The Mark | 12.21.10
The Woodstock Sentinel-Review | 12.29.10
By Alan W. Dowd

As Canadians and Americans consider their relationship with Russia in the coming years, we would do well to keep in mind what the great Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich said of Russia some 200 years ago: “Russia is never as strong as it looks; Russia is never as weak as it looks.”

Today, Russia appears strong. After all, it has, in effect, pressed the NATO allies into scaling back missile defense plans and rethinking expansion plans. With NATO supply arteries in Pakistan at risk, it has emerged as an important alternate route for supplies headed to Afghanistan. It has used cash and hard-ball diplomacy to shrink America’s footprint in Central Asia. Thanks to a return to Cold War-style bluster and maneuvering, it has forced Ottawa and Washington to take notice of its once-crumbling but now-reconstituted military. And not coincidentally, it has laid claim to vast swaths of resource-rich Arctic territory.

All of these manifestations of a resurgent, even revisionist, Russia impact Canada, some more directly than others. The good news is that Canada doesn’t face these 21st-century challenges alone. The NATO alliance, for all its imperfections, is increasingly alert to the challenges Russia presents in these areas.

Take the Russian military’s aggressiveness in places as disparate as the Arctic Circle, North American airspace and the Black Sea. All of this misbehavior is on NATO’s radar.

In the face of Russia’s outsized Arctic claims, punctuated by increased military activity, NATO officials have pointedly declared that “the High North is…of strategic interest to the alliance.” In 2009, then-NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer expressed the need for “a military presence” in the region and outlined a number of possible roles for NATO, including assistance in trans-Arctic navigation, protecting critical energy infrastructure, assisting in search and rescue, and serving as a forum where NATO’s Arctic members—Canada, the United States, Iceland, Denmark, Norway—can shape and develop a shared approach to the region.

As Arctic waters open up, NATO’s current secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is keeping an eye on NATO’s North American flank. “An entire side of North America will be much more exposed,” he observes. “And there will be competition for resources.” That competition could lead to military confrontation, and NATO serves as a reliable insurance policy against that.

Regarding Russia’s actions on the borders of the alliance, NATO’s new Strategic Concept promises robust training, contingency planning and “visible assurance”—a two-pronged message to NATO’s newest members and oldest foe—and commits the allies to developing lasting partnerships with aspirant countries, especially Georgia, which was brutalized by Russia in August 2008. NATO has opened a liaison office in Tbilisi, created a special consultative body to walk Georgia, gingerly and methodically, toward full membership, and works closely with the Georgian military in Afghanistan.

Speaking of Afghanistan, from the very beginning of the war, Russia has been displeased with the U.S. having a presence in Central Asia, a region Moscow views as its own sphere of influence. This explains—but doesn’t justify—Moscow’s meddling and mischief in the so-called “Stans,” the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have served as U.S. and NATO supply hubs into Afghanistan.

Recent months have seen NATO and Moscow hammer out agreements allowing materiel to be shipped into Afghanistan via Russian corridors, securing Russian help in supplying helicopters for the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, and providing Russian training to Afghan troops. This welcome, if awkward, partnership should have a direct and positive impact on Canadian forces in Afghanistan, who will benefit from enhanced security.

Finally, there’s the increasing threat of missile attack from rogue states like Iran. Contrary to the critics, this is not some trumped-up claim—Robert Gates, the U.S. defense secretary, reports that Iran could lob “hundreds of missiles” into Europe—nor is the danger zone confined to Europe. It’s only a matter of time before Iran, North Korea, and their ilk bring North America within range.

This threat led NATO in 2002 to begin laying the groundwork for a regional missile-defense system to protect the allies in Europe. NATO openly discussed the plans with Russia in order to limit misunderstanding, but Moscow has been resistant. In fact, Russia’s response has been a return to the sort of rhetoric and behavior that characterized Cold War relations. For example, the commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces warned that in response to the deployment of NATO missile defenses Russia might withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and retarget its arsenal to strike Poland and the Czech Republic. To underline the threat, Russia has conducted war games against a Polish “aggressor,” complete with simulated nuclear strikes aimed at Poland. Moscow also has moved short-range nuclear warheads to facilities bordering NATO’s Baltic and Eastern European members.

Although Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has expressed an interest in some sort of joint missile-defense system, hopes for a missile-defense breakthrough foundered over Moscow’s insistence that a) none of NATO’s anti-missile sensors be pointed at Russia and b) NATO trust Russia to “destroy missiles headed for NATO territory,” as the Wall Street Journal reported last month.

NATO is not ready to outsource the defense of allied territory to Russia. Instead, NATO’s new Strategic Concept commits the allies to defending their “populations and territories against ballistic missile attack” and declares missile defense “a core element of…collective defense.”

Weak or strong, friend or foe, 21st-century Russia represents a challenge for Canada and the United States. As it was in the 20th century, NATO remains an imperfect but important instrument for answering that challenge.