Thank you, Mr. Chair. It's an honour for me to address you.
Since I retired from our foreign service 10 years ago, I have sustained an active interest in Russia and in Ukraine, and I'll focus on them today. You should know that I have served on the boards of public companies with interests in both of those countries and that I now chair Silver Bear Resources, a Toronto Stock Exchange listed public company that's completing a silver mine in Yakutia, Russia's Sakha Republic. I'm also a member of the board of CERBA, the Canada Eurasia Russia Business Association, both the national board and the Ottawa board. CERBA promotes trade and commerce across the region. I don't speak for any of those outfits here today, I speak only for myself.
Your subject is vast and, as you've found, it necessarily includes Russia, because to talk about the security, political, and economic circumstances of eastern Europe and central Asia without talking about Russia is to talk about everything in the room except the elephant. I'll use my few minutes to talk first about the popular narrative of Russia as an aggressive marauder, second about Ukraine on the brink, and third about the plans for a détente of President Trump, and, along the way, about Canada's roles in all this drama.
First, then, the common wisdom isn't wise. I encourage you to take a hard, skeptical look at the prevailing ubiquitous western narrative that Vladimir Putin is a demon, killer, thief, dictator, war criminal, and fixer of U.S. elections—choose your epithet—and that the Russia he's led for 17 years is a malignant, aggressive marauder bent on domination in eastern Europe and far beyond.
Now, Vladimir Putin is no choirboy. No great power leader ever is. The president of Russia, though, is many other things. He's a patriot; he's a patriarch, a “tsar lite”, say; formidably intelligent, informed, and articulate; pragmatic above all; a proven leader, tough enough to run the vast Russian federation; ruthless, if need be, in serving its interests; and genuinely popular. Putin is also, proudly, a spy, and deception is an essential tool of espionage. So, of course, those little green men were Russian, but, of course, Moscow won't say so. As Putin explained at a Munich security conference, “We're all adults here.”
What's more, beyond its leader, there is much we may not like in Russia's domestic politics or in the unapologetically brutal few-holds-barred way it wages war, but still, I find the current narrative about Russia's role in the world overblown, full of exaggeration about Russia's record, about Russia's motives, and about Russia's capabilities, while blind to Russia's obvious economic, demographic, and security vulnerabilities across its vast southern flank—11 time zones—and its necessarily defensive strategic posture.
That popular narrative is also, notably, ahistorical, ignoring the provocations that have led to what's labelled Russian aggression: the vast expansion of NATO by leaps and bounds—NATO, a congenitally Russophobic nuclear military alliance—the unilateral abrogation of the ABM Treaty, messing with Moscow's perception of its nuclear security; the forward deployment of missile defence in Romania and Poland to counter a threat from Iran, we'd have Moscow believe; and the billions spent stoking anti-Russian sentiment and regime change in Russia's neighbourhoods.
There has been much blood shed since the Maidan picked a fight with Moscow three years ago, a fight it can't win, but the facts remain that Kiev can't make the increasingly distracted and exasperated west care more and can't make the Kremlin care less. We are not going to fight World War III for the Donbass, we've made that clear, and the Kremlin, under any sensate leader, is not going to stop defining the geostrategic orientation of Ukraine, all of Ukraine, as a matter of fundamental national security interest.
Call Russia's reaction “aggression”, if you will, but as we grew NATO by leaps and bounds, what did we expect? Three years ago, what were we thinking? That Russia would just roll over in the face of an obvious strategic calamity and meekly agree to rent historic Sevastopol, the Crimean base of its Black Sea fleet, from a member of NATO?
Like them or not, theory aside, major powers' zones of influence are real. We Canadians know that—we live in one. In the real world, Kiev has about as much freedom to undermine Moscow's security as Ottawa has to undermine Washington's.
The second is Ukraine is on the brink. Take a hard look too at the catastrophic circumstances of Ukraine, and at the record and results there of a quarter century of massive, sustained western intervention, including our own. That record must surely lead you to humility about our comprehension of Ukraine and about our ability to mind its business.
In brief, the western colony in Kiev, the vast multi-billion-dollar project there, of which we're a vocal part, is a heartbreak, a corrupt oligarchy, unreformed, highly centralized without even elected regional governors, littered with arms now, full of hard men without jobs, ready recruits for private militias, and dominated by ethnic nationalists bitterly opposed to vital national and regional reconciliation.
More of the same from us will make no sense. If you're in a hole, stop digging. At the very least, do no more harm. Our record proves that we don't know how to solve Ukraine's problems. They'll have to be solved, or not, by Ukrainians.
For President Poroshenko, meanwhile, let us spare a prayer. With a 13% approval rating, the economy in tatters, and U.S. and EU support faltering, Poroshenko knows he has to do a deal with Russia. He has to implement the Minsk peace plan, yet he dare not even say so. The Rada is adamantly opposed. In Kiev these days, federalism and decentralization, which are at the core of the Minsk implementation, are four-letter words.
We should do what we can to help him. We have very little influence in Moscow, and it will be some time before we recover much, but we do have some clout in Kiev. We should use it to counter lethally exclusive ethnic Ukrainian nationalism, to which we should stop pandering. We should use it as well to suggest such proven Canadian solutions as inclusion, accommodation, and federalism.
We should use it to promote essential reconciliation with Russia. No country in the world has more profound interest in good relations with Russia than Ukraine, none with more interest in east-west accord, none with more to gain by an end to this ruinous east-west tug of war, none with more interest in a better fence between Russia and NATO, a “mending wall” in Robert Frost's phrase, and a new deal in which Ukraine, rather than having to make an impossible choice, gets to trade well with both Europe and Russia, while posing a security threat to neither, a deal in which Ukrainians get the space, peace, and quiet they need to reunite, to recover, to reform, and to succeed. By all means, bilateral and multilateral should be our goal.
The third is Donald trumps the world. I haven't checked the headlines for the last few hours, so what I say may be far out of date.
Despite entrenched bipartisan opposition, President Trump has appeared determined to achieve a measure of détente with Russia, to fight ISIS with it, to trade with it, to seek peace in Ukraine with it, generally to lower the temperature and tension, to head off more Cold War.
For the good of all concerned, especially Ukrainians, we should help him do so. Far from sacrificing Ukraine, as critics will claim, détente would permit Ukraine's salvation. We should help Trump deter Russia, too, responding to his demand and that of General Mattis yesterday, forcefully in Brussels, at NATO, his demand that we spend more on defence. In my view, we have to do so anyway, if only to build a navy and Coast Guard fit for the three oceans we have to sail.
As NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg insists, there is no contradiction between détente and deterrence. One day, one may eliminate the other, but we're not there yet. NATO is not going away anytime soon. It will go on balancing and deterring Russian power and ambition. Meantime, as we do our bit for deterrence, we should also do our bit for détente, and we should keep our priorities straight about the two.
As defence minister Sajjan said at last year's NATO summit in Warsaw, even as we agreed to reinforcements on Russia's border, the work “behind the scenes” to re-establish a NATO dialogue with Russia really is the most critical piece. “We need to make sure the tensions are reduced because it doesn't help anybody.” Exactly. Détente is a lonely cause these days, and Donald Trump may turn out to be the worst friend it ever had, but the last thing our sorry world needs now is this new cold war we're waging. We have too much else on our plates and we face far greater threats to our security and welfare than any posed by Russia, which faces them too. The Cold War blighted a half of the 20th century. If we can avoid it—and I think we can if we try harder—let's not let cold war blight any more of the 21st.
Thank you for this chance to share my views and offer my advice. I look forward to our discussion.