tatar Deportation (‘Sürgünlik’) Memorial Day” in recognition of the mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.’ That this was a Russia-bashing initiative, rather than a matter of historical record, was clear from the speeches of some of the MPs who backed it. ‘This memorial day will be part of the international effort to counter Russian propaganda, which seeks to rewrite this region’s history and wipe out every trace of Crimean Tatars’, said Tom Kmiec MP. ‘Putin has embarked on a policy of imperial expansion into neighbouring countries and the rehabilitation of the cult of Stalin. Seductively beautiful Crimea has truly become a “Peninsula of Fear” for the indigenous people of this “Blessed Land”,’ said Borys Wrzesnewskyi MP. And so on.

Fortunately, this last piece of legislation failed when the House of Commons refused to allow it a second reading. Let us hope that a similar fate awaits the others laws above.

A bad sign

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is reshuffling his cabinet today, and the CBC reports that he will appoint Chrystia Freeland as Foreign Minister. Freeland was placed on a sanctions list by Russia in 2014. Canada, therefore, will now have a Foreign Minister who is prohibited from entering the Russian Federation. This must be a first in international politics.

Freeland did not end up on Russia’s sanctions list by accident. A former journalist, and author of a book entitled Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism, Freeland has been frequently critical of modern Russia. The positive heroes of Freeland’s musings on Russia are the 3 Ks of the so-called ‘liberal opposition’ – Kasyanov, Kasparov, and Khodorkovsky. But she views those who actually govern Russia, especially Vladimir Putin, in an extremely negative light. As for the Russian people, she once wrote: ‘Russians have no one to blame but themselves for the brutal dictatorship they built in their own country and imposed on their neighbours.’ Freeland says, ‘I think of myself as a Russophile. I speak the language and studied the nation’s literature and history in college. I loved living in Moscow in the mid-nineties.’ That may be true, but if so it’s a Russophilia of a particular kind.

To get a feel of her views, let’s take a look at what the new Canadian Foreign Minister has written and said about modern Russia.

Continue reading A bad sign

Blame Canada! … Or Putin

Why are Hillary Clinton and her supporters so obsessed with Vladimir Putin? Do they actually believe that Donald Trump is taking orders from the Kremlin? Or has somebody in the Hillary campaign team decided that the Putin meme is a vote winner and given instructions that everybody is to mention it? If it’s the latter, it’s not working. With a week to go to the US presidential election, Clinton is actually behind Trump in the latest polls. Her response? Double down on the Putin theme. Accuse FBI director James Comey of being a Russian agent, and spread unfounded rumours of a connection between Trump and Alfa Bank. It’s all a little desperate.

Both Russia and the US election have generated reams of silly commentary in recent months, and it’s never been sillier than when the two issues have been combined. Take, for instance, an article in today’s Ottawa Citizen entitled ‘What will you do when Trump’s troops invade?’ According to author Madeline Ashby:

Canada is a country worthy of invasion. Canada has abundant resources of fresh water, oil, coal and timber, all of which will be increasingly important as climate change continues its death march across history. … Would President Trump wait for a pipeline? No. Waiting for a safe and legal pipeline takes too much time. Annexations for oil resources are much simpler.

The idea that President Trump would order an invasion of Canada is absurd enough. But for some reason Ashby feels the need to throw in a reference to Putin too. It’s as if there is a directive from Clinton HQ saying that any mention of Trump has to be followed by a mention of the Russian president. Ignoring the inconvenient fact that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was an adviser not to Vladimir Putin but to Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, Ashby says:

Just ask Ukraine. Given Trump’s connections to Putin via ex-adviser Paul Manafort, and his pro-Kremlin foreign policy positions, it’s not a daring leap of imagination to consider that Trump might put Putin’s tactics to use regarding Canada.

So, let’s get this right. Not only might Trump invade Canada, but if he does so, it’s because Vladimir Putin inspired him. Part of me wants to think that this article is a spoof. But political commentary has become so deranged of late that it is no longer possible to tell what is a joke and what is for real.

Baltic Conundrum

CBC International has published an interview with me about Canada’s decision to deploy troops to Latvia. You can read it here:

This is the second of two articles by CBC on the subject, entitled ‘Canada’s Baltic Conundrum’. The first article is available here:

During my interview, I was asked if there was anything that people were missing. Thinking about it afterwards, I felt that my answer wasn’t the best I could have given. What I would have liked to have added was that Russia’s decisions to annex/re-unite with Crimea and to provide support to the rebels in Donbass didn’t come out of the blue. Rather, they came after months of violence in Kiev, the unconstitutional overthrow of Ukraine’s president, and then several more months of intense combat between the Ukrainian army and Donbass rebels, which resulted in significant civilian casualties. You shouldn’t imagine, therefore, that Russia is just going to invade Latvia out of nowhere. Something very drastic would have to happen beforehand, and it is very hard to see how the conditions of Ukraine would be repeated in the Baltics. Context is all important, and it is all too often missing in discussions of Russian behaviour.

