A Quiet Ruin
How did our relationship with Russia become so dysfunctional?
In the atlas, we are the first two facts: Russia 17,075,000; Canada 9,971,000. Square kilometres those are; together, though but about a 40th of the world’s people, we command two thirds of its northern latitudes, a sixth of its land surface—and a commensurate share of its natural resources. These outsized endowments entail outsized interests and responsibilities—among them, in our case, the stewardship of the Arctic. They are the first, natural, enduring stuff of diplomacy, bilateral and multilateral, in the biggest relationship in the world.
There is much else on the agenda, from peace on earth and the accommodation of Islam to stability and progress in Russia’s volatile neighbourhoods, from relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to nuclear arms control, from Arctic research to energy policy, from fighting terrorism and other international crime to enhancing world trade. The list is long. Multilaterally, Russia is omnipresent, unavoidable, at the United Nations Security Council, the G20, the G8, the Arctic Council, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the NATO-Russia Council and now, after 20 years of negotiation, the World Trade Organization. Bilaterally, we have much to share—relevant technologies, comparable challenges, cultural complementarities and undeveloped potential for much more trade and investment.
Our stark differences are obvious—in experience, identity, aspiration, world view and geopolitics, with us an allied player, joined at the U.S. hip, and Russia standing alone in the world. But we have much in common as well: vast space, daunting climate, sparse populations, defiant distances, resource wealth, multi-ethnicity (precluding ethnic nationalism as a base of identity), federalism and major state roles in the economy—such as the assertion of east-west sovereignty countering strong north-south economic forces (as in our West in history and in Russia’s Far East today). What’s more, though the flights are endless, we are neighbours.
One might expect any Canadian government to seek and to sustain robust diplomatic links with Russia (particularly given that at high tables we have lower seats, that their leader is senior to ours and that it is up to us to take the initiative). One would be wrong. Our relations with Russia are a quiet ruin, interrupted intermittently by harsh, regularly insulting criticism.
How has this come to pass?
Canada and Russia before the Revolution
We go way back. The first Canadians were Siberian, after all. The Na-Dene and Yenisei Valley dialects are recognizably related. More recently, though, our relations with Imperial Russia, all through Whitehall, never amounted to much—consisting principally of the welcome we gave Doukhobors and Russian Mennonites fleeing conscription. Tolstoy famously helped finance the Doukhobor migration with profits from Resurrection, but despite their distinguished patronage, the Doukhobors had a rough ride here. Up remote mountain valleys, wrestling with the rules (about public education), their women would strip and march in protest down Main Street from time to time (a traditional technique to seek the attention of the tsar). Right from the start, our immigrants from the Russian Empire arrived mad at Moscow, distrustful for usually good reason and inclined to stay that way. They would be joined through the century by wave after wave of Eastern European and Baltic immigrants fleeing the cruel hand of the Kremlin. There is old enmity bred in our bones.
Canada and the USSR
Although at the start relations with the Soviet Union were not in our hands, our own distaste for the Soviets was plain. We sent 4,000 troops to support the White Russians. During the First World War, we interned 4,000 Ukrainians and other Austro-Hungarian immigrants as enemy aliens. The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike was feared as an outbreak of Bolshevik contagion. In 1934, at the League of Nations, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett refused to attend a session inviting the USSR to join—and insisted that the Canadian statement “take a whack at the Rooshians.” We did not exchange embassies until we needed them, in 1942, for cooperation fighting Hitler.
We were allied with the Soviets against the Nazis, but were never duped by Stalin. His atrocities were not secrets. He had terrorized his people, schemed with Hitler, raped Poland and the Baltic states, and, at Yalta, locked an iron grip on Eastern Europe. We were thus less moved and grateful than we might otherwise have been for the staggering Russian sacrifice that broke the German Army.
Then, in September 1945, the war we had fought together with Russia only just over, a new one—the Cold War between us—had a dramatic opening act in Ottawa. Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy, defected (hardly; he kept getting turned away) with proof of vigorous espionage, directed above all—and effectively—at the secrets of nuclear weapons.
To appreciate the gulf between us, the terror of the Cold War needs to be recalled. The Soviets oppressed their own people and their captive states, devoted enormous resources to arms, threatened Berlin, got the H-bomb fast, helped the North in the Korean War, stomped on Hungary, based missiles in Cuba that took us all scared stiff to the brink of nuclear war, hammered Czechoslovakia, invaded Afghanistan and shot down an off-course Korean airliner, among other highlights. It was war we never knew how we’d get through.
