Memo to the PM: Treat Putin like Ignatieff

Time to bring out the really effective tools: mockery, derision, deflation.

AFP/Getty Images

AFP/Getty Images

And now a statement from the Prime Minister. Quite a few, in fact.

“Canada is deeply concerned with last night’s developments in Ukraine,” Stephen Harper said in a statement last Dec. 12, after riot police loyal to the decrepit regime of Viktor Yanukovych attacked protesters in Kyiv.

By March, Yanukovych was out of power, but Russian troops had moved into eastern Ukraine. Harper was concerned. “We remain extremely concerned about the ongoing crisis and continue to call for Russia to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said in a statement on March 7. In July, a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet fell out of the sky. Harper (“shocked and saddened”) put out a statement: “We continue to condemn Russia’s military aggression and illegal occupation of Ukraine.”

The July 30 statement (“grave concern”) was a little different, as it was released jointly by all G7 leaders, but the same tone prevailed: “We condemn . . . We demand . . . We call upon all sides . . . We urge . . .”

Taken together, all this grave concern hasn’t had much effect. Russian President Vladimir Putin plainly takes delight in flouting the finger-wagging outrage of the West, and his attitude of cheerful anarchy is paying off: In late July, Gallup measured his approval rating among Russians at 83 per cent.

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Why would Western rhetoric on Putin and Ukraine have any other result? He gets his political strength from the perception that he is willing to stand up to a monolithic, hidebound, malevolent West. Since he started moving against eastern Ukraine, Western leaders have, obligingly, played to type. Putin’s is a classic outsider stance, fuelled by resentment and a sense of historic betrayal: If all the ‘A’ students and the swells in pinstripes hate what he’s doing, he must be doing something right.

If any Western leader should be able to understand this, it’s Stephen Harper. The two men have this much in common, at least. Harper rose to power on a lower-octane variant of Putin’s populist rocket fuel, as did any number of populist outsiders before him—Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, even Jean Chrétien. Harper knows what it’s like to challenge an established order run by graduates of the proper schools, with their snooty attitudes and their complacent assumptions. It’s a really good day for Harper, and for Conservative fundraising, when the Canadian Bar Association, the CBC’s “At Issue” panel, and more than 15 per cent of the University of Toronto’s faculty directory can be prodded to declare that this time, he’s gone too far. So why does he insist on sounding like them?

When the leaders of the G7, with one voice, “call upon Russia to use its influence with the separatist groups and ensure effective border control,” they