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Richard Shimooka: Putin is playing a bad hand, but Europe is in for a hard winter

Commentary

The past several weeks has seen some dramatic shifts in the state of the Russian-Ukrainian war. After a summer that saw Russia take much of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, Ukraine has executed a dramatic counter-offensive near Kherson and Kharkiv, retaking significant parts of its territory.

In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin has opted for a new approach to the war. His prospects to win a military victory in Ukraine under the present circumstances are limited. Western support has solidified Ukrainian armed forces to make any battlefield collapse unlikely. Furthermore, Western sanctions are increasingly taking serious bite out of Russia’s economic stability and ability to manufacture high-tech military hardware, meaning it cannot afford to sit in a stalemate indefinitely.

Denied his initial objectives of the complete conquest of Ukraine, Putin must salvage what he can, partly to avoid potential domestic fallout and threats to his regime’s stability. It is evident that Russia has recalibrated its policies in light of this new reality, guided by Putin’s understanding of his country’s political, economic and military situation.

The first step was its partial troop mobilization, largely an effort to stabilize the military situation in eastern Ukraine. Even before the war, the Russian Army faced serious manpower shortages, which were set to be exacerbated in the coming months, with tens of thousands of contract soldiers reaching terms and mustering out. Raising new units from mobilization, especially when comprised of poorly trained call-ups, is unlikely to create the conditions of victory. But it can frustrate further advances by Ukraine by sheer mass.

Mobilization entails significant risks for the regime. Since the start of the invasion, the Kremlin has carefully managed its domestic situation to husband its political support, which includes refraining from the deployment of conscripts and avoiding excessive casualties among units drawn more heavily from regions in western Russia.

The decision to mobilize is a crossing of the Rubicon, showing that the Kremlin understands its precarious military situation and judges it to be a greater threat than the domestic unrest its announcement has created. To be clear, however, military mobilization can only stanch the figurative flow of blood and it is not a path to victory. Rather Putin’s other decisions and statements are critical for finding a way out of this morass.

For example, the sham referendums in occupied Ukrainian territories would justify their annexation into Russia. This potentially sets up the terms for any future settlement between the warring parties. By claiming the territories currently under partial control, he has marked out a very large part of what a settlement would entail, while retaining them as bargaining leverage. Ukraine has already rejected such an outcome. This is certainly understandable, given the immense support it receives from the West and in light of its recent battlefield victories.

To achieve its aims, Russia must therefore break this alliance and force Kyiv to accept less. Before the invasion, Putin clearly viewed the West as weak and feckless, a view bolstered by his successful interventions and destabilization efforts internationally over the past two decades. While Western nations support for Ukraine has been extremely durable, Putin still seems to see the possibility that Russia can divide the current alliance supporting Ukraine.

The new strategy has been largely aimed at Germany. With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, Berlin is now the preeminent power within Europe and the lynchpin of the European alliance supporting Ukraine. By peeling Germany from the united front, Putin likely hopes to force the Ukrainian government to moderate its demands and find a settlement. It would also provide political cover for Kremlin-friendly states within the EU, like Hungary, to openly advocate for pro-Russian positions.

Germany also has several vulnerabilities that can be exploited, not least the country’s reliance on Russian energy and its unique political sensitivities around its history. Finally, Putin has practical experience when it comes to dealing with Germany, going back to his time as a KGB officer in Dresden during the 1980s. As such, he likely feels an intrinsic understanding of the German situation that can help guide his strategy.

Whatever the case, Russia has sought to acquire as much leverage as possible. Russia’s most effective tool remains energy, having been wielded effectively for the past three decades. Germany is uniquely vulnerable to this challenge. Years of deliberate decisions on the country’s energy mix has left the country highly dependent on Russian gas supplies for electrical, heating and industry. While Berlin has made a commitment to phase out Russian energy sources by 2025, its supply situation for this coming winter is precarious and record prices threaten Germany’s economic and political stability.

