With the World Turning Against Him, Putin’s Going to Need a Way Out

By Dick Fadden

Mr. Richard B. Fadden is former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada. He previously served as Deputy Minister of National Defence and was the Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service from 2009 to 2013. He is now a Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

The Cipher Brief spoke with former Canadian National Security Advisor and former Deputy Minister of National Defence Richard B. Fadden about the risks and challenges of Putin’s aggressive actions in Ukraine.  And With the world turning against him, Fadden says the Russian President is going to need a way out.

Fadden: I think a lot of us had the hope that Crimea was a one off for President Putin. His actions in Ukraine demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt, that something has to be done to register with him that he cannot continue to do this. This is a threat, not just to Ukraine, but to the whole planet. But in particular, to the West.

We have to ask ourselves whether sanctions we’ve put into place are really going to change his way of dealing things with things.  The answer is clearly, no. They’re a darn sight better than what we did after Crimea, and I think that’s a good thing. But I don’t think our leaders, President Biden, Prime Minister Trudeau and Prime Minister Johnson, have been registering enough that sanctions actually have costs for us, too.

In a democracy if the people don’t register this, support will go away very quickly. I think they’ve made a very good case that Russia has to be stopped, but they haven’t said, for example, that Canada’s just blocked Russian air flights over our territory. Moscow will reciprocate and it’s going to complicate things here as much as it is in Europe. There will be costs.  Oil and gas is already being disrupted. I think we need to accept that if we’re going to make this work – and it doesn’t mean we have to go to war – but we have to do something and it’s going to cost us.

The Cipher Brief:  What do you think some of those other options would be? It seems like NATO is possibly moving closer to an article five consideration, which would allow for collective defense, but certainly would escalate the crisis.  We’ve seen changes in Germany’s position in the last three days that have been transformative in terms of their approach to Russia. What else do you think should be done that would be helpful at this point?

Fadden:  That’s a tough question because what we can do comes with risk of escalation, and escalation is in the hands of Russia and they can be pretty unreasonable. I don’t think they’re about to use their nuclear forces, but the fact that Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert, is not uplifting. The most we can do in the short term is continue with these sanctions, we have to stick together. And I think we in North America, have to remember that it’s much, much more costly for our European friends than it is for us. We’re a long way away from what’s happening when you think about the risk to oil and gas in particular for Germany, but also for other countries in Europe.  We may be heading into spring now but we have to start thinking about the international oil and gas supply system. It’s a national security issue, it’s not just a convenience.

I do think NATO’s decision to activate the 40,000 person rapid deployment force is a good idea. Canada and the US have to move some troops to Europe to start reinforcing this and then continue to support Ukraine in any shape, way, and fashion that we can. President Biden approved $350 million in military aid. I understand the ingenuity of the US, but it’s going to take some doing to get it there in order to be effective.

We have to consider the short to medium term and keep at this consistently. In the short term, they may need money. Maybe our various countries should just make funds available to them. And accepting refugees is important.  Canada said it would accept anyone, the Hungarians have said they’ve accepted people and Poland is certainly accepting people.

On a broader scale, I can’t think of anything that would stop the Russians in their tracks.  People have argued that one of the great benefits of this is to reinforce NATO.  That’s probably true, and I’ve been surprised that a couple of members have been as supportive as they have been, Hungary comes to mind. But that’s a very good thing and I think we have to keep reinforcing this and seeing what we can do.  If there was a silver bullet, smarter people would’ve thought of it already. So, I think it’s consistency and pushing over time, is important.

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The Cipher Brief: The nuclear threat is an interesting play here. Is this something that you would expect from the Russian leader or did this come out of left field and if it did, what might that mean about what’s still ahead?

Fadden: I wasn’t surprised because Putin operates without any controls whatsoever. That’s one of the big problems with Russia today as compared to Soviet Union times.  There are no checks and balances. It’s whatever is going on in Mr. Putin’s mind. I wasn’t surprised he made the threat. Whatever we may all think of Putin, I don’t think he’s crazy. I don’t think he will use nuclear weapons, but given the threat being relayed on social media and elsewhere, it’s going to scare the living daylights out of a lot of people. We have to find a way to contain, not just the kinetic warfare that’s going on in Ukraine, but the cognitive warfare and the disinformation that has been going on for some time. Our leaders should address this more than they have, because if you don’t reassure people, their ability to lead us down the path we’re going – is going to be constrained. It’s just simply the way it is.

Without wishing to be unkind to the United States, I don’t think the comments by former President Trump are particularly helpful. He wasn’t helpful during the Crimea, but the worrisome part is that there are a lot of people who support his view.  There are people with similar views here in Canada.  Somehow, we’re going to have to find a way to deal with these extreme views that support what Russia’s is doing. That boggles my mind almost as much as Mr. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

The Cipher Brief:  We are seeing some resistance inside of Russia from Putin’s own people.  There have been numerous crackdowns and arrests.  How significant would an uprising by the Russian people be in changing Putin’s course of action in Ukraine?

