Thank you very much.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to appear before you to speak about Russia, eastern Europe, and central Asia.
There are many questions that were posed to me, and I obviously cannot deal with them all in about 10 minutes, so I'm going to focus most of my comments on Russia, on Russia's impact on Europe and transatlantic security, and on central Asia, which are my three areas of expertise. I'm happy to take questions on any other topic, though, as well.
One thing I wanted to start by saying is that the west's relationship with Russia is at the lowest point it's been since the 1980s. The fault lines between Russia and the transatlantic community reflect major differences in interests and values, and this is not just about Ukraine. The relationship is cyclical, and there is no quick fix to the problems we face. Many western leaders, most notably former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, tried to reset relations with Russia, and each saw the relationship end up in much worse shape than when they started. I certainly hope that President Trump now in the United States will come to realize that pretty soon.
When you look at Canadian-Russian relations, you see they've had their ups and their deep downs, as have U.K. and Russian relations, and I think you can apply that to pretty much any western state and notice that as well. But Russia's annexation of Crimea and its aggression in eastern Ukraine have upended the post-Cold War security landscape. Having lost much of its soft power in the region, Russia has been trying to carve out a sphere of influence in Eurasia using military force when it needs to, economic pressure when it can, as well as new hybrid tools.
Russia also wants to push back at western values and influences in Russia and in the former Soviet space, but it doesn't just want to do that. It wants to discredit western democratic political systems, and we saw a lot of this with what went on in the United States and what is going on in Europe now.
This is in part because the Kremlin and many other autocratic leaders in central Asia and elsewhere in the region see western democracy promotion and rule of law as security threats to their regimes. Russia today is no longer aspiring to be part of the west, as it did for the first 20 or so years after the collapse of the USSR, but it's seeking to rewrite the basic principles of international order and push back at a global system that has been dominated by the west for the last 25 years.
Russian meddling in the U.S. election has helped upend the U.S. political system, and it raises a lot of questions about Washington's commitment to NATO, to eastern Europe, and to Eurasia. We see Russian propaganda, information operations, and Cold War-style subversion going on in Europe as many elections approach. They are magnifying a dangerous wave of populism that is threatening European unity. It could help upend other European political systems, and this has brought repercussions for eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet space.
This poses deep challenges to Canada and to its friends and allies at a time when NATO and the European Union are all much less united than ever before. This is in part due to the Trump administration's uncertain commitment to Europe and NATO but also because of Brexit and the EU's own internal troubles. As well, this is occurring at a time when there's a lot of social and economic unease in the former Soviet space.
Now, regarding central Asia, there are two main issues that I think are worth focusing on that impact its foreign and security policy. The first is to just underscore that this has been a region that has been very poorly governed, with populations that have been misserved by their leaders since the collapse of the USSR. Many of the region's future problems, as with the current problems, are related as much to the challenges posed by the governments and the political elites in these countries as they are to external threats, whether that be Russia or international terrorism.
Central Asia is in a process of finally moving from its first-generation post-Soviet leaders to the next generation, and of all the autocrats, they've all been there at least 10 years and some have been there more than 25 years. As this transition occurs, the question of political stability remains a key one, and one that looms over the region.
In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which are the region's most powerful, wealthiest, and most populated countries, the transition is going to be key to overall regional stability. That process has begun actually in Uzbekistan with the death of President Karimov last fall. It is going unexpectedly smoothly, which is very good. But in Kazakhstan, which is the wealthiest of all of the central Asian countries, Nazarbayev is very old, and his successor is still not known. They seem to be in a process of trying to figure that out right now.
One of the things that I need to bring this back to is the fact that when the west and the U.S. and Russia have had the most difficult times in their relationship over the last 25 years, it generally has occurred when there have been leadership changes in other former Soviet states. The possibility for leadership change over the next five, 10, even one year in central Asia and in the south Caucasus, with these aging autocrats.... We also have elections planned in semi-democratic Kyrgyzstan as well as Armenia. The possibility for a leadership change is very high, and also the possibility for misunderstanding.
The Kremlin views any sort of popular socio-economic discontent and popular revolts not as something from the bottom up, as we in the west do, but as something that is orchestrated by outside powers. That is what led to a lot of the confrontation between Russia and the west over the Maidan in Ukraine, over the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, and the like. I think the possibility of some sort of misunderstanding between east and west is very high coming in the future.
Also, this leadership change is going to occur at a time of tremendous socio-economic difficulty for the region. Central Asia's main exports are all natural resources, things like oil, natural gas, cotton, gold, and other minerals, all of which are at historic low prices. Remittances from Russia are down, and high levels of corruption in the region are hurting the investor climate. We have a bad economic environment for the entire region, and the governments of central Asia are slashing budgets, devaluating their currency, leading to high inflation and growing poverty. This is pushing some people much below the poverty level.
The timing of this could not be any worse. We have a regional population boom. Half of the population of Uzbekistan now was born after the Soviet Union collapsed. These people need to find employment, they need health care, they need basic poverty alleviation, and this is a time when the governments have very little money to do that with.
Islamic extremism is another potential problem. It's not one right now, but it could be one in the future. The governments of central Asia and Russia all exaggerate the problem in order to justify authoritarian rule, but this exaggeration often muddies the waters about the true extent of whether this is a problem or will become one. What we do know is that central Asia has, for a long time, been a difficult recruiting ground for extremists due to the highly authoritarian nature of the region and the legacies of Soviet secularization. As I said, we have a population where about half of it was born after the Soviet Union collapsed. We don't have much public debate in the region about extremism, its causes, and its ties to socio-economic inequality, so it's really unsure how much of a problem this could be in the future.
We also know that the region has highly porous borders, a problem given that northern Afghanistan has become very unstable. There are reports of central Asian foreign fighters in Syria, who could easily move back. It's an issue that needs to be watched.
Finally, all of this is occurring in central Asia at a time when the west is disengaging from the region after drawing down from Afghanistan. For most western countries, central Asia is not a priority right now.
But that's not the case for China, which has become the major investor, focusing on infrastructure, mining, transportation, and telecommunications. China has surpassed Russia and the European Union as the main investor in the region. We see Russia, the former colonial power, still trying to use whatever soft power and residual economic influence it has. They're doing that through the Eurasian Economic Union, through bilateral arrangements and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the Ukraine conflict and Russia's heavy-handed approach to Ukraine has really unnerved many of the central Asian states. It makes them very nervous about what could come their way from Moscow, and they are keen to keep the west engaged in the region.
This is also occurring at a time when Iran is interested in expanding its influence and trade after the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal.
We have a very changing socio-economic and political environment in the region, and this is occurring at a time when there is a great geopolitical shift happening around it. I think it is a very interesting time and an important time to keep engaged on central Asia and Eurasia as a whole.
Thank you very much, and I'd be happy to take any of your questions.