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Canada, the West and the Russian sphere of influence April 13, 2010

Posted by Dominique Millette in Arctic politics, Canada, Canada-Russia issues, geopolitics.
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The Cold War may be over and the First and Second Worlds redefined as the so-called Third World has been renamed, transformed and fragmented, but division of power remains an issue in the post-Communist world. Despite the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Russia clings to imperial dreams and conquests which predate the Revolution of 1917.

Various forces come to play within the cracks of the power vacuum: among them, pan-Islamist ideologies which seek to attract the discontented Muslim populations of Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan, where lie some of the world’s largest oil reserves. The same may be said of the Caucasus. Salafist fundamentalism appears to be gaining ground rapidly in places such as Dagestan, home of suicide bomber Mariam Charipova. The region is now a political powder keg, with the Russian invasion of Chechnya and subsequent interference still an incendiary issue, while local political structures seem to veer into failed statehood. “Everywhere in the North Caucasus there is gross mishandling by local authorities, corruption, human rights abuses… and no one knows how to fix it,” says  David Kramer, Senior Transatlantic Fellow of the German Marshall Fund in Washington D.C.

Canada’s interests in the former Republics of the Soviet Union follow those of the United States to a large extent. Where they differ is that the Arctic becomes more of a concern for us.  Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon will be in Moscow on April 19 and Arctic issues will be on the agenda.

In early April in Toronto, Munk Centre for International Studies invited David Kramer to share his insights on Russia. Kramer was formerly U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and previously, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus affairs.

Kramer put the blame squarely on the Russian side of the ledger for difficult relations between the U.S. and Russia. As a benchmark, the new START that was signed by the United States and Russia in Prague on Thursday April 8th “was supposed to be the easy part and has taken several years”, he observed. This is despite the fact that, with its arsenal in decline, Russia would have more of an interest in arms reduction than the U.S.

In Kramer’s words, the Russian view of its interests is “zero-sum”: every bit of foreign influence whittles away Russian power. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there’s been a whole lotta whittling going on. President Obama has clearly indicated the U.S. opposes Russia’s attempts to control its neighbours, from its invasion of Chechnya and erstwhile meddling in Ukrainian and Byelorussian elections to the continued Russian troop presence in Georgia and Moldova. Meanwhile, former Soviet Republics such as Georgia and Moldova have applied for NATO membership, as the organization carries out military exercises in the Crimea. Russia views NATO expansion into former Warsaw Pact countries with alarm, as the organization places interceptor missiles in Poland and Romania and proposes a command centre in the Czech Republic. Then there is the EU’s Eastern partnership program, which offers discussion on visa-free travel and free trade, if not outright membership. Russia has accused the European Union of “luring” participating states Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

Kramer noted that efforts to win over or persuade neighbours to comply with Russian interests have backfired so far. These have included a cyberattack on Estonia, banning imports of agricultural products from Moldova and cutting off gas supplies to other republics. At the same time, the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has not borne fruit, as leaders haven’t attended meetings.

Meanwhile, the destabilization in Kyrgyzstan may threaten the Manas Air Base, key to the war in Afghanistan, and therefore American interests as much as Russian ones. One would think this is also the case in Afghanistan itself: Kramer notes that 90 per cent of the drugs transiting from the war-torn region country through Tajikistan stays in Russia, which is now facing a growing drug problem. This is only one aspect of the security issues in the region.

Canada’s interests follow those of the West. However, with respect to Arctic issues, the Harper government in particular has blustered against any potential Russian threat to Canadian sovereignty that could arise due to recent exploration of the sea floor and greater access to Northern resources with climate change. Earlier, a CBC article reported that “Fresh tensions between Canada and Russia emerged Wednesday after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told a session of his Security Council that his country must be prepared to defend its claims to Arctic mineral riches.” At issue: untapped oil reserves, itself a controversial issue in the context of global warming and conservation efforts. During the latest Arctic Summit on March 29 in Chelsea, Quebec, indigenous groups opposed any exploration and exploitation.

To Kramer, the Russians’ zero-sum approach continues in the Arctic but the country “doesn’t have wherewithal to do it. Its fleet is not in very good shape” and the Arctic is a tough environment in which to operate, with incredibly challenging terrain. To him, there may be competition, but “not to the extent that it causes conflict”.