 

Crackpot theory no. 8: ‘Influence’

Although an official announcement has not yet been made, it seems certain that the Canadian government has decided to send a battlegroup to Latvia as part of a NATO mission to ‘deter Russian aggression’. According to the CBC, ‘The deployment would be a “core” contribution, meaning that Canadians would fill the slot permanently until NATO dissolves that force … It would require the army to rotate one of its infantry battalions and a headquarters — perhaps as many as 500 troops — into the position once every six months.’

The idea of ‘Russian aggression’ is by now a given fact in security circles, and it is quite possible that the Canadian establishment really does believe that Russia poses a mortal threat to Canada’s security, and that defending Latvia is a vital national interest. But NATO’s European members have about two million people in their armed forces, plus thousands of tanks, aircraft, artillery pieces, and so on. 500 Canadian troops aren’t going to make a tangible difference to Latvia’s security. Canada’s leaders must be aware of this. So why are they sending troops there?

The answer lies in the peculiar notion the Canadian military industrial academic complex has that participating in such missions gives Canada ‘influence’ over its NATO allies, and in particular over the Americans. We are not actually going to Latvia because our presence will make any difference to Latvia, but because we think that being there will ingratiate us with the United States and so allow us to win some concessions from our friends on other issues which matter to us. Thus, Carleton University’s Stephen Saideman wrote in The Globe and Mail:

Canada would be seen as playing a similar, if not entirely equal, role to the big heavy hitters in the alliance. It would give Canada a much more visible role in Europe, which would give Canada more heft within NATO discussions. …  Second, Canada has been under much pressure over the years to spend more on its defence. Participating in this effort would quell those calls for a while. … Third, the members of the European Union have not yet ratified the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada. Helping out a number of European countries, both those who would be defended in the East and those who would be happy to have Canada take this role (Norway and Denmark at the very least), might be leveraged into more support for the deal.

So, let us test this theory that participating in NATO missions gives Canada tangible and worthwhile influence over its allies.

Influence consists of getting others to do things they would otherwise not have done. So, which of their policies have our friends changed in a manner favourable to Canada as a result of its other recent military actions? I can’t think of any. Perhaps Professor Saideman is correct and Canada has had ‘more heft in NATO discussions’, resulting in minor changes in this or that paragraph of some NATO document, but not in any noticeable way which has obviously affected the lives of the average Bob or Jo in Saskatoon. The good professor expresses the hope that Canada might benefit in trade negotiations, but there is no evidence of such linkage having worked in the past. Canada’s prominent role in the war in Afghanistan didn’t help it in any way convince the Americans to make concessions on matters such as soft wood lumber and the Keystone XL pipeline. Perhaps somebody out there can provide a concrete example of how participation in NATO missions has helped Canada change other countries’ minds in a way which has brought significant advantage, but unless they do, one has to conclude that ‘influence’ is a largely a myth.

Canada ‘punched above its weight’ in Afghanistan, but after it announced that its troops would leave that country we told that we had to participate in the war against Libya because otherwise we would have no ‘influence’ within the NATO alliance. In other words, any gratitude earned in Afghanistan had already been forgotten. Canada then played an important role in deposing Libya’s ruler Muammar Gaddafi; a Canadian general even led NATO’s operation. But whatever ‘influence’ that gained us apparently soon evaporated too, because very soon we were being berated for not spending enough on defence and we now have to rush into Latvia in order to restore our seemingly battered reputation as a good ally. So even if it is true that to some small extent Canada does gain influence over its allies by joining NATO missions, this influence is extraordinarily short-lived.

In any case, to need to influence somebody you have to want something different from them. If you agree with what they are doing, and don’t want to change it, influence is meaningless. And here we reach a fundamental problem with the influence theory. Most of the time, Canada doesn’t actually have a different vision of the world from that of the United States or its other NATO allies. Imagine, for instance, that we thought that NATO’s posture vis-à-vis Russia was incorrect. Perhaps, sending troops to Latvia might make our allies listen more to us when we insisted that the posture must change. But we don’t think that the posture is incorrect. We don’t want to change it. In such circumstances, ‘influence’ is useless. If anybody imagines that by sending troops to Latvia, Canada will substantially change our allies’ policies on this or any other matter of significance, they are surely deluding themselves.