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FIRST READING: The cards Canada is leaving unplayed in countering Putin


Canada-bashing in vogue at America’s premier conservative fest

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First Reading is a daily newsletter keeping you posted on the travails of Canadian politicos, all curated by the National Post’s own Tristin Hopper. To get an early version sent direct to your inbox every Monday to Thursday at 6 p.m. ET (and 9 a.m. on Sundays), sign up here.

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TOP STORY

The last week has seen Canada participate in crushing sanctions on the Russian economy, including the country’s effective severing from the global financial system. On Monday, the Canadian federal government also announced a ban on imports of Russian oil, becoming one of the first countries in the world to do so. Canada has also joined much of Europe in sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. 

But there are still many cards that Canada could play in supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russia …

Seize the assets of Russian oligarchs

The U.K. has just fast-tracked new legislation to find and seize British assets employed to launder “dirty money” from abroad, most significantly from Russia. While the U.K. is the most famous destination for ill-gotten Russian money, it’s naturally found its way into the always overheated Canadian real estate market.

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A recent column co-written by former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy called on Canada to also identify domestic stores of Russian wealth and target them with foreign interference legislation. “The oligarchs will certainly feel the pain after the latest round of sanctions, but they need to know that they will feel much more pain if they can be separated permanently from their fortunes, their private yachts and their palatial homes abroad,” it read.

The sanctions thus far might be why some Russian billionaires are beginning to openly criticize the war. At least four wealthy Russians with close ties to the regime of Vladimir Putin have publicly called for an end to the conflict, many on the same day that they were hit with direct foreign sanctions. This included Russia’s richest man, steel baron Alexei Mordashov, who said on Monday “we must do everything necessary so that a way out of this conflict is found in the very near future and the bloodshed stops.”

Alexei Mordashov with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2006.
Alexei Mordashov with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2006. Photo by ALEXANDER NIKOLAYEV/AFP/Getty Images

Offer cash and amnesty to Russian defectors

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence has assembled a special fund (raised via “the global IT community”) that is intended to offer cash rewards to any Russian soldiers who surrender to Ukrainian forces. Every Russian who gives up the fight will receive promises of amnesty and five million rubles (roughly $58,000).

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Canada has never shied away from sending massive quantities of money to Ukraine to be spent on non-lethal defence initiatives (we’ve spent nearly $900 million there since the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014). We’re also a pretty attractive destination for the average Russian conscript (and we happen to be dramatically ramping up our immigration targets in part to combat a growing labour shortage).

Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, told the National Post that Canada and NATO should consider offering to process and house prisoners of wars on behalf of Ukraine. “That way (Russian soldiers) know they won’t have to fear retribution – and they may never have to return to Russia,” he said.

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A screenshot of a smartphone allegedly captured from a Russian soldier killed in action in Ukraine. The texts pictured were read out at the UN General Assembly by the Ukrainian ambassador, with the final one roughly translating to “Mom, I’m in Ukraine … We were told they would welcome us and they fall under our armored vehicles, throw themselves under the wheels and won’t let us pass.”
A screenshot of a smartphone allegedly captured from a Russian soldier killed in action in Ukraine. The texts pictured were read out at the UN General Assembly by the Ukrainian ambassador, with the final one roughly translating to “Mom, I’m in Ukraine … We were told they would welcome us and they fall under our armored vehicles, throw themselves under the wheels and won’t let us pass.” Photo by Security Service of Ukraine

Offer to supplant Russian gas with Canadian product (eventually)

Countries across Western Europe are now dramatically reassessing their dependence on Russian oil and gas. Germany, for instance, has already begun upgrading two ports on its northern coast to take in shipments of liquid natural gas to supplant Russian supplies brought in by pipeline.

Canada sits on more than enough oil and gas to keep the lights on in Europe. But as Canadian oil and gas types have been loudly reminding everyone in recent days, it’s virtually impossible to get Canadian petroleum across the Atlantic because we can’t seem to build any export pipelines (and the ones we do build keep getting blockaded and attacked by guys with axes). In a recent op-ed for the National Post, Leuprecht went so far as to accuse Canadian anti-pipeline activists of “aiding, abetting, and condoning Putin’s behaviour.”

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So, any pledges for Canada to supplant Russian gas with our own would need to be backed with some pretty substantial course-reversals on our current approach to oil and gas infrastructure.

Pledge some discount nuclear reactors 

Europe is also beginning to entertain more nuclear energy in its power grid in order to undercut the need for Russian fossil fuel, and Canada happens to be a major exporter of nuclear power technology, with Canadian-made reactors already operating in South Korea, India, Pakistan, Argentina and China .

Romania – which is within earshot of some of the fighting in Ukraine – is currently scrambling to boost its capacity for nuclear power production. Notably, some of that has already been done with Canadian CANDU reactors.

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Bolster Canadian military presence in the Arctic

One of the more surprising international developments of the last week was Germany’s decision to dramatically ramp up military spending as a direct counter to Russian influence.