In the general dirge, nonetheless, there were occasional grace notes. One was Glenn Gould’s triumphant 1957 concert tour. At a time of artistic repression (with Nikita Khrushchev railing at an exhibition of abstract art that his cow could do better with her tail), Gould electrified audiences and conservatory classes in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He played atonal Schoenberg (officially “illegitimate”), dissident Czech Krenek (banned) and much Bach (discouraged as “churchy”). His sublime polyphony quite beyond censors, Gould’s message of freedom was intimate, the kind music saves for the soul. There is in Russian music circles to this day a cult of Glenn Gould’s fervid fans.
There were wheat sales. With world markets often soft, the Wheat Board was keen to sell, even to commies. There were ear-shattering tours of the Red Army Chorus. There was breathtaking ballet from the Kirov and the Bolshoi. Mikhail Baryshnikov defected in Toronto. And there was hockey, Cold War and coexistence on ice. It humanized the Russians for us somewhat, however rough the play, to see they knew our game too—and played it very well.
Canadians were also active in international movements for peace and disarmament and, more consequentially, in contact and support for brave dissenters in the USSR. The Soviets had infiltrated all manner of movements, of course; it was often hard to tell whose tongue was bought—but solidarity was sustained with harassed and lonely dissidents. Their gratitude to tireless peace activists such as Metta Spencer and her colleagues is profound and enduring.
We were utterly reliable western allies, but never hawks in the Cold War. Successive Canadian leaders tried to lower the temperature and to promote détente and nuclear arms control: Louis St. Laurent, John Diefenbaker, Lester Pearson and particularly Pierre Trudeau, who visited in 1971 with his new bride and later launched peace and disarmament initiatives. Reality kept biting, though. All concern about U.S. militarism aside, Soviet behaviour and threats were alarming. No sooner had Foreign Minister Pearson visited Moscow seeking common ground, for example, than the Kremlin crushed the Hungarian Spring.
We were a member of NATO and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, our forces a Pentagon farm team. In geostrategic policy, we ran at the end of a leash—and it got yanked from time to time, particularly when we balked on nuclear weapons. Diefenbaker suffered John F. Kennedy’s wrath for his refusal to base nuclear weapons in Canada and for delay in bringing our forces to high alert in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Trudeau’s Peace Initiative was shot down with soft ridicule (and with it enduring proposals for nuclear disarmament that Geoffrey Pearson, Lester’s son, helped craft). Lloyd Axworthy got nowhere at NATO trying to promote the “unequivocal undertaking” and the Thirteen Steps to nuclear disarmament agreed at the 2000 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.
With a brief interruption for World War Two, Canadians and Russians were at loggerheads, damn near violently, for 70 years, a whole lifespan. It ended 20 years ago, but that long, frightening estrangement—and with it all the pain and anger stored in the memories of so many of our immigrants who fled the terror—is a still powerful, unhappy part of our legacy. It is no wonder that good relations with Russia are seldom good domestic politics in Canada, a hard sell at the best of times.
Canada and Russia from Gorbachev to Harper
Trudeau had retired before the Berlin Wall fell, but he made a good friend of Soviet ambassador Alexander Yakovlev (after whom he named a son), and he received visiting agriculture minister Mikhail Gorbachev at that envoy’s urging in May 1983. The visit’s impact was substantial indeed. The two Russians hit it off; Yakovlev would be Gorbachev’s essential partner for the rest of the leader’s political career. (Moscow had noticed Trudeau before, with respect; they had seen him as tough, invoking war measures at the first apprehension of separatist insurrection.)
With national action and eloquent appeals to other world leaders for major aid to Moscow, Brian Mulroney did his best for Gorbachev, for glasnost and perestroika, and, in turn, after the Soviets’ collapse, for Boris Yeltsin. Mulroney visited Moscow in November 1989 with a business delegation of 200.
Jean Chrétien helped Yeltsin too, not least by inviting Russia to join the G7 Halifax Summit in 1995. Later, noting Vladimir Putin “had the hardest job in the G8,” Chrétien engaged the Russian leader with active respect, hosting his visit in 2000 and, at the G8’s 2002 summit at Kananaskis, quarterbacking the creation of the $10 billion Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction (to which we have since been giving $100 million a year).
In September 2003, Chrétien sent Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and a stellar delegation on a ten-day visit to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Salekhard (and, nearby, the stark remains of Gulag Camp 501). Clarkson dazzled the Russians, spent hours in spirited conversation with Putin, who treated her royally, and visited again the next year (to celebrate the 60th anniversary of our victory in the Great Patriotic War we call World War Two). In 2004, Paul Martin came calling, keen to discuss G20 prospects with one of its key players. He and Putin spoke at length, sharing hopes and plans for our “preferred partnership.”
In retrospect, the governor general’s state visit was the clear high point in the history of our relations. They have crashed fast since—and no one now on either side would call them preferred. The current tone is more like the one we maintained with the late USSR than the one that our leaders sustained through post–Soviet Russia’s first 15 years, before we concluded Russia was bound for hell and Putin quite beyond the pale.
