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Canada and the Big Powers

We should strive to play broker to China, Russia and the US.

By Rafe Mair 22 Jun 2009 |

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. Read previous columns by Rafe Mair here. He also acts as a spokesperson for the Save Our Rivers Society.

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Putin: Channelling old fears.

*Story updated at 11:51 a.m. on June 23, 2009.

Today, in 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union less than two years after the world-shocking Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement in August of 1939.* Despite warnings from Churchill who was picking up German messages through the Ultra Machine the Brits had, Stalin was taken by surprise and the Wehrmacht made huge gains in the early going. Indeed it took Stalin two weeks before he could get himself together again and rally the nation -- and rally them he did.

Communism does not work except when the only customer is the state and there it works very well. To see this picture clearly, I recommend Hedrick Smith's The New Russians, Random House, 1990 (it has been updated to include the fall of Gorbachev.) Because Communism has no marketplace, demand is created by supply, not the other way around. When demand is by a government at war, the marketplace is the armed forces. By war's end, Soviet tanks and fighter aircraft were considered, by many who know about these things, to be the best in the world.

What is little remembered is that in 1938 and 1939 Soviet and Japanese armies tested each other in two full-scale battles along the border of Manchukuo. Ironically, a neutrality pact was signed in April 1941 -- two months before Germany invaded the USSR, with Germany as intermediary!

The war deaths in the USSR are estimated to be more than 26 million.

Putin's inherited fear

Fast forward to April 1945 when the so-called "Big Three" -- Prime Minister Churchill, American President Franklin Roosevelt and Stalin -- met at Yalta in the Crimea. It has been said that Churchill, weakened by a crumbling empire, and a dying Roosevelt lay down before the Soviet dictator and let him get away with what he wanted in Eastern Europe. This just wasn't so. Stalin simply refused to pay any attention to the agreement once the Soviet army had Eastern Europe and much of Germany under its control and, as Churchill observed, there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Stalin's objective was what had always been "Mother Russia's desire -- to have its borders buffeted by neutral and friendly countries. Once Czechoslovakia went Communist in 1948 and Mao's Peoples' Liberation army had secured Russia's western extremity in 1949, the buffer had been completed. (It should be borne in mind that the USSR had already neutralized Finland while nations to her south hated the West as much as feared the Soviet Union.

Once we understand that Russia was not trying to build an expanding empire but was protecting itself from having nations on its borders being in league with its enemies, the Cold War and its aftermath become easier to understand. Premier Vladimir Putin's increasing coolness to the United States and its allies or (as they seem to Mr. Putin, its satellites) is prompted by a historic national fear of being surrounded.

The new missile gap

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1990-1 it seemed to many in high places in the U.S. that this was the opportunity to castrate the Russian bear. We know the story -- instead of abandoning NATO because the opposing Warsaw treaty was dead, NATO was expanded to include former Soviet satellites. One has to wonder why? The only answer I can see is triumphalism. The United States wanted to rub Moscow's nose in it ignoring the fact that Russia was still a very powerful country indeed with enough of a nuclear force to blow the world up almost as many times as the U.S. can.

Then the European community began to expand into the former Soviet sphere -- another pair of upturned fingers to Moscow.

Then came what may be the fatal gesture of U.S. missiles based in former Soviet satellites.

Putin doesn't buy the American assertion that these are defense missiles aimed at Iran. Putin understands the obvious. If the U.S. builds a defence shield that neutralizes Russian ability to shoot back, it gives the Americans the ability to strike first. No leader can permit his nation to become defenseless.

The North Pole vantage

Now, let's fast forward to today. If one looks at the globe from the North Pole instead of the equator, the proximity of Russia to Canada and the United State becomes starkly obvious. Looking at the globe that way shows the Arctic shelf which is thought to have huge oil reserves. This potential bonanza has spawned studies that, in an amazing coincidence, say that the country that paid for the study has the best of all claims. These studies have been enhanced by flag-raising under the ice pack reminiscent of Europeans of yesterday planting flags and claiming ownership in the name of their monarch.

What then of the prospects for world peace 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I would argue worse than ever. Russia is upgrading its military, including its nuclear capability and with China now competing for first place in the power race, and so many former satellites, all with grudges, on its western borders, it sees itself surrounded on all sides. That means we have an ongoing danger worse, in my view, that during the "Cold War."

It's said that even if you back the most timorous rabbit into a corner, it becomes vicious and dangerous.

Russia is no timid rabbit and now there is a common sense president in the White House. It's in Canada's interest to become the "honest broker" amongst the great powers of today -- The United States, China, and, yes, Russia.

Related Tyee stories:

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