Hudson on the Hill
In October 1939, about six months before he began five years as Britain’s iconic wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill famously defined Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Today, many elements of modern Russia are far from enigmatic, presenting a growing challenge to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Nor is there much of a riddle to solve, as evidenced by President Vladimir Putin’s domestic and foreign policies. He continues to crack down on political opponents, and his military asserts itself in various domains.
If there was any doubt about Putin’s priorities, they have been particularly evident in the way he uses his military to challenge NATO, which Russia sees as a meddlesome presence in the former Soviet allies now strung along its borders – territory it would love to have back in the fold as demonstrated in 2014 by its annexation of Crimea. There’s a strong sense of imperialism at play, a longing perhaps for the glory of Czarist Russia and more respect from the West.
A measure of the concern among Russia’s neighbours was a request in May by a group of NATO members, led by Romania, which called for a greater allied presence. The “Bucharest Nine” said in a virtual meeting with the U.S. leadership that a Russian troop buildup on the border with Ukraine posed an imminent threat.
Putin’s political profile has been buoyed by dramatic improvements in its economy, thanks mainly to surging global oil prices. The former intelligence officer captured nearly 77% of votes in the 2018 general election (a result his critics said was helped by vote-rigging), which will keep him in power until 2024. A constitutional change he signed into law in 2021 could enable him to be elected twice more; extending his reign until 2036, by which time he will be 84.
Loyalists claim his 2018 win enhanced his role as a counterweight to the West. “Putin pursues an independent foreign policy and stands up for the national interests that the citizens of our country share,” said Ukraine-born Valentina Matviyenko, a former Communist Party apparatchik in St. Petersburg (and head of the Federation Council since 2011). “This strengthens his capabilities, this strengthens his weight, this strengthens his authority in the world.”
But Putin seemed to distance himself from that role when he met with defeated presidential challengers in 2018. “We have no intention of engaging in some kind of arms race,” he reportedly told them, promising a diplomatic approach to any differences.
It didn’t last. There have been multiple incidents in the ensuing couple of years, most recently Russia’s claim to have fired warning shots and dropped bombs in front of a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Defender, in the Black Sea June 23. Moscow said the ship, enroute to the former Soviet republic of Georgia for a courtesy visit, had entered territorial waters off Crimea. London said no shots were fired, nor bombs dropped near its ship – an assertion Moscow dismissed as “barefaced lies.” It seems explosions were due to an ongoing Russian gunnery exercise in the area. “The important point is that we don’t recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters the next day. “These are Ukrainian waters and it was entirely right to use them to go from A to B.” His Secretary of Defence, Dominic Raab, described Moscow’s rhetoric as “predictably inaccurate.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded that the UK and U.S. were sowing strife by failing to accept Crimea as part of Russia. “We can appeal to common sense, demand respect for international law,” he told the TASS news agency. Threatening “we can bomb not only in the direction, but also on target,” he warned against “violating the state borders of the Russian Federation under the slogan of free navigation.”
The National Center for Defense Management of the Russian Federation confirmed June 26 that it was monitoring the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Ross, which had entered the Black Sea to join multinational exercise, Sea Breeze 2021, co-hosted by the U.S. Sixth Fleet and the Ukrainian Navy (Canada is among the 32 participants). The Russian embassy in Washington alleges the two-week exercise increases the “risk of unintentional incidents” and encourages “militaristic sentiments” in Kiev.
There have been other confrontations, real as well as imagined, over the “innocent right of passage” allowed by international law, including in the Bosphorus Strait linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
Russia closed out June with sweeping manœuvres in the eastern Mediterranean as a Royal Navy carrier strike group centered on HMS Queen Elizbeth entered the region. Its aircraft complement includes British and U.S. F-35s used in air strikes against Daesh in Iraq as well as Syria, a Russian ally in the region.
The Russian defence ministry said a pair of MiG-31 fighters capable of carrying Kinzhal hypersonic missiles had arrived at Hemeimeem airbase in the coastal province of Latakia – the main hub for Russian operations in Syria. Russia also sent several surface ships, two submarines, Tu-22M3 supersonic bombers and other aircraft to the region.