Russia’s motivation to sabotage the Nord Stream pipelines may initially seem counterintuitive, but it clearly fits within this strategy. First, the destruction of Nord Stream does not prevent Russian gas from entering Europe. Sufficient capacity remains between the other pipelines: no gas has passed through Nord Stream since the end of August. Rather its destruction constrains Europe’s options to Putin’s benefit. Russia has also threatened to close gas pipelines through Ukraine over a legal dispute. European gas storage facilities are currently preparing for the winter, making it an ideal time to create an artificial supply crisis that forces governments to prematurely tap into these reserves. This may help create greater shortages in the winter months, driving prices even higher and thus increasing Russia’s leverage.

This limits Europe’s overall flexibility. Some of the existing pipeline capacity is currently being used in an eastward direction to supply Poland and Ukraine. By crippling Nord Stream, much of the remaining capacity must be devoted to westward deliveries to ensure western European states can satisfy their energy needs in the winter. This will further isolate Ukraine and cause greater harm to their economy and will to fight, while damaging overall European unity. It also obliquely signals to European policy-makers that Russia may attack key infrastructure in the future, thus coercing them to reduce their support of Ukraine.

The plausible deniability of the attack is consistent with Russian intelligence services efforts — from assassinations to cyber warfare. While the intended targets clearly understand the message delivered, pro-Russian voices in the West can use it to support their subversive efforts, such as Tucker Carlson’s claim that the Biden administration was behind the pipeline attacks, based on the loose interpretation of a previous speech.

Even more concerning has been the repetitive and premature invocation of the potential use of nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory. Such threats seem hollow in practice. Ukrainian forces have repeatedly struck in depth against targets in Millerovo, Belgorod and Crimea, considered by Russia to be part of its territory, and yet produced no noticeable escalation in response. However, the threatening language has particular resonance in German politics, considering the country’s aversion towards nuclear power and weaponry, particularly within the ruling coalition. The direct threats and the fighting around Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plants can be seen as an effort to influence the German people and cow them into submission.

We must be clear-eyed about the prospects of this new Russian strategy — this is far from a winning hand. Having badly misjudged Ukraine and the West’s ability to contest this invasion, Putin has made a number of large assumptions and bet heavily on them. For Russia to succeed it requires a dramatic reversal in German, European and Ukrainian policies, while staving off domestic unrest from crippling sanctions and an unpopular military mobilization.

While Putin’s chances of pulling off this gambit successfully are slim, the West must not be complacent: it must adapt. Certainly, it cannot match the bare-knuckled realpolitik that Putin has engaged in, but should rather rely on their natural strengths in this conflict — specifically, overwhelming economic and military power, free and open societies that are highly motivated to support Ukraine, and the ability to develop creative solutions to difficult problems.

If Europe can weather this winter while maintaining or even expanding its support for Ukraine, it will be in a much better place to see this war to a successful conclusion.

Karen Restoule: How to commemorate Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Commentary

Today marks the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a day to honour survivors and deceased children of Indian residential schools, their families, and their communities, and to ensure public commemoration of the history and ongoing legacy of residential schools. 

In its introduction last year, many questioned the need to mark this as a federal statutory holiday with concerns as to whether the day would be respected and marked with reflection and atonement or whether the day would be treated flippantly as a “day off”. We witnessed a somewhat typical response aligned with other national holidays: some went about their day without much thought, some recognized the intent of the day without support for making it a national holiday, and others support the national holiday but forewent commemoration, ceremonial, or learning activities in favour of a long weekend trip

Curious, I took to a search engine to see the top searches related to the day for this year. I was encouraged to find that nobody was asking “what” the day is in the top searches. It seems that many, if not most, know what the day is for. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, there were many related searches as to how one could get engaged.  

In discussing the search results with friends, one put it to me clearly: “Honestly, and maybe I’m just an idiot, but one of the main questions for someone like me is how should I properly and respectfully mark the day, and in a tangible way—especially in comparison to National Indigenous Peoples Day?”

I can appreciate the confusion.

National Indigenous Peoples Day, observed on June 21 of each year, is a day for Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures, and contributions of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples. It was introduced in 1996 through the Proclamation Declaring June 21 of Each Year as National Aboriginal Day, since then renamed National Indigenous Peoples Day. It was established in response to calls from Indigenous leadership and a 1995 recommendation set out by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.  

