What of a Future Canada-Russia Relationship?

2 november 2018

Zachary Paikin is Senior Editor of Global Brief, an international affairs magazine affiliated with the Toronto-based Institute for 21st Century Questions.

Resume: How Canada, in occasional partnership with Russia, could begin to drive higher-order issues on a global basis.

Relations between Ottawa and Moscow are today tightly circumscribed by the limits imposed since 2014 by the Russian-Western confrontation. Indeed, the general legacy of the Cold War, combined with the specific tensions that followed the Ukrainian Revolution, the annexation of Crimea and the eruption of the Donbass war have only served to reinforce Canadians’ ‘East versus West’ conception of the world.

Canada is fully able to conceive of and construct a comprehensive bilateral agenda with the US and, to a far lesser extent, with China. Yet when it comes to Russia – also a great power at Canada’s borders – a serious bilateral policy framework is largely absent. The only place where Ottawa imagines – if only periodically – cooperating with Russia is in the Arctic theatre, which is governed not by a bilateral but rather a multilateral logic that includes, most importantly, the Arctic Council.

But why a deeper relationship between Ottawa and Moscow? Answer: It is essential not only if Canada wishes to manage its northern border, but also if Canada is genuinely interested in becoming a builder of international order this century, rather than a mere bystander operating on terms set by other countries.

What would be the contours of a deeper bilateral relationship and policy agenda? Very few analysts realize that the similarities between Canada and Russia go beyond easily observable features and extend into the realm of macro-level foreign policy and grand strategy. The Arctic, being the one issue on which it is comparatively easy for Canada to gain the attention of officials in Moscow (not least because of the sheer length of the two countries’ combined coastline), is evidently a useful starting point for the development of a broader bilateral dialogue that focusses on both domestic governance and international strategy, including the potential harmonization of the trade and economic blocs to which both countries belong.

Canada and Russia share the stated aim of cooperating on circumpolar affairs and ensuring that the Arctic remains a zone of peace over the course of this century. Of course, the key to this peace has traditionally been to insulate circumpolar issues completely from political disputes involving Arctic states in other geopolitical theatres. What is not often acknowledged is that a protracted confrontation between Russia and Western states may well test the limits of this strategy. Deteriorating trust between Moscow and Western capitals could soon turn the Arctic into a theatre of aggressive geopolitical behaviour, contrary to its current status as one where the international rule of law and international norms play a dominant role.

Today’s world consists of many different – sometimes rival – economic blocs and integration projects, often featuring competing regulatory frameworks and espousing conflicting norms. The conflict in and over Ukraine is evidence that competition between some of these blocs – in this case, between the EU and the younger Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – can lead to political crisis and even military conflict. What’s to be done to reckon with these inter-bloc frictions? Answer: Develop interstitial tendons linking the various regional projects in order to supply the necessary economic, strategic and institutional sinews, understandings and mechanisms to render the interactions between them more stable, predictable and flexible. Bref, these interstitial tendons must have shock-absorbing qualities, ensuring that the competing or contradictory gravities of the blocs do not collide bluntly or brutally – resulting potentially in shockwaves that are felt well beyond the immediate blocs in question (see the Feature article by Irvin Studin in the Winter 2016 issue of GB).

In the Arctic theatre, this would require the creation of ligaments across the circumpolar region connecting North American markets (say, the new USMCA agreement) with the EEU. Whether these ligaments assume a de minimis form or, over the course of increased mutual trust, evolve into a thicker ‘Arctic Union’ would be a matter of significant debate – both within the North American and post-Soviet spaces. As Liudmila Filippova and I discussed in the Nez à Nez debate in the Spring 2017 issue of GB, such an Arctic Union would necessarily cover more than the still quite narrow scientific, environmental and indigenous questions currently treated by the Arctic Council.

Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, Canada is woefully unprepared for the task of deepening its engagement with the EEU (or with Russia on its own) or for building any more sophisticated and comprehensive international architecture to govern the Arctic space well into this century. For starters, excluding the three Baltic countries, which have been fully integrated into Western economic and political institutions, Canada boasts an embassy in only three of the remaining 12 former Soviet republics (Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan), and in only two of the five member states of the EEU (Russia and Kazakhstan).