Until then, Germany has long been criticized as a laggard on its NATO commitments, with the country routinely falling fall short of the alliance’s military spending target of two per cent of GDP. Canada has an even stingier reputation; even after some recent increases to the defence budget, the Canadian Armed Forces still represent just 1.31 per cent of GDP.

And Canada happens to have something that Germany doesn’t: A shared border with Russia across the Arctic. Peter MacKay, who served as Canada’s defence minister for five years, said as much in a recent op-ed. Yet he – like every other Canadian defence minister thus far – was ultimately content to have a Canadian arctic wholly devoid of dedicated air or naval bases.

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HMCS Harry DeWolf pictured in Halifax on July 31, 2020. Although part of a new fleet of ice-capable warships now entering service with the Royal Canadian Navy, the lightly armed vessels are not designed for combat.
HMCS Harry DeWolf pictured in Halifax on July 31, 2020. Although part of a new fleet of ice-capable warships now entering service with the Royal Canadian Navy, the lightly armed vessels are not designed for combat. Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

But hold off on the “no-fly-zone” (unless you like world war)

The weekend saw so much casual discussion for a “no-fly zone” that the measure is now being included in press questions at both the White House and the Pentagon. What many “no-fly zone” advocates may not understand, however, is that it would effectively take a declaration of war against Russia to achieve one.

The term – popularized during the 1990s in regards to U.S. operations against Iraq – is a polite way of saying “air superiority.” If NATO was to enforce a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, it would require direct targeting of Russian aircraft and ground facilities, some of which are in Russia proper. So, it’s effectively a call for direct NATO intervention in the conflict, which Russia would correctly see as a significant escalation.

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A lookout searches the skies over London for German Luftwaffe fighters during the 1940 Battle of Britain. If you want to be technical about it, the battle was fought over Nazi Germany’s attempt to establish a “no-fly zone” over the U.K.
A lookout searches the skies over London for German Luftwaffe fighters during the 1940 Battle of Britain. If you want to be technical about it, the battle was fought over Nazi Germany’s attempt to establish a “no-fly zone” over the U.K. Photo by British Imperial War Museum

IN OTHER NEWS

The Conservative Political Action Conference took place over the weekend. Long-established as the signature political gathering of American conservatives, this one featured an awful lot of Canada-bashing.

  • Former U.S. President Donald Trump warned of a “woke tyranny” that has already overtaken Canada and could soon be headed for the United States. “They (the radical left) want to do the same thing to America that Trudeau has been doing to Canada — and much, much worse,” he said. Trump also called Canada’s clearing of Freedom Convoy blockades earlier this month the product of “left wing fascists.”
  • Florida Governor Ron DeSantis dubbed Canada’s COVID-19 policies as being akin to “authoritarian rule.” “I really believe had Florida not led the way, this country could look like Canada or Australia,” he said. DeSantis’ speech neglected to mention Ukraine.

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Amid news that Belarus is looking to send troops into Ukraine to support the Russian invasion, here’s a reminder that Ottawa is home to a century-old government-in-exile that claims itself to be the only legitimate representation of the Belarusian people. Above is a screenshot from a recent video address by Ottawa-based government-in-exile head Ivonka Survilla opposing the invasion of Ukraine.
Amid news that Belarus is looking to send troops into Ukraine to support the Russian invasion, here’s a reminder that Ottawa is home to a century-old government-in-exile that claims itself to be the only legitimate representation of the Belarusian people. Above is a screenshot from a recent video address by Ottawa-based government-in-exile head Ivonka Survilla opposing the invasion of Ukraine. Photo by Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic

Russia’s been spending a lot of the last week threatening retaliation: Retaliation for sanctions, retaliation for Ukrainian military aid, and now, Moscow has threatened retaliation against Canada because some protesters demonstrated outside its Ottawa embassy. The protest was just some folks with Ukrainian flags and placards, but it resulted in the Kremlin summoning Canada’s ambassador in Moscow and threatening unspecified retaliation if Russian diplomats in Ottawa were not kept “safe.”

Russia also hasn’t been too happy with Canadian participation in sanctions against them. In a rather bananas statement issued by the Russian Federation’s Canadian embassy, the Trudeau government was accused of having “blood on their hands” for supporting Ukrainian “Nazism.”

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Thus far, the Conservative leadership race has largely been confined to the op-ed pages of the National Post.

  • On Monday, Pierre Poilievre (the only declared candidate thus far) said Canada must be “tough” on Russia. Said toughness would include severing diplomatic relations with Moscow and building a bunch of LNG export terminals on the Atlantic Coast.
  • Meanwhile, Red Tory favourite Jean Charest wrote a Friday op-ed saying basically the same things, albeit without the word “tough” and the part about severing diplomatic ties.
To mark Black History Month, the Canadian Consulate in Dallas just got a mute beaver puppet to interview Canadian rapper Kardinal Offishall in a web video.
To mark Black History Month, the Canadian Consulate in Dallas just got a mute beaver puppet to interview Canadian rapper Kardinal Offishall in a web video. Photo by Consulate General of Canada in Dallas

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