Fadden: I don’t think they have a heck of a lot. I was listening to a podcast with The Economist’s bureau chief in Moscow and he said that one of the things that surprised him the most about this is that the Russian propaganda machine did not prepare the Russian people for the invasion of Ukraine. That explains in part, I think, why Putin is getting pushback from individuals and the limited free press they have. The last time I looked there were more than 3,000 people who had been arrested. So, I don’t think Putin’s basic position is going to be affected.

But I would argue that if you put the resistance of the Ukrainians, in with the unity of the West, it’s going to become over time, rather toxic for Putin. He’s not just going to sway from one moment to the next, but it may impact over the medium term, our ability to slow him down.

Another thing I think is important is that as much as it would feel good for the west to push him into a corner, I think that would be very unwise. We have to find a way without compromising our principles, to allow him to withdraw. Right now, I understand there are a lot of people who are sufficiently annoyed, the best thing from their perspective would be to push him in a corner. But I’m hoping that our leaders are farsighted enough to say, yes, we’re going to stop him but somehow, he must find a way out. I’m not a psychiatrist, but it seems to me that somebody particularly like Mr. Putin, will need that way out.

The Cipher Brief:  What are your thoughts on how the China-Russia alliance has played out over the past weeks and days?

Fadden:  That’s a good question. I would not use the word alliance. I think their current relationship is tactical, not strategic. Putin has to be careful what he does in terms of irritating the Chinese. They abstained in the security council veto, which is significant because they could quite easily have joined the veto. Their last few statements have called on all parties to act reasonably. I think in the medium to long term, China doesn’t share Russian’s view of the kind of world they want. There is no argument that China wants a different kind of world, but they still want a world with some sort of international order in it. I don’t think that’s high on Mr. Putin’s agenda.

I do worry about China though. I hope Mr. Biden, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Trudeau and President Macron, are calling President Xi and making the point that what we are concerned with here is not his relationship with Russia, it’s his behavior in this circumstance, and making the point that it’s not in China’s interest. Are they going to come out and all of a sudden quasi join NATO? I don’t think so. But I don’t worry too much about it because it’s not in China’s interest right now to be seen as being too closely aligned with Russia.

The Cipher Brief:  I want to come back to something you mentioned earlier, the oil and gas supplies, how they are being impacted and that this is really a national security issue. We’ve seen companies like FedEx and UPS that are suspending shipments to Russia.  We are now seeing Switzerland weigh the pros and cons of freezing accounts. These are things that we wouldn’t have imagined would’ve happened a couple of weeks ago. How big of an issue will the economic effect of this be on national security?

Fadden:  It’s going to be significant because if the sanctions – both those that we have now and those that we’re contemplating – are kept in place long enough, there will be consequences. One example:  aircraft from Canada and the United States that used to fly over Russia to get to the Middle East are now going to have to add a heck of a premium to their fares because they’re going to have to spend more on gas. Canada doesn’t do a particularly large amount of business with Russia, a couple hundred million a year. It’s not significant for us, but for the people who are directly involved, it is significant.

And the real impact will be felt in two ways. One is in Europe, as we talked about a minute ago, it will impact oil and gas, but Europe has far more exchanges with Russia than Canada and the United States do, economic, social and political. This is also a tough challenge for the French who have been trying very hard to build bridges. They seem to be going along with the sanctions, so that’s going to cost them, too.

The other consequence is going to be what we’ve seen out of Germany. The Chancellor’s indicated they’re increasing the defense budget by 100 billion euros. That’s a lot of money. There’s going to be pressure in Canada to do the same, and I suspect in other countries. So, if you’re doing this, you can’t spend money on social programs and on a whole bunch of other things. COVID has cost the economy a lot of money.

The economic costs of this will be quite substantial. And if they become overly significant, there will be pressure on our governments to compensate the private sector. Whether we do or not is another issue, but for some countries it’s relatively easy to do, for others it’s going to be quite a bit more difficult. The countries that I worry about the most are the NATO countries, the Baltic states and the Nordic states.  They have a fair bit of trade with Russia, and they have a fair number of exchanges that are impacted by a sudden border closure. They’re spending far more on defense than they used to and this boils down to economic issues. I think they will be quite significant.

The Cipher Brief:  Any closing thoughts or perhaps things you’ll be looking for in the next couple of days, or if you’re like us, have you just thrown up your hands and say surprise me, because there have been so many surprises over the last couple days?

Fadden: I’m a bit like you because I don’t think anybody has a perfect crystal ball. What has surprised me a lot is the level of resistance by the Ukrainian forces and by the people of Ukraine. These are lives we’re talking about, and I don’t know how long they can sustain this. People have been going on a great deal about the great nationalism felt by the Ukrainians, and from what I gather that’s true, but we don’t want tens and tens of thousands of people to be killed or maimed because of this. The New York Times reported recently that there was a 29-hour line up at the Polish border to leave Ukraine, only women and children, because they’re not allowing men to leave the country.

All of this together suggests that the Russians are going to be made to pay a price. At some point, it will become noticeable, and one of two things may happen. The Russians may decide they’ve been holding back too much, and they’ll hit Ukraine harder, which I think they have the capacity to do militarily.  The other option is that they will decide this isn’t quite worth it. And then I come back to my point about finding some way to let Putin out of this corner without him feeling entirely defeated.

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