Common wisdom on Russia is not wise

20160712_nr_sub_1040x585Christopher Westdal has the distinction of being the only Canadian diplomat to have served both as Canada’s Ambassador to Ukraine (1996-98) and Russia (2003-06). Below is a slightly edited version of his remarks as spoken to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Commons of Canada.


Thank you. I am honoured to address you.

Since I retired from our foreign service ten years ago, I have sustained an active interest in Russia and in Ukraine. I’ll focus on them today.

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; third, about the plans for détente of President Trump; and, along the way, about Canada’s roles in all this drama.

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 US elections and that the Russia he’s led for 17 years is a malignant, aggressive marauder bent on domination in eastern Europe and far beyond.

Vladimir Putin is no choirboy; no great power leader ever is. The President of Russia is many other things: a patriot, a patriarch – Tsar Lite, say, formidably intelligent, informed and articulate, pragmatic above all, a proven leader tough enough to run the vast 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, motives and capabilities, while blind to its obvious economic, demographic and security vulnerabilities and its necessarily defensive strategic posture.

That narrative is also notably ahistorical, blithely ignoring the provocations which have led to what’s labelled Russian “aggression” – the vast expansion of NATO, a congenitally Russo-phobic nuclear military alliance; the unilateral abrogation of the ABM Treaty, messing with Moscow’s perception of its nuclear security, and 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 neighbourhood.

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 Kyiv 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 Donbas – 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. Call Russia’s reaction “aggression” if you will – but as we grew NATO by leaps and bounds, what did we expect? That Russia would just roll over in the face of 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, Kyiv has about as much freedom to undermine Moscow’s security as Ottawa has to undermine Washington’s.

Ukraine 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. They must surely lead you to humility about our comprehension of Ukraine and our ability to mind its business.

In brief, the US colony in Kyiv, the multi-billion dollar Western 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, 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. In a hole, stop digging. At the very least, do no more harm. Our record proves we don’t have a clue 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 US and EU support fading, Poroshenko knows he has to do a deal with Russia, has to implement the Minsk peace plan – yet he dare not say so. The Rada is adamantly opposed. In Kyiv these days, federalism and decentralization, at the core of Minsk implementation, are four-letter words.

We should do what we can to help him. We have no influence in Moscow – and it will be some time before we recover much – but we do have some clout in Kyiv. 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.

And 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 more interest in East-West accord, none more to gain by an end to this ruinous East-West tug of war, none more interest in a better fence between Russia and NATO – a “mending wall” in 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 and peace and quiet they need to reunite, to recover, to reform and to succeed. By all means, bilaterally and multilaterally, that should be our goal.

Donald Trumps the World  

Despite entrenched bi-partisan 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 its salvation.

We should help Trump deter Russia too, responding to his demand – and that of General Mattis at NATO in Brussels yesterday – 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’s not going away any time 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 keep our priorities straight about the two. As Defence Minister Sajjan said at last year’s NATO Summit in Warsaw, even as our pact agreed to reinforcements on Russia’s borders, 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’ve got too much else on our plates and face far greater threats to our security and welfare than any posed by Russia – which faces them too. The Cold War blighted 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.

Thank you.

For a link to a transcript of the testimony and ensuing Question and Answer session, click here: Testimony of Chris Westdal to FAAE Committee (16 Feb 2017).  (Note he is the second presenter.) For a pdf. version click Chris Westdal FAEE remarks as spoken.

Photo credit: PMO official photos.

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24 Responses to “Common wisdom on Russia is not wise”

  1. Rolf LothMarch 6, 2017 at 8:21 pm #

    Interesting comments, but missing to expose the real problem: There is an agenda among the “behind the political/financial scene” puppetiers to destabilize countries around the world and especially Christian and Moslem countries. We can categorize these evil people as Jews, but that would be the same as labeling all Muslims as ISIS members.
    What these monsters have done throughout more recent history is fomenting wars and have caused millions of innocent, brain-washed people to suffer and die under horrific circumstances. It is these Zionists, supported by crypto-Zionists, that have taken the worst lessons out of the Talmud and misinterpreted it to justify their agenda. They have been able to infiltrate our governments through their deceptive behavior with the backing of the world’s powerful banking empire. They have no morals or compassion; their God is not the god of the Tora, the Bible, or Koran. Their aim is total subjugation of the human race and to become the masters thereof in a New World Order. If we delve deep into the causes of the 2. World War, we would find that who fomented that terrible war was not Hitler. It started with the encirclement of Germany and Japan and it manifests itself again with the encirclement of Russia and Iran. But I believe Putin is not taking the bait Hitler and the Japanese took. In the meantime, my hope is that the world is waking up and expose these gangsters before they can light the fuse to another war.

    • Gayle McIntyreApril 3, 2017 at 5:39 pm #

      Thank You Rolf Loth, great points. Seems so, unfortunately. Hope the scam is up now before further damage.

