Historian, journalist and fellow-in-residence, Carleton University
A senior government official from a European country with historical reasons to fear Russia recently expressed baffled frustration about the Canadian government’s approach to Moscow.
Speaking privately, the official said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion seem to think that if only Russian President Vladimir Putin is spoken to respectfully, he’ll see the error of his ways and change his behaviour.
There is indeed a touch of naivety about Ottawa’s approach to Russia of late. Earlier in May, the Liberal government reneged on a pre-election commitment to pass a Canadian version of the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which would have targeted Russians involved in human rights violations with sanctions and travel bans.
Dion then touted Canada’s invitation from the United States and Russia to sit as a permanent member of the International Syria Support Group, which is trying to negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war, as proof that Canada’s policy of engagement with Russia is paying off.
The group has so far accomplished nothing of consequence other than legitimizing Russia’s military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous dictatorship. Dion’s pride in belonging to it suggests a belief in the value of multilateralism for its own sake, rather than as a tool for actually getting things done.
And yet it is against this background of a new, less-confrontational approach to Russia that one must praise Trudeau for working against Russian belligerence in Europe—albeit in an indirect fashion.
In an interview with Reuters May 19, Trudeau endorsed Britain’s continued membership in the European Union. Trudeau’s pitch was restrained. He said Britain’s clout is enhanced within the EU, and he spoke broadly in support of unity as opposed to “separatism or division.”
Britons will soon vote in a referendum on whether to leave the union, and polls suggest those backing the so-called “Brexit” option trail “Remain” supporters by only six per cent.
Elsewhere on this site, Randall Hansen argues why EU membership is good for Britain and Canada. Leaving would be a blow to Britain’s economy, he says, and would deprive Canada of a steady ally within the EU. He says a Brexit would also reinvigorate Scottish separatism, and therefore boost sovereigntist forces in Quebec.
But Canada’s interest in Britain staying in the EU is deeper still. The European Union is an integral part of the West’s security apparatus, which is increasingly concerned with Russian interference—covert and explicit—in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet space.
NATO remains the best defence against conventional military threats from
Russia toward members of the alliance. But Russia is unlikely to invade a NATO member.
Its tactics involve more nuance and subterfuge. Its agents, for example, used
radioactive polonium to murder Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen and
himself a former Russian agent, in the heart of London. Such acts deserve a
retaliatory response, but not the blunt
military counter-attack for which NATO was designed.
There are also countries beyond NATO’s borders that want to distance themselves from Russia and integrate into Europe’s liberal and democratic order. Western democracies such as Canada have an interest in supporting them, too.
When Ukrainians toppled the corrupt, pro-Russian autocrat Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Russia punished them by invading and annexing Crimea. It then sent troops disguised as local rebels into eastern Ukraine to stoke a still-simmering conflict there. Other former Soviet Bloc countries such as Moldova would risk a similar response from Russia were they to strengthen ties with the rest of Europe.
A unified Europe willing to use sanctions and other forms of economic and political pressure is an effective check against this sort of Russian antagonism. A weak Europe means an emboldened Russia. That’s why Russia, through a bank with close Kremlin ties, lent money to France’s National Front—a far-right, anti-EU political party—and why it courts other anti-EU political parties throughout Europe.
The European Union is stronger with Britain as a member. Britain also provides one of the more resolute voices within the union against Russian hostility—despite the billions of dollars Kremlin-linked oligarchs launder in London. Were Britain to leave, the voices of EU members such as Italy and Hungary, which are keen to smooth things over with Moscow, would become louder.
Canada, though not part of the EU, shares with most EU member states an interest in curtailing Russian aggression, expanding liberal democratic values eastward into the former Soviet space, and supporting allies such as Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic republics that are safer when a strong and united European Union stands behind them.
The European official who thinks Canada’s Liberal government doesn’t take Russia seriously enough has some reason to be concerned. Putin is not a misunderstood schoolyard bully who just needs respect and attention. He sees the West as an enemy to be undermined and pushed back from Russia’s borders. Placating gestures from Canada, such as refusing to pass a Canadian Magnitsky Act, won’t change that.
But by throwing Canada’s support behind a united European Union, Trudeau has also shown his government’s commitment to an organization whose solidarity Putin rightly fears. Trudeau wasn’t meddling in Britain’s internal affairs when he urged British voters to stay remain in the EU. He was defending Canada’s interests. He was right to speak up.