How to Play Russian Roulette

Vladimir Putin, Stephen Harper

“Get out of Ukraine.”
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Russian President Vladimir Putin
November 15, 2014

In 1910 a young Hercygovinian named Zerayich, trained by the Serbian Army, tried to assassinate the Austrian governor of Bosnia. Having failed, he committed suicide, becoming an instant martyr to Serb nationalists. Assassination, regicide, blood-oaths and murder of wayward members were all peculiarities of the Serbian Black Hand (a.k.a. “Union of Death”). Along with the rest of the Serbian Radical Party, they helped cause the First World War. Normally this might only excite history buffs, but for the fact that Russia had been backing Serbian radicals since late in the previous century. It caused no end of trouble for Russia’s adversaries, and worked so well that the Soviet Union maintained this practice. During the Yugoslav civil war, post-Soviet Russia sided with her Serbian Orthodox co-religionists. During the Kosovo crisis, Vladimir Putin-led Russia funneled arms to Serbia. In November 2014, Russia and Serbia held their first ever joint military exercises in Serbia.

In August 2008, following escalating tension and clashes between the Republic of Georgia’s military and various militias, rebel groups and Russian “peacekeepers” in the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Russian military invaded Georgia. It blockaded much of Georgia’s coast, bombed and occupied cities, nearly toppled Georgia’s elected government and pushed to within miles of the capital, Tbilisi. Georgia’s army, which had performed adequately against the rebel militias, was crushed by Russia’s regular military. Today Russia continues to occupy South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are likely lost to Georgia forever.

Russia’s recurring behaviour demonstrates that current strongman Vladimir Putin is not an aberration. He is in the mainstream of Russian foreign policy and public opinion. Russians’ view of their Motherland’s Great Power destiny is widespread and durable. It endured even in the early 1990s, Russia’s most liberal period. As former Russian possessions like the Baltic States were gaining their independence, a radical Russian nationalist named Vladimir Zhirinovsky was elected to the Russian Duma and gained influence. In his literal chest-baring and in his foreign policy, he was a kind of proto-Putin. Among other things, Zhirinovsky declared that Russia’s “natural boundaries” included the Baltic coast. Around the same time, the ostensibly liberal Prince Michael Romanoff, an exile who was born and had lived exclusively in the West, told an interviewer that the Baltics were really not able to “manage their own affairs” without Russia’s “guidance”.

So Putin is no historical accident or rogue leader. His over-arching objective is maintaining and expanding Russia’s areas of control and influence. His strategy is to dominate countries that will submit and destabilize countries that won’t, beginning with the weakest and/or smallest. Everything else is tactics.

These are numerous and varied, often applied in escalating sequence. They include: threats and bellicose rhetoric; provocations such as military flights or ground manoeuvres in border areas; deception and misinformation; trumped-up concerns over Russian ethnic minorities in independent countries; denouncing/delegitimizing opposing countries’ governments; assassination, sometimes on one’s own side to invent provocations; support, funding and arming of “indigenous rebel groups”, in some cases not only controlled, but created by Russia; and provision of Russian “volunteers” to aid (or stir up) rebel forces. If the latter step proves insufficient, Russian military forces are always at hand to intervene directly.

While Russia has continuity of purpose, her leaders often show opportunism in execution. If the rebels do well on their own, let them roll. If the enemy dominates the battlefield, you accuse it of murdering Russian civilians and send in the army to “protect” the rebels. Sometimes ethnic cleansing is used to solidify the changed landscape. Russia will then extend diplomatic recognition to these new “countries”. These subsequently operate as Russian-run extensions of Russia herself. Crimea is but the most recent example.

Over the past year, Russia has been applying its age-old model on a grand scale in Ukraine. One of the latest twists should be familiar, in form if not detail: a sudden flare-up of tension in Trans-Carpathian Ruthenia. Located in Ukraine’s far northwest, it is yet another “troubled” micro-region containing a local ethnic group plus Ukrainians and Russians.

Koch and Weissenberger - Ukraine and Russian Conflict

Among the sadder aspects of these murderous charades is the West’s inexhaustible ability to be “surprised” at Russia’s behaviour, and to regard each of what should be familiar tactics as new, unusual or particular to a situation. Instead of recognizing the Russian playbook, not only the victim country but much of the West is sent reeling with each repetition. The bafflement is generally accompanied by attempts to “understand” Russia’s motives and goals.

Often there is also an (unhealthy) dose of identifying with the enemy. Voices in the West portray Russia’s goals as understandable and even legitimate, even if her tactics are objectionable. The West was caught off-guard in 2008, just as it had been by Russian tactics in Serbia years earlier, and just as it was again this year in Ukraine. The 1970s pop band Boney M showed a deeper understanding of Russia’s intrinsic aggressiveness than most post-modern Western diplomats, ending their hit “Rasputin” with the exasperated cry: “Oh, those Russians!”

Western weakness, lack of preparation and naïve inclination to view Russia as a “normal” country amenable to western diplomatic conventions typically allow it to achieve far more than it should. Whether Russia merely cements control over a breakaway region or two, or actually topples a national government and renders the whole country a puppet, the outcome is a victory. It’s merely a question of scale.

Russia will, however, limit its behaviour or back down in the face of vigorous opposition, even without the use of force. In 2008, President George W. Bush sent military cargo planes to Tbilisi and had them linger on the runway. This apparently deterred Russia from shelling the Georgian capital, possibly even halting the invasion. So it would seem that Russia under Putin would rather intimidate, bamboozle and roll the West, achieving nearly cost-free gains, than confront the West directly.

