Canada should use its G7 meeting to tackle the Putin problem

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
March 27, 2018

Sending Russian intelligence operatives packing, back to Moscow, was necessary and important. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime crossed a red line with its use of a banned chemical agent in Britain. The West has to demonstrate collective sanction to deter this heinous form of assassination.

Russia is promising retaliation – tit-for-tat or some other form. The Putin modus operandi is to push until pushed back, so the West needs to plan its next moves.

As a first step, there should be agreement that no Western leader will attend Mr. Putin’s re-inauguration on May 7. Mr. Putin has made himself a pariah and should be treated as such.

As host of the G7 summit this June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should add managing the Putin regime to the agenda. The G7 needs to take the lead in a collective response and then encourage the rest of the West to follow.

But in considering further sanctions, the West needs to be smart. It must disapprove of the Putin regime but not the Russian people. What it should not do is withdraw its ambassadors in Moscow, nor send Russian ambassadors home. This old-fashioned tactic deprives leadership of our most experienced diplomats just when we need their advice and on-site perspective to avoid misunderstandings that can create dangerous escalation.

Nor should it sanction cultural, educational and scientific exchanges with the Russian people. These individuals are often critics of their own regime. We need to encourage them by showing them a better way, and exposure to life in our liberal democracies helps achieve this.

Similarly, cutting off access to our food and energy leaves Mr. Putin and his kleptocratic entourage unscathed. But it does hurt the Russian people and gives Mr. Putin more ammunition to play on Russian insecurities. It also hurts Canadian farmers and the oil patch by denying them market opportunities when relations are normalized.

Smarter sanctions in a digital age would include those that target the pocketbooks of the kleptocrats, depriving them of a refuge for their ill-gotten gains. Ban them from entry to the West. And to really hit home, ban their wives and children from shopping, studying or working in the West.

Last year, Parliament adopted legislation – it passed unanimously in both the House of Commons and Senate – allowing travel bans and asset freezes on human rights abusers. Named after the Russian activist Sergei Magnitsky, who was beaten to death in 2009 in a Russian prison, it has already been applied against 52 human-rights violators in Russia, Venezuela and South Sudan. It’s a powerful weapon that should be applied judiciously but liberally. We should encourage all our allies to pass Magnitsky-style legislation.

We also need to better prepare for future threats. With support from the European Union and NATO, there are new centres of excellence related to hybrid threats in Helsinki, strategic communications in Latvia and cyberdefence in Estonia. All three deserve Canadian support. Recent revelations about the misuse of personal data make a compelling argument for the Canadian government to take up the Finnish invitation to join the Helsinki Center.

Canada should also rejoin the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). Created in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, it was an initiative of the Soviets and Americans to employ scientific co-operation to build bridges across the Cold War divide and to solve global problems. This Vienna-based organization does excellent work. The IIASA wants Canada back. As part of its recent recommitment to basic science, the government should respond favourably.

Mr. Putin has been renewed as President until 2024. Robert Gates, who served as defence secretary to presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has a good read on the Russian President: “I had looked into Putin’s eyes and I saw a stone cold killer.”

Mr. Putin is trying to create a pro-Russia bloc of states of the former Soviet Union. He wants them tied economically and militarily to Russia. The invasions into Georgia, Moldavia and Ukraine, and the Syrian intervention, are all aimed at upending the post-Cold War rules-based order. Mr. Putin disregards borders and interferes in the election process of liberal democracies. He uses force – traditional, chemical and cyber – to settle revanchist scores.

The Putin problem needs readdressing by the G7 at Charlevoix, Que. As host, Canada must be strategic in offering ideas. There is more than enough global disarray without tumbling into a new Cold War.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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