CHRIS WESTDAL ON RUSSIA & UKRAINE - Testimony to House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development 2/16/17 (excerpts)
Thank you, Mr. Chair. It's an honour for me to address you.
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, that 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.
Thanks to both of you for appearing before us today. I'd like to start with President Trump's remarks yesterday. They're being analyzed in a variety of ways, whether or not as sincere, that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine and Russia should withdraw, or a compensation for the national security issues that the president has had for the past week.
When the committee travelled last month to Latvia, Ukraine, Poland, and Kazakhstan, there was concern in the first three countries I mentioned about the rumoured or speculated warm relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Yesterday's remarks, and Mr. Putin's response to President Trump, would seem to say that friendship is not likely to flower anytime soon; as did Secretary Mattis' confirmation testimony on what he would have advised had he been advising the president when Crimea was taken and eastern Ukraine was invaded.
This is a hypothetical question. How are both of you reading the Trump-Putin relationship as it may be, or, Mr. Westdal, from your point of view, it has to be?
It's a good question.
In terms of what to make of it, as I said, I think Donald Trump might end up being the worst friend détente ever had. However, when he said yesterday that Crimea should be returned, I would take that as kind of an opening position in what will be a negotiation. The fact is that as the Russians made clear, and as is simply clear to anyone observing the situation, Crimea, short of war, will not be forsaken by Russia, period. That's simply a fact that Ukrainians have to live with and that we have to live with too. Now, the legality of all that might be for decades in dispute, but Crimea will remain with Russia. I think that is also genuinely the view, and was genuinely the view, of the people in Crimea. It was taken without a shot. It was low-hanging fruit. Kiev had lost the allegiance of Crimeans. As to the relationship between Trump and Putin, I think that's been a kind of figment of the imagination and fevered journalism. There are all these references to a bromance. They've never met. Putin said that he thought Trump was “colourful”, or “bright”—that word was mistranslated to be “brilliant”, but Donald Trump is colourful—and that he hoped he could deal with him. Trump has returned the compliment, but there's no bromance there.
It's now quite clear that there has been incoherence in the Trump administration's comments about Russia, most recently comments about Crimea. The new American ambassador to the United Nations appeared to contradict the president. Mattis's testimony was quite at odds with what the president was saying. I do think, though, that Trump will defy all of the enemies of détente. Just bear them in mind. It's a vast array that goes right from all the angry Democrats....
I do worry that east-west relations are now entangled in a very bitter partisan fight in Washington. That's very dangerous. But all the foes of détente include the Clinton Democrats, all of the neo-cons who abandoned the Republicans and joined Hillary Clinton, such as McCain and Graham, and the entire large, powerful military industrial complex that we all know exerts enormous influence. There's a huge range of opposition to what Trump would try to do with Russia, but I think he's defied a huge range of consensus before and will try to do so again. I hope he succeeds.
Let's take your argument at its face value. There has been some disappointment with joining the EU and the economies have not performed, but that doesn't mean there's a huge rush to embrace Russia in any way, shape, or form.
In fact, if I were a leader in any one of those countries, I would be a little bit nervous about Russian military exercises up and down my border. That would get me concerned. I realize that standing up battle groups in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia is a glorified speed bump to any incursion. The Russians could take them in half an hour, but they couldn't hold them. They can't hold them.
The history of those countries is simply a pathway to exploitation and oppression. So their history, their economic circumstances, and their realistic assessment have led them to what I'm hearing you say is an irrational fear. I'm not sure that it is actually irrational.
I wanted to add that I think you've put your finger on it. It's not the taking. It's the keeping. I think one should take a look at not only what Russia has done, but what Russia hasn't done over the last decade.
Briefly, if you start in Georgia, Russia could have taken Tbilisi. It was ready to do so. The tanks were there, but it parked its tanks 30 kilometres away for a few days just to make the point and then it drove them home.
Similarly, in eastern Ukraine, Russia could occupy the Donbass in four hours. We won't speak of Crimea. It's worth noting that the separatists in eastern Ukraine were asking Moscow for the same annexation that Crimea had had and Putin turned them down.
Similarly, it was Putin who said that we could take Kiev in two weeks, and I think that's probably true, and it's no secret. You mentioned the speed bump; despite our troops there the Russians could overwhelm the Baltic states very quickly, but they don't because the taking is relatively easy. It's the keeping. It's the cost. It's the consequences. They're obviously enormous.
It was a Lithuanian president not too long ago who said that it wasn't a question of whether we take article 5 of NATO's Washington treaty seriously. It's a question of whether Putin takes article 5 seriously, and he does, and he'd be a madman not to.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I thank both of you for your very interesting presentations, which are absolutely essential to our reflection on this. We have to put ourselves in the other shoes and also look at the interests and constraints on the Russian side.
We have seen that there is a certain risk of escalation with NATO missions. Every time NATO increases things by 10%, there is a 10% or 15% increase by Russia.
Tuesday, we heard a witness here who had things to say that were quite similar to your statements. He spoke of the need to establish a new security relationship with Russia and he said that Canada needed to be an active part of that, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding White House policies.
Would you have any comments to make on that?
I think you're quite right. There is a risk of escalation. I think, as I mentioned in my remarks, we need a better fence between Russia and NATO. The fence that has existed is highly problematic. How to search for that new deal that I spoke about? From Canada's point of view particularly, it's going to be done multilaterally. Our contribution is going to be that through NATO...or through the OSCE. I do hope that our delegations at NATO and at the OSCE are much more active and imaginative than they were for a decade.
It's at the OSCE where you find the most relevant mandate to try to explore a security arrangement that includes all of Eurasia. That's where I think we should put our effort.
As Professor Dutkiewicz was pointing out, Russia is a vast and complex subject, and one needs to try to comprehend it; and that requires an investment, an investment in understanding, an investment in more links with Russia than we now have. Our links are very meagre.
I hope that you have talked to Russians. I don't know whether you were free to visit Russia. I think you probably were, but as I said you can't understand what's going on in that region without understanding Russia. It is the elephant in the room. It is the major power. It is by far a more important capital than any of the others in the region, and yet we have imagined that we would isolate Russia.
One of the costs we pay for that is that we don't have any influence, and the other is that we really don't have any understanding. I don't see how we can possibly have a vision, some vision of Eurasian security, which it is our duty to bring to NATO and the OSCE, if we deprive ourselves of any understanding of Russia.
To try to understand Russia is not to approve of Russia; it is to try to understand what you're talking about.
Thank you to both of you for coming here.
I have some questions for both of you, but after listening to your opening preamble I have more questions than I thought. Let's start with realpolitiks, because I think that both of you are practitioners, and you understand the reality on the ground. Let me start with you, ambassador.
Having travelled to Ukraine, I feel Crimea is effectively lost. Even if you look at Minsk I or Minsk II, there is no mention of Crimea.
I use the historic example of Kashmir, because in Kashmir you have a line of control that now has become the de facto border. If you look at Ukraine, at their line of control in the Donbass that is now temporarily holding, it seems to me that this area of the Donbass that has been taken over by Russia is now effectively being controlled by Russia. Aid has been given there. Structures have been set up because now Ukrainians don't have the ability to go there and set up simple things, whether a health care institution or an educational institution, so Russians are ultimately providing that service. So without firing a single shot, effectively they've taken over Ukraine.
As a counterweight to that, to me you raise a very interesting point that they could have gone into Tbilisi but they didn't. So effectively, if you look at the region, they've heightened the tension there and kept everybody on high alert, which you know is not sustainable. You can't keep up the spending on NATO where it's 2%, and going back to the professor's point, domestic politics plays a great role, but these countries can't sustain that kind of spending. They don't have the economy, and we were there.
Effectively, Russia's game is not necessarily to take over by firing shots. On top of that, there's the presence of the Russian media in those areas, because some of these countries still have a high ethnic Russian population, so if you look at Russia today and the other media—effectively in these countries that's the only media they have—not only do they have a military presence, but they also have a media presence. How are you going to resolve this going forward?
Reconciliation.... As I mentioned in my remarks, it was noteworthy that the separatists asked Moscow to annex the Donbass, and Putin said no, that he believes in the territorial integrity of Ukraine, minus Crimea. But there was a point there. Russia didn't get invaded, twice, massively, through the Black Sea and Crimea; it got invaded across the plains of Ukraine. Russia's security interest extends to all of Ukraine, not just the Donbass and Crimea. That's one factor.
The other factor is that the Ukrainians are adamant about territorial integrity. Now, that may or may not, in their minds, include Crimea—and in many of their minds it does—but even if it doesn't, the insistence on territorial integrity would mean that Kiev has to come to terms with those separatists, and that is going to have to involve a measure of devolution of power. As I was saying, we should be encouraging that devolution of power.
Ukraine may have to face a very difficult choice. It would have been much easier for Ukrainians if they had inherited a more purely Ukrainian ethnic state, but they didn't. They inherited a state that required Kiev to appeal across not only the Ukrainian ethnic group but the Russian ethnic group, which was, and remains, a very significant part of their population.
If there is to be territorial integrity, it's going to have to involve devolution. I don't think Vladimir Putin thinks that it's in Russia's interest to break up Ukraine, precisely for the reason I spoke of. Russia's security interest has always extended to all of Ukraine.
Tags: Chris Westdal