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Poking the Russian Bear; Pretending You Have a Stick.

Ottawa Citizen - July 31, 2014

Montreal Gazette - July 31, 2014

Victoria Times-Colonist - August 4, 2014

By Colin Kenny

Stephen Harper likes to poke the bear – a.k.a. Vladimir Putin.

The Canadian prime minister has slammed Putin’s “expansionism and militarism” and called the Russian president a “throwback” to the evil mindset of the Soviet Union.

In terms of the words Mr. Harper uses, I appreciate his forthright condemnation of Putin’s behaviour in Ukraine. The 20th century was an ugly one for Europe, and the world can’t afford leaders colouring outside the lines when it comes to annexing territory or messing with the internal affairs of its neighbours.

Historians J.L. Granatstein and William Kaplan have co-authored an article applauded the Canadian prime minister for being ahead of the pack in identifying Putin’s nasty behaviour in Ukraine, outing him as “a Stalinist using Nazi big lie techniques and Soviet-era disinformation tactics to camouflage his government’s actions and shift blame.”

They commended Harper’s exhortations to Canada’s allies to mobilize to counter Russian expansionism – to activate NATO and to impose economic sanctions to make Putin think twice about throwing his weight around. All good.

But these words are fluff unless Canada is willing to put its money where it’s mouth is when it comes to standing up to the Putins of this world.

This government – which swaggers around in fatigues, pretending to be a friend of the Canadian Forces – has a lot to answer for when it comes to maintaining a military that can play its role in the world when these kinds of crises arise.

Canada’s defence budget as a percentage of GDP peaked at 2.0 percent under the Trudeau government. It went into steady decline under the Chrétien Liberals, looked like it would bounce a bit when the Harper government came to power, then plummeted, dropping from 1.4 percent in 2009 – according to the World Bank – to 1.0 percent in 2013. Based on a number of signals that the government is going to keep tightening its military spending, that downward spiral is going to continue.

Canadians don’t expect their governments to spend as much on their armed forces as countries like Russia (4.2 percent of GDP) and the United States (3.8 percent). But when non-combative countries like Norway (1.4 percent), Denmark (1.4 percent) and Sweden (1.2 percent) are spending more, you know you have a government that’s putting the squeeze on our military.

The Department of National Defence is currently being hounded by Treasury Board, which had designed a system that makes it impossible for DND to manage its budget. As a result, the military keeps falling behind in equipment purchases and capacity keeps declining. The government could put an end to this stalemate if it wished to, but instead seems delighted that it is pocketing the unspent money to meet its deficit-fighting promises. Canadians already have a small military and it just keeps shrinking.

Never has a government talked such big talk about investing in the Canadian Forces while allowing them to erode so dramatically.  Canada’s navy, for instance, is going to be without a lot of essential ships after this government has left the scene. The same applies to key aircraft for the air force.

It’s nice to hear strong words condemning Putin’s perfidy in Ukraine. But they ring a bit hollow when they mask not-so-nice weakness in this country’s capacity to back them up.

 (Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca)