By Vincent J Curtis
The election of the Justin Trudeau government in 2015 brought with it hopes in some for a return to international peacekeeping as a prestigious feature of Canadian foreign policy. Attention was focussed on a mission in Africa, and the West African nation of Mali in particular. None of the peacekeeping opportunities were, on second look, particularly appealing. Despite pressure from the United Nations, the Trudeau government has not committed itself to any large-scale peacekeeping intervention in Mali, or anywhere else in Africa.
With good reason. In the first place, it is not in Canada’s national interest to have Canadian soldiers keeping peace among the warring tribes of Africa. Whereas it is in Canada’s national interests to keeping the peace among the warring tribes … of Europe.
To say nothing of national interest, the obvious racialism involved in having Canadian soldiers patrolling the African bush to keep the tribesmen from killing each other presents no winning visuals and a real danger of a loss of prestige as a result of some incident.
Even at two per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on defence, Canada lacks the military strength to supply a peacekeeping mission in Africa and a mission of deterrence in Europe. In Afghanistan, we were stretched to maintain a full-strength battalion and a brigade headquarters in Kandahar indefinitely; subtract an additional battalion from the reserves for a mission elsewhere, and something would have had to give in short order.
Maintaining the peace in Europe is by far Canada’s higher priority, and we have to husband what military strength we have in order to keep that peace.
One of the threats to the peace of Europe comes from the Putin regime of Russia. Russia is an interesting socio-political case. For 70 years, as the heart and soul of the Soviet Union, Russia represented the sacred flame of communism and official atheism to the world. When the fraud of communism could no longer be maintained, the Soviet empire collapsed, leaving Russia shorn even of her Czarist imperial lands. There must be a huge emptiness in the psychological core of the Russian people right now.
The country went into serious demographic decline. The population of ethnic Russians shrank. Of a total population of now less than 150 million, only 120 million are ethnic Russians. The average lifespan of a Russian is falling, and alcoholism and corruption are said to be rampant. Russia’s GDP is smaller than Canada’s. She relies heavily on exports of oil and gas for foreign exchange, and with depressed prices for both those commodities, her capacity to import foreign goods is not what it was a decade ago, when oil and gas prices were more than double what they are now.
Putin faces a huge challenge in getting a demoralized Russian people turned around, and he turned instinctively to the prestige game. He believes that the fall of the Soviet Union was a great geopolitical disaster. The role he is playing to the Russian people is that of the Strong Czar, which is distinct from the Good Czar. Putin is exercising Russia’s military strength to regain lands which once comprised the Czarist empire: in Georgia, Crimea, and in eastern Ukraine. He is menacing the Baltic states. In addition, he is propping up the Assad regime in Syria, and is supplying Iran with missile defences. Russian air forces are testing the NORAD defences again, and are buzzing NATO warships in the Baltic and the Black Seas.
Putin is doing the things that dictators typically do in order to distract attention from internal domestic problems: create international problems that justify internal oppression and distract attention from the internal issues. The Good Czar would undertake the thankless and personally dangerous task of a spiritual revival in Russia; the Strong Czar creates and carefully manages external problems.
Publisher Scott Taylor has observed that Russia is in no position to attack and conquer Europe. Russia has recently cut military expenditures even as NATO countries are being encouraged to increase theirs. By comparison, Germany has a population of 82 million and a GDP nearly triple that of Russia. True, Russia still has a large nuclear force that could reduce Western Europe to a nuclear wasteland; but what’s the point of trying to rule a nuclear wasteland?
The threat that Russia represents under the Putin regime is the nibbling at the edges of NATO, and a consequent loss of prestige of that organization that would follow should he succeed. The seizure and forced incorporation of all the Ukraine would create diplomatic tidal waves that NATO could do nothing about. Such a move, if successful, could cement Putin’s standing in Russian history while diminishing NATO’s prestige at the same time.
On the other hand, an attempt at seizing one of the Baltic states would create a far more ticklish problem for both Putin and NATO. If, say, NATO member Latvia were seized in a lightning invasion, NATO would be faced with a fait accompli and NATO countries would have to ask themselves how much they were prepared to risk for the sake of a country of less than two million people and territory not vital to the security of the rest of NATO.
That is why deterrence in Europe is central to Canadian foreign policy. We don’t want to have to answer that question in respect of the Baltic states, and would greatly prefer a stabilization of the Ukraine/Crimea problem. Only military deterrence can inhibit a seizure of Latvia, and military measures that can make a seizure less than lightning fast contribute to the stability of Europe. Putin is not going to risk all his prestige on a less than sure thing.
A force of 450 troops in the Baltic states is a start. Providing those troops with real defensive power with plentiful machine guns and anti-tank weapons will be the next step. Diplomatically, Canada can encourage a spiritual revival of the Russian people through engagement with the Russian Orthodox Church and encouragement of the spread of the Western enlightenment through cultural exchanges, rendering the prestige game moot. We can’t do this if we are busy putting out brush fires in Africa.