  2. JessieMarch 6, 2017 at 2:01 pm #

    I can’t pretend to be an expert on what is going on geo-politically in Russia and the Ukraine but I am disappointed to see an examination of Putin’s leadership without speaking of the reactionary and nationalistic turn his government has taken and its oppression of LGTBQ people and others who don’t fit his idea of what a Russian should be. Otherwise, an interesting and informative article.

    • IsabellaApril 2, 2017 at 3:58 pm #

      You are entirely wrong in your understanding of Russia’s reaction to people of minor sexual orientation. It is not illegal to be Gay or other in Russia, there is no persecution – in fact President Putin has handed out earned awards to people who are Gay. At the behest of the people of the country – it was a “grassroots” movement, a ban on teaching and proselytizing homosexuality to children was added to a Bill banning the same regarding paedophilia. this was, as I emphasis, at the request of many regions. Moreover, banning “Gay Parades” comes again from the people. It’s something many overseas dont understand, but to the majority of Russians, being Gay is – like all sexual activities – something you keep to yourself. Do what ever you want behind closed doors, but we dont want it shoved in our face, is the rule – that would be close to 100% of the people.
      You have no right to judge a people simply because they choose to think differently to you.

      • Gayle McIntyreApril 3, 2017 at 5:49 pm #

        Thanks Isabella, totally agree. Too much bs misleading propaganda in msm. It is encouraging to see more voices of reason in canada, I thought all was lost. Our politicians and main stream media have some sort of nefarious agenda it seems to create chaos intentionally. I seek truth outside north america and the western world mostly as they seem to be a great source of world horror for purposes which destroy civilization historically.

  3. Gayle McIntyreMarch 5, 2017 at 11:27 pm #

    Impressive article by Christopher Westdal. Thanks, a voice of reason for a change, clearly someone from the past and with personal experience of the countries involved. How quaint by today’s standards. Although some things I disagree such as supporting NATO which regularly contributes to illegal, criminal war crimes masquerading as a UN charade under the r2protect joke by invading and bombing our friends and family in other parts of the globe. Our leaders today seem to have the diplomacy of Daffy Duck and one wonders how we get through a single day let alone get something reasonable organized among everyone present.

  4. Don KerrMarch 4, 2017 at 5:16 pm #

    Mostly good advice except for the increase in military expenditures. I continue to feel that Canada could serve the world better outside of NATO, supporting reform of the UN and trying to find peaceful solutions. NATO has been a serious provocation for Russia, seeking to enlist members along the border. Putin may not last forever but the NATO approach helps to give him domestic support.

    • Kay OsatenkoMarch 5, 2017 at 2:18 am #

      I agree. I was entirely in agreement until he held up NATO as the answer. NATO is the cause of conflict and destruction and we would be so much more effective out of NATO. Definitely old school and inside the box.

      Right on the money concerning ultra Ukrainian nationalism, US intervention and Canadian cowtowing to the Ukrainian community as if we are a monolith. Personally I don’t think any military/police person should be defence minister. Canada should follow the principle that there is no greater misfortune than having an enemy.

  5. Louise SlatteryMarch 4, 2017 at 11:07 am #

    Wise words from Christopher Westdal. We must end our rabid anti-Putin propaganda and work with Russia and other world powers to promote peace.

  6. AlexMarch 4, 2017 at 10:50 am #

    There can be no détente with a murderous thug Putin.

  7. eryl courtMarch 4, 2017 at 10:47 am #

    THANK YOU. there is much disinformation now re Russia and the Ukraine. It has Canadians very confused. Chrystia Freeland is adding to this.
    It is important to shed as much true light as possible on this matter. The Canadian government’s position is truly MURKY, and I think deliberately so

    • Kay OsatenkoMarch 5, 2017 at 2:25 am #

      I agree that Chrystia Freeland is not a good choice for the portfolio. She claims to be Ukrainian in background and spouts the ‘Russia bad’ mantra. Also claims to be very knowledgable , speaking both Ukrainian and Russian. Too aggressive. If Trudeau wants that seat on the Security Council he better shift her.

      • Gayle McIntyreMarch 5, 2017 at 11:05 pm #

        Yes, I think Chrystia Freeland is the worst choice. This article is an interesting look at her background and reason to keep her out of the mix as she is hardly helping with the chaos in present day Ukraine. It is quite childish and perpetually annoying to hear Russia and Putin blamed for everything wrong in the western world.

  8. J.WMarch 3, 2017 at 11:31 pm #

    With such compliments showered on a despot like Putin, are we supposed to forget the poisoning of his opposition in a foreign country as though this too was acceptable?

    • Ann CoffeyMarch 4, 2017 at 9:15 pm #

      For a “despot”, President Putin’s approval ratings are extraordinarily high – consistently in the mid-eighties. The world would be a much better and much more peaceful place if we had more leaders like him. Really, would almost nine out of 10 Russians approve of President Putin if he were despotic?