More generally, Canada and Russia also share a conspicuous need to develop (and potentially populate) underpopulated parts of their respective territories: the Canadian Arctic and the Russian Far East (RFE). Both countries generally view this challenge through the prism of ‘use it or lose it.’ Canada’s underinvestment in the Arctic threatens to undermine its claims of national sovereignty as various countries begin to show interest in, and project power through the Northwest Passage (not to mention the Arctic Ocean seabed), while some Russians fear potential Chinese encroachment – strategic, economic and demographic – on their territory. In the Putin era, Moscow has made a clear decision to tackle this fear of encroachment by developing the RFE with the help of foreign (and particularly Asian) investment, on the logic that cooperative rather than antagonistic ties with Beijing are a more reliable means of addressing irritants in Sino-Russian relations and – more importantly – advancing basic Russian strategic goals.

As Russia shares the Canadian vision of the Arctic as a zone of peace and prosperity, it stands to reason that Moscow would likely welcome a mutually beneficial Arctic development project in pursuit of this goal – even if Ottawa makes the first moves and acts as the initial term-setter. On the same logic, the establishment of a joint Canada-Russia economic and development forum would help to build trust between the two countries, and create a standing mechanism to advance their shared interests. Indeed, within this forum, Canada would be well placed to articulate and elaborate its immediate and growing interest in developing closer trade and investment links with Asian markets, which should ostensibly include Russian and Eurasian markets, given Moscow’s very public interest in integrating Russia into a ‘Greater Eurasian’ supercontinent-wide economy (even if skeptics within both the Russian government and Russian intelligentsia remain unconvinced of Moscow’s ability to deliver or even to sustain interest in integration outside of Western structures).

Canada and Russia, both possessing massive territories, also face not dissimilar challenges in centre-region relations. Canadian federalism is no stranger to jurisdictional contests and squabbles, while lingering disagreements between regional governments and the Kremlin, despite the strong power vertical developed under President Putin, have complicated the advancement of the more complex reform projects in Russia – most notably in infrastructure, economic development and social policy. A bilateral parliamentary council on practices in federalism, featuring legislators from the different levels of government in both countries, could allow the Canadian and Russian political classes to learn from each other. This learning and dialogue could be supplemented by formalized exchange programmes between civil servants, academics and policy experts on federalism, governance and regional development. Russia’s jurisprudential interest in real federalism could also create openings for Canadian jurists to share their expertise with Russia’s still nascent justice sector.

At the centre of a sprawling, diverse and often unstable empire, Moscow prefers to operate through formalized mechanisms, both in its interactions with Russia’s peripheries and in its international relations. (This preference for formalism may surprise many Canadian observers.) A dearth of such formal institutional ties across the Moscow-Brussels-Kiev axis was, in part, what led to the central misunderstandings that helped to produce the Ukraine crisis in 2014. Of course, such ties do not guarantee solutions, but they do create more entrenched processes, and Russian foreign policy, ranging from the Iran nuclear deal to its de-escalation efforts in the Syrian conflict in tandem with Jerusalem, Tehran and Ankara, regularly demonstrates that Moscow deals most comfortably in procedural terms (even if it has significant capacity, through the office of the president, to move and even scale up with great administrative speed when circumstances require it).

Still, Moscow’s record of participating in a rules-based order has been a decidedly mixed one – partly due to occasional, precedent-setting Western abuses of the rules, and partly because Russia’s self-proclaimed great-power status often makes the country more interested in who makes the rules than in their content. In any case, the gradual repairing of East-West mistrust and the easing of Moscow’s post-imperial anxiety (or even anomie) is best pursued through a slow but steady commitment to institutionalized cooperation between Russia and Western states.

Beyond cooperation on domestic policy, which could even include working together to strengthen indigenous communities and develop a Canada-Russia-led global agenda for the growing international refugee challenge – something that would bring with it the added benefit of helping Russia to arrest its demographic decline, while giving Canada bona fide global term-setting status on a critical international file – there also exists a strong rationale for dialogue between Ottawa and Moscow in the realm of pure foreign policy. Contrary to popular and even official belief, Canada and Russia share several important similarities when it comes to their respective positions in contemporary global affairs – great enough to warrant the establishment of serious fora for regular exchanges on international strategy between Canadian and Russian parliamentarians, diplomats, academics and university students.

First, the geographic and strategic positions of both countries on their respective continents is identical. Canada sits at the northern end of the Americas. It secured its southern flank by stabilizing its political relationship and integrating its economy with that of the US, thus leaving it largely free to pursue economic ties with other countries free of geopolitical considerations at the existential level. Such stability in North America has not always been a given over the course of modern history. Everything from the 1871 Treaty of Washington to the 1989 Canada-US Free Trade Agreement helped to secure the foundations of a continent-wide political-strategic consensus (see the Feature article by Irvin Studin in the Spring 2011 issue of GB). For its part, Russia sits at the top of Eurasia, having pledged, following the effective suspension of all serious efforts between Moscow and Brussels to create a Greater Europe, to coordinate the EEU with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which purports to integrate the Eurasian landmass and its environs by way of a chain of new infrastructure and trade agreements. In other words, Russia has begun to create interstitial tendons with the Asian blocs. (Its westward and northward tendons still have to be built.)