Canada and Russia These Days
For Stephen Harper, Vladimir Putin has been persona evidently non grata from the start. I introduced the two, as it was my job to do, at the 2006 G8 summit at St. Petersburg. From that day to this, despite countless opportunities in multilateral settings, Harper has made no apparent effort to cultivate any relationship (or influence) whatever with Putin. There have been no visits—and none, as I write, is in prospect.
In substantial foreign policy, above all about NATO and Eurasian security, we have gone out of our way to provoke Russia, with ostentatious cheerleading for its critics and stubborn, vain support for Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership—red flags, inevitably, for the Kremlin. Picking fights where none need be, we have fanned foolish fear of Russia in the North to concoct a case for F-35s (for a while, at least, until it fell apart).
Through this last year, Syria has been a bone of contention, revealing deep-seated differences in world views, in geopolitical alignments and in attitudes toward UNSC sanctions for foreign military interventions in sovereign states. Our criticism of Russia has been harsh, counterproductively so—as, for example, when John Baird asked the Russians this summer to “reflect on the role they want to play in the civilized world” (by which he meant the one that has just brought us Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Iraq and more, and that the Russians are barbarians).
The degradation of our relations goes on. Our $10 million-per-year program of technical cooperation has been abolished. Diplomatic assets and funding have been reduced, our consulate closed in St. Petersburg, Putin’s hometown and the centre of Russian Arctic science and research. The argument that we cannot afford these contacts would ring truer were we not meanwhile spending many times the cost of all of them every year on the Global Partnership.
Our economic relations are modest, our economies more competitive than complementary. On account as well of distance, cost, culture, bureaucracy, policy disputes and corruption, all daunting for small firms, we are not well suited to trade with Russia—and there is not much trade between us: about $2.5 billion a year both ways (dominated by machinery, vehicles, aerospace parts, meat and fish). That is about what we trade with the United States every day and a half, or with Norway every few months.
Russian investors’ interest in Canada is comparably anemic. There are exceptions, such as leading oligarch Oleg Deripaska (who was heavily invested in Magna and is now buying Canadian mineral assets), but big Russian money generally feels much more welcome and comfortable in London or New York than in Toronto. Major players are also put off personally by our hyper-intrusive visa regime. Total direct Russian investment in Canada is but $358 million.
Russia is not a priority market for official trade promotion—and is not likely to become one soon. Indeed, this spring’s influential report, “Winning in a Changing World” (by heavy hitters Derek Burney, Thomas d’Aquino, Len Edwards and Fen Hampson), which recommends we focus resources on the fastest growing export markets, mentions Russia not at all. The report takes scant account, though, of the fact that markets differ widely in respect of the extent of diplomatic action and government contact involved in trade and commerce. In Russia, government support and attention at the top are vital—and there is no doubt our trade would be greater were our relations less strained.
Several Canadian majors, meanwhile, do very well indeed in Russia. The Kupol mine in Chukotka is a mainstay of Kinross earnings. Bombardier succeeds with corporate jets, railway wagons and more. Magna is a player in the booming Russian car market. Cirque du Soleil is a big hit, as are the films and productions of Robert Lepage. George Cohon led McDonalds to great success in Russia and sustains his confidence in its future.
A crucial constraint on our economic relations is corruption in Russian business and government. I think Conrad Black exaggerates in calling Russia a “kleptocracy” (however well he knows the term), but he surely has a point. While it is little business or national interest of ours how the Russians share their wealth at home, it becomes our business—and Interpol’s and the WTO’s—when corruption and crime rooted in Russia metastasize through global commerce and undermine economic performance and prospects. The huge costs of corruption are not hidden; they are right before our eyes. In Russia, they fall hardest as always on the poor, who can least bear them, having no power for use or abuse. But think as well, for our purposes, what vast, mutually beneficial business might be done—and is not now—on the Toronto Stock Exchange, the world’s leading natural resource and mineral capital market, were there to be less fear of corruption in Russia, the world’s largest treasure chest of natural resources, and were there bonds of trust between us.
Trying to build such trust and get more attention at the top is the first avowed objective of CERBA, the Canada-Eurasia-Russia Business Association (of which I am a board member). CERBA is otherwise concerned with trying to jump-start lethargic intergovernmental councils; promoting sectoral strategies in mining, agriculture, energy, aerospace, transportation and the Arctic; and begging for reform of visa regimes that are toxic to business.
Canada spent the first 15 years after the Soviet Union fell in active diplomatic engagement with Russia, devoting time, effort and imagination at the top. We built and used extensive official and institutional connections. We made many plans—and promises too, of our friendship. We have spent the last six years breaking and taking them all down.