Given that this is the Russian playbook, step one for the West – Canada included – should be to recognize it as such. Clear-headed realism should be the foundation of the strategy for dealing with Russia, predicting Putin’s next moves, and devising tactics to forestall or counter them.

The Western leader who is farthest ahead in this area is Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Early in his tenure, he flagged Putin as by nature a militaristic aggressor. In 2008, responding to the Georgia invasion, he said “it really indicates a Soviet-era mentality. And I think it is something that all democratic countries should speak out strongly against.” At the time, other G8 countries like Italy said nothing, while France partially blamed Georgia.

Putin has been further emboldened since the election of U.S. President Obama, who has betrayed allies and cast away strategic advantages like missile defence in Poland and the Czech Republic. In Harper, Putin has an opponent made of sterner stuff, albeit with severely limited resources at his disposal. Prior to the 2013 G-8 meeting over the conflict in Syria, Harper said Russia’s support of President Assad constituted “backing thugs”, and pointedly described the subsequent meeting as “G7+1”. (Putin inscrutably replied that Harper was “a Trotskyite”.) And at the G20 Summit in Australia this fall, Harper issued a Reaganesque ultimatum to the Russian leader, telling him to “get out of Ukraine.”

Recently in the on-line Washington Post, Daniel Fata, deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy from September 2005 to September 2008, who helped Georgia during Russia’s invasion, observed that Putin simply lies when he claims that Russia’s interventions are limited in scope and designed to protect local Russians. Putin’s wider aims in Georgia and Ukraine, Fata believes, are to topple governments he doesn’t like. He failed in Georgia. He’s still working on it in Ukraine. Fata asserted in the article that Putin wants “to try and take Kiev if he can … if the consequences aren’t too severe for him.” The way to deal with Putin, Fata believes, is to “find things that matter to Putin that we can threaten to cut off and suspend.”

Canada is limited in its capacity to impose such “things”, but there are foreign policy areas where Canada can exert influence, including:

Energy policy Russia has used energy as a geopolitical weapon for decades, not least binding Western Europe to its natural gas supplies. This goes back to at least the Cold War, when the Soviets, among many tactics, bankrolled Western environmental groups to oppose nuclear power and favour natural gas. It has since been deeply corrupting, with a former German chancellor even sitting on the board of Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom. Although Europe can’t be “liberated” from Russian gas dependency anytime soon, Canada should keep increasing production and exports of oil and natural gas through pipeline and LNG terminal construction. De facto North American energy independence is within reach, which will immensely strengthen both countries while weakening Russia and diversifying European natural gas supplies through LNG imports.

Defence With Russia testing western air defences almost daily, it is urgent to move forward on RCAF modernization. It’s not clear if the F-35 is the right aircraft but Canada needs to maintain a modern air force and in significant numbers. Ditto for the navy and army, which also need tools to support deployments world-wide.

Sanctions Roughly aligned with her allies, Canada has imposed escalating sanctions on some of the Russian business elite and institutions since March 2014. While more than symbolic, they don’t seriously impinge on the almost $3 billion in annual Canada-Russia trade. Given that Russia buys less than 5 percent of our exports, Canada could easily ratchet up sanctions and would be well-advised to do so in responses commensurate with further Russian aggression. Economically, Canada competes in the same league as Russia. Even though the latter’s population is more than four times that of Canada, its GDP is only 15 percent larger.

Acting strategically – Recently, there have been encouraging instances when Canada exerted important strategic influence internationally by applying critical capabilities. For example, by providing C-17 Globemasters for France’s intervention in Mali, Canada made an essential contribution to the success of a historically much larger power. The purchase of the C-17s was the brainchild of the much-maligned former Defence Minister, Gordon O’Connor. The move was bitterly opposed by then-Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier, who insisted that Canada could outsource its strategic airlift to – wait for it – the Russians. As other western powers’ strategic capacities continue to wane, Canada has been adding capabilities, increasing the country’s options to act strategically.

Leadership – Lastly, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of moral leadership. Harper is now one of the longest-serving Western leaders, and time has borne out many of his positions. Simply showing courage, consistent and well-founded policies, and being proven right more often than not will increase Canada’s international influence. Harper has been on the right track, and Canada shouldn’t throw away the hard-won advantages this confers.

The Harper government’s language has been pointedly clear toward Russia, in terms that must curdle cappuccinos in the Fort Pearson offices of Ottawa’s foreign affairs bureaucracy. Since Russia’s occupation of Crimea, the phrase “Putin regime” has frequently been used to underscore Russia’s aggressive, authoritarian behaviour and distinguish it from a responsible country.

Support for Harper’s approach may be growing. Putin was treated as a pariah by most of the leaders at this fall’s G20 Summit. And Obama’s former Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, has been calling for tougher action. Interviewed recently about the tepid U.S. response to Russian aggression, Panetta stated that the prudent response would have been to arm the Ukrainians, bolster NATO allies in the region, and put regional missile defence back on the table. This is stronger than anything Harper has said, but one suspects that if he had the resources, the Prime Minister would do as Panetta suggests.

Putin recently expounded on the morality of the 1938 Munich Agreement and the ethics of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact whereby the Soviet Union partnered with Nazi Germany in carving up Eastern Europe in 1939. Clearly he has a view of history and an idea of Russia’s place in it which might charitably be called “unreconstructed”. Canada and the West are best served when they understand the consistent Russian view of history and character of her leadership, and recognize that what may appear to be erratic or irrational foreign policy behaviour is in fact a remarkably long-standing strategy. Canada’s policies should be based on these realities.

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