As reflected in the proclamation, June 21 was selected to align with a day of significance for Indigenous peoples—the summer solstice. It is this day that Indigenous peoples honour the Sun as it takes its place at the highest point in the sky. It is the day most filled with light and one that has been celebrated for thousands of years by Indigenous peoples who gather to give thanks for the bounty that has been provided by Mother Earth. 

National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, on the other hand, is a day to ensure public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing legacy of residential schools. It was introduced in June 2021 and is an official federal holiday. It is also considered to be a government response to one of the calls to action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

September 30 was chosen to recognize Orange Shirt Day: Every Child Matters, an Indigenous-led commemoration that came out of a 2013 reunion of residential school survivors who had attended the St. Joseph Mission Residential School in British Columbia. A spokesperson for the reunion, Phyllis Webstad, who was forcibly removed from her family at six years old and brought to the residential school in 1973, shared her story of how she was instructed to remove her favourite orange shirt gifted to her by her grandmother and change into the residential school’s uniform. She never saw her orange shirt again.

What many, myself included, struggle with on holidays like these is the lack of clarity around societal expectations. I can appreciate that it might feel the events and decisions have not necessarily been within our control. This type of holiday tends to have a heavy focus on building knowledge and creating awareness and leaves little instruction as to what steps can be taken to correct our course and better position ourselves moving forward. To help clarify, I believe our responsibility as citizens of this country is to take up the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report in 2015, it issued a call to Canadians to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation” in tangible ways. The short document, which can be found here, offered clarity on how to do that with 94 separate calls to action.

While these are essential to moving us in the right direction, they should not be seen as a checklist of items that, when completed, guarantee us a reconciled state. Reconciliation requires the sharing of truth, apology, and commemoration—all of which acknowledge and redress past harms. It requires, like a marriage, an ongoing commitment to continuing to learn about and respect one another, an ongoing commitment to renewing that relationship every year, and a willingness to want to make it work—not only for the betterment of Indigenous peoples but for the benefit of the country as a whole. 

The question becomes: what range of power and influence do you hold? And are you honouring your leadership in those roles? What opportunities exist within your range? I once described this as, “Doing what you can within your hug range.” And if your wing span is wider than the norm, bonus for us! Take action on what is within your range of responsibility and accountability, and whatever isn’t, influence it. And while a demonstration of support and commitment to reconciliation on September 30th is welcomed, it’s the follow-through on real, tangible initiatives on every other day of the year that are most important. 

For instance, we have recently seen some exceptional advancements on large-scale projects like the precedent-setting deal that saw Hydro One and First Nations across Ontario coming together to launch an industry-leading equity partnership model on new capital transmission line projects with a value exceeding $100 million. Or like Enbridge, who recently announced an agreement whereby 23 First Nation and Metis communities will acquire an 11.57 percent interest in seven pipelines in the Athabasca region of northern Alberta for $1.12 billion, making this the largest energy-related Indigenous economic partnership transaction in North America to date. 

Maybe you’re not a corporate shark who is in a position to sign off on multi-million dollar deals with Indigenous communities. Or maybe you’re at the very beginning of your learning journey. That’s okay. We all start somewhere. Wear an orange shirt. Buy the orange sprinkled donut at Tim Horton’s. Pull together your friends and colleagues for a book club and read that bestselling novel written by an Indigenous author. Hire an Indigenous caterer. Watch an Indigenous produced and directed film. Purchase birthday gifts from Indigenous artists and designers. Make a commitment to procure products and services from Indigenous businesses. 

Revisit your own assumptions about your surroundings from your living room by checking out www.whose.land to learn more about Indigenous communities in your region, or whether there was a residential school in operation near where you live now. Maybe you grew up down the street from a residential school and you didn’t know it. 

In any event, regardless of where each of us is on the journey to reconciliation, the challenge is still there. Let us reflect together, on a day set aside for just that. Take what actions are achievable. 

As Justice Lamer of the Supreme Court of Canada put it in his 1997 decision in Delgamuukw: 

“Let us face it, we are all here to stay.” 

So, let’s put in the work to make this work.