It makes no sense to me to do so. Russia’s and Putin’s performance these last six years warrant no such systematic disengagement. There is no case to be made—not in Russia’s relations with Ukraine, nor in the war in Georgia four years ago, nor in Syria today, to cite the sorest points—for us to shun, to all but boycott, Russia. Warts and all, it is here to stay. Like it or not, we have got a lot of work to do together in the world.
Putin Russia’s Best Foot Forward
It has not been Vladimir Putin’s job and destiny to build a democracy to our liking. Report cards on how he is doing by our lights miss the point. It fell to Putin—tough, smart and hard enough—to rescue the Russian state, to have it survive and succeed in a demanding world and to build a better life at long, long last for the Russian people. In these tasks, he has been a great success. The fact is surely compelling—and for his critics, quite inconvenient—that under Putin the Russian people have just had the best 13 years in their history. Period. All their failings and all our carping aside, Russians have had more security, more prosperity, more material comfort and more freedom altogether under Putin than they have ever had before. The International Monetary Fund reckons that gross domestic product per capita has quadrupled. High energy and commodity prices have been a big part of this growth, of course, but so has good financial management through the booms and the collapse five years ago. This spring, amidst all the strident foreign criticism of Russia’s election, Gorbachev pointed out that there are more free people in Russia than ever before.
Putin is a patriarch, above all—tsar lite, say—but also the thrice-elected leader of a constitutional democracy. His much-derided democratic credentials are battered but quite unbowed. The question is not whether Russia’s democracy is being managed; it is whether it is being managed well—and the answer that counts is the Russian people’s. Putin’s opinion and electoral polls have never—in 13 years—sunk to the peaks of Harper’s popular vote.
Given these realities, the Russia narrative of the Economist and its echoes is simply hysterical, irresponsibly and harmfully so. Vlad the Terrible? Putin has led Russia for 13 years. When Ivan had put in that time, he was breaking whole nations to the Kremlin’s yoke and torturing folks for fun. Back to the USSR? By year 13, Stalin had murdered many millions and was just getting started. Beware appeasement? Thirteen years of Hitler damn near destroyed the world. Don’t believe what you read in those lazy headlines—and do compare Putin with his peers: with Bush Two, say, or Blair or Sarkozy, the leaders of the “civilized” world.
It is good news that Russia succeeds, that it is not falling apart, prey to nationalists and separatists, as it looked in very great danger of doing 13 years ago. It is good news that the federation is strong enough to keep its own dauntingly complex act together and to serve and protect its immediate and regional security responsibilities and interests. Russia is also, in my view, strong and mature and ought be confident enough to absorb more risk in pushing reform, impose tough financial and commercial discipline to fight corruption, strengthen courts and the rule of law, permit more free political expression and pursue openings to more democratic pluralism, as popular protests demand.
I think as well that this is about as good as it is going to get, that today’s is more or less the “successful, reliable” Russia that its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov tells us we need. We will disagree with that Russia regularly—and sharply from time to time, as in the current case of Syria—but it looks to me like a Russia with which Canada can well live, cooperate, share, trade, invest—and try, despite our differences, to build a better world.
Meanwhile, the costs of shunning Russia are significant. We lose influence in Moscow and in the multilateral world, where Russia is a permanent player, and are thus less effective than we might be in the G20, the G8 and the Arctic Council (tables at which, unlike the UNSC, we both have seats). We lose trade and commerce. More costly still, we lose another vantage on the world, a reality check for our certitudes. We lose the wisdom that comes from the work of seeing with another’s eyes, of seeing ourselves as they see us, of listening and learning the while. No “great nation rising” can afford to confine its diplomacy to the like-minded.
The prime minister need not take my word for it. I would encourage him to consult others, seek a fresh view, talk to people he would trust who know Russia well: Adrienne Clarkson, former prime ministers, business leaders in CERBA, academic specialists, northerners who have worked with Russians or officials of Foreign Affairs, including alumni such as, in his own caucus, accomplished Russia hand Chris Alexander. Relative to current demand, there is no shortage of expertise or ideas.
The Arctic, where we meet, is the best place to start. Next June, Canada begins a two-year presidency of the Arctic Council, where we are more or less condemned to cooperate with Russia. The council is imbued with the spirit of cooperation, not least because, unusually, it combines government officials and representatives of northern civil society—people who know that, by freezing loners to death, the Arctic counsels cooperation.
Hockey could help too, breaking the ice. Both leaders are keen fans: Harper is writing a book; Putin is learning to play. They could have a game of shinny on the Rideau Canal. Then, perhaps at the National Arts Centre, Putin could box Justin Trudeau for three rounds. That could warm things up fast.