Situations such as these could quickly escalate with one accident or overzealous action by either side, and potential implications for Canada are profound, considering Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which requires the alliance to consider an attack on one member an attack on all.
It’s been four years since Canada’s defence policy – Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE) – reaffirmed a long-standing commitment to NATO. A member since the alliance’s inception in 1949, Canada has steadfastly answered calls for troops, equipment and materiel for a range of missions and exercises.
The government used SSE to reiterate Canada’s “unwavering” commitment to the alliance. At the recent NATO Summit in Brussels, Prime Minister Trudeau highlighted Canada’s leadership of the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) Battle Group in Latvia, command of Standing NATO Maritime Group One (SNMG1), and contributions NATO’s long-standing involvement in Operation Kobold in Kosovo.
The EFP is a forward-deployed defense and deterrence military force in Central and Northern Europe tasked with protecting NATO’s eastern flank. SNMG1 is a standing naval maritime immediate reaction force comprising up to six destroyers and frigates, with HMCS Halifax as its current flagship. Since 2008, Op Kobold has been providing Canadian Armed Forces personnel for logistics and HQ support to the NATO-led “peace-support” operation.
Also, Canada announced in March that it was extending Operation Impact, its multi-departmental rebuild of Iraqi, Jordanian and Lebanese military capabilities. This includes up to 850 Canadian Armed Forces personnel in Joint Task Force Impact, under the Kuwait-based command of BGen Timothy Arsenault.
Canada also supports Ukraine’s security and stability through Operation Unifier, a military training mission, recently added a Canadian-led NATO Centre of Excellence to address security implications of climate change, and contributed to NATO’s Trust Fund in support of United Nations peacekeepers.
Those are the more conventional among Canada’s commitments to NATO but there is a push to upgrade the alliance’s less conventional capabilities, notably intelligence-gathering and cybersecurity. Among other things, the alliance plans to have new cyberdefence systems on line before year’s end, at a projected cost of €27 million, partly funded by Canada’s contributions to the alliance.
However, the level of Canada’s overall financial commitment to NATO is open to discussion, given the way it has fluctuated. The U.S. has historically contributed the most to the alliance, which has annual budgets and programs totalling the equivalent of some $3 billion or 0.3 per cent of the alliance members’ combined defence budgets. Jens Stoltenberg, a former Prime Minister of Norway who has been NATO Secretary General since 2014, recently noted that members’ direct and indirect investments in 2020 have been up for the sixth consecutive year.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other leaders at the Summit committed to 2021-2024 cost-sharing arrangements. The U.S. and Germany top the list at 16.4% each followed by Britain at 11.3, France at 10.5 and Italy at 8.8. Canada follows at 6.9, ahead of Spain’s 6% and the Netherlands at 3.5 with the rest ranging from Poland’s 3% to Montenegro’s 0.3%.
U.S. President Joe Biden doesn’t seem to be pursuing his predecessor’s demand that every NATO member contribute at least 4% of gross domestic product – nor has he disowned it. “It’s moving up,” he told the Summit, “more than 10 countries have met the goal, and others are on the way.”
He didn’t publicly mention but, Canada’s contributions remain an issue for the U.S., in that we rank 21st on NATO’s list with contributions of 1.42% of our GDP last year. That’s a improvement from 1.29 in 2019 and although the government notes that the figure doesn’t include “in kind” contributions, 4% would take a huge bite of our GDP, which had been zeroing in on $2 trillion before the coronavirus pandemic. How those commitments play out over the next few years remains to be seen, considering the financial impact of the pandemic on just about every NATO member’s resources.
“The Alliance has been a cornerstone of Canada’s defence and security,” Trudeau pointed out. “The advances we made at this Summit will ensure NATO continues to adapt to meet the security challenges of today and tomorrow … and will build a safer and more resilient world.” But at what cost? Of course, there’s also the cost of doing nothing.
In the meantime, it’s good that NATO and its adversaries continue to talk, albeit belligerently. To that end, it’s worth quoting Churchill again. In a private postwar lunch in Washington with members of Congress, when asked how to deal with Communist imperialism, he reportedly answered “meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”
Hudson on the Hill
The role of Hudson is being filled by contributing editor Ken Pole.