Second, Canada and Russia share an interest in avoiding the emergence of a logic of bipolar confrontation between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region. For Moscow, this is to avoid unambiguously becoming Beijing’s junior partner – or to become as equal a player as possible with Beijing – in a polycentric world. The Russians have sought to accomplish this by binding China into multilateral frameworks such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS, while also deepening ties with other Asian markets such as Japan, India and ASEAN. Ottawa, for its part, seeks to diversify its trading relationships and to maintain a rules-based order in the region, but does not, in principle, wish to see either of these subjected to restrictions imposed by Sino-American great-power rivalry.

Finally, Russia and, to a growing extent, Canada are both interested in pursuing multi-vector foreign policies. Canada, whose first instinct should be to use its neighbour to the south as a power multiplier, is now deepening ties with the EU and – to a far lesser extent – China on issues ranging from climate change to trade while the US has, perhaps temporarily, locked itself into largely inward-looking policy debates. As for Russia, until recently, its major post-Soviet project was to establish a ‘Greater Europe’ – or Europe 2.0 – from Lisbon to Vladivostok, in part to create an entity that could serve as an independent pillar of international order and a bulwark against China, but primarily to find institutional and economic openings for the young Russian state as a substitute for the Soviet imperial space. In the wake of its collision with the West over Ukraine, Russia has begun to pivot partially to Asia, while doing its utmost to consolidate whatever can be accomplished with the smaller EEU and, from 2015, imposing itself in key Middle Eastern theatres.

Although weakened since the collapse of the USSR, Russia’s sprawling geography, imperial legacy, strategic assets and culture still give it the ability to project power and make the country’s presence felt in several neighbouring theatres: Europe, the South Caucasus, the Middle East, Central Asia, East Asia and the Arctic. A closer relationship with Moscow, therefore, could allow Canada, power multiplier oblige, to play a greater role in shaping regional affairs in those theatres that are situated on Russia’s borders – starting with Europe and China.

The successful harmonization of the EEU with both the BRI and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – which includes China, Japan, India and ASEAN – could produce a massive Eurasian trading bloc that ultimately surpasses the transatlantic structures in economic clout. To help shape this emerging regional architecture in a way that navigates the contours of both China’s rise and the Sino-American rivalry, Canada, as the second-largest economy in the TPP11 grouping, could propose to integrate the recently signed TPP11 deal with this fledgling Eurasian club. Such integration would not be easy or fast. But the initiative could be led in partnership with Russia – a leading Eurasian power whose vision for integrating the supercontinent is still lacking in content and indeed confidence, and thus still open to being shaped. The strategy would balance engaging with and hedging against a rising China, while securing the foundations of a peaceful trading order in the Asia-Pacific – all in keeping, insofar as practicable, with Canadian regulatory standards and laying the groundwork for the future establishment of a bona fide Pacific Community.

Despite its present discord with the West and the troubles in and over Ukraine, Russia remains open to pursuing integration with Europe over the medium to long term. Holding constant the prospect of a succession crisis in Moscow and growing domestic contradictions, if it one day succeeds in this endeavour, then we will witness the emergence of a united Eurasian supercontinent that includes Europe – a unit that, in the aggregate, would easily overshadow the Western Hemisphere in material and term-setting power. If it fails, the world could drift closer to dangerous and unstable bipolarity between transatlantic and Sino-Russian alliances – much like during the early days of the Cold War.

There is, of course, a third option. Canada, in keeping with its Cold War-era tradition of promoting peace between rival blocs, could lead the way in proposing, facilitating or supporting the creation of separate interstitial tendons between Europe and Russia, China and Russia, North America and Russia, and between both sides of the Pacific. Russia abuts all four of these potential global friction points and would therefore be an indispensable partner for Canada on this macro-level geopolitical challenge. Bref, if well played, Canada, in occasional partnership or collaboration with Russia, could begin to drive higher-order issues on a global basis.

This strategy turns, of course, on a Canada that thinks of itself not as a mere constituent element of the West, but rather as a rising power capable of crafting independent grand strategy. It also requires a Russia that begins to see Canada not as an automatic addendum of American power, but rather a neighbour with which it can do business – strategically, economically and, to be sure, on a people-to-people basis.

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