  9. EricMarch 3, 2017 at 9:47 pm #

    Good advice — except for the bit about increasing military spending.
    Too bad the cold warrior now heading the foreign ministry won’t take it.

    And something for Ceasefire, too: describing NATO as
    “a congenitally Russo-phobic nuclear military alliance”.

  10. Demetrios KoutsoufisMarch 3, 2017 at 9:01 pm #

    Christopher Westdal’s first hand experience in these areas and this most sensible piece he’s written, show the absurdities and danger if we keep acting like America’s lapdog.

    On a few occasions, I have tried to reason with Ukrainian Canadians with what is happening in their country, but each time, I got disbelief and looks of incredulity for even trying to make sense. Russia has become the enemy. It’s sad to see so many people being fooled about the situation there. One hopes that there will be something real and positive for them to hang on to, because a lot of people have been killed and hurt by the meddling of NATO & co.

    There are many worrisome developments in the world today, and it’s a challenge to find something real and beautiful to keep the spirits up, but I’m concerned with Donald Trump and how ‘great’ America will be again. His rapprochement with Putin and Russia will have to be seen to be believed, and all this talk of spending more on the military and the new cold war is maniacal, as is the denial of global warming.

  11. John TeeMarch 3, 2017 at 7:13 pm #

    We need to realize that USA is the Empire run amok, and that Canada is a slavish banana republic. Geographically we have much in common with Russia: a vast boreal forest, far reaching arctic, huge interior grain fields, large untapped petroleum resources, over dependence on natural resources, and expected to bend over backwards to appease fascist Washington.

    • Howard A. DoughtyMarch 4, 2017 at 7:38 am #

      This may seem like a petty distraction born in a fit of “political correctness,” but I’ll mention it anyway.

      The rather routine claim that any submissive client state is a “banana republic,” omits two important considerations.

      1. The phrase usually refers to any number of Latin American countries which were led for generations by successive authoritarian regimes – often military dictatorships aligned with domestic comprador capitalists, patrician landowners and the Roman Catholic Church. Vicious, corrupt and hideously unequal societies, they were often run in the interests of foreign (US) corporations and assisted overtly and covertly by American state and military operations. The consideration to be raised is that they did not come to that servile position on their own. The “banana republics” were largely American creations which brutally suppressed indigenous opposition and tried to crush democratic impulses within their borders. They were not “sui generis,” but the conscious creation of foreign interests from the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine to the death squads under Ronald Reagan and the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Honduras by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It is therefore an offensive term of opprobrium unjustly applied to victims of racism and imperialism.

      2. The phrase also ignores the fact that changes have been happening in large parts of Latin America. Despite ongoing and often brutal repression, the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Guatemala (1954), the Dominican Republic (1965), Chile (1973), Haiti (twice, 1991 and 2004), occasional successful invasions and regime changes (Granada, 1982) and Panama, 1989) and occasional unsuccessful attempts at sponsored coups and assassinations (Cuba on a regular basis since 1962, Venezuela, 2002), and many efforts to prevent democratic reform or to destabilize progressive regimes, Latin American countries have made halting, tentative and increasingly successful steps toward liberty, prosperity and equity. The advances have not been easy and have sometimes stumbled, but the trend is clear. “Banana Republicanism” is not endemic to Central and South America. It is imposed from outside and exploited by inside elites working together for their mutual benefits at the cost of freedom, economic development and the rule of law. To continue using the phrase to describe instances in North America where would-be authoritarians seek to dominate political life by promoting what is prettily called a “democratic deficit” is an insult to those people who have suffered, yet fought bravely back and have secured a measure of progress from their colonial past.

      • Demetrios KoutsoufisMarch 4, 2017 at 2:06 pm #

        Thank you Howard,
        You’ve just made an excellent example of how ugly the combined forces of American corporate/government/military have been and continue to be, in Latin America and everywhere else. The world is becoming more aware of these reprehensible state efforts to promote war while feeding us distracting fluff.

        • Ann CoffeyMarch 4, 2017 at 9:07 pm #

          Hear, hear. I totally agree with you, Demetrios Koutsoufis.

      • Gayle McIntyreMarch 5, 2017 at 11:19 pm #

        Excellent points Howard, thanks. I would like to add that Canada was involved with the invasion of Haiti and the ouster of that democratically elected leader as he was unpopular with the USA. The Clinton Foundation has done extreme harm to the population of Haiti. It would be nice and different if the leaders? of Canada represented this country rather than the dominant economies of the world or our spheres of influence. I ask myself if the leaders here are actually representing the best interests of Canadians or the USA and Israel as they are mostly concerned at how these two countries will react to whatever…

  12. Anne Streeter'March 3, 2017 at 6:19 pm #

    Wow! Common sense at last! Thank you, thank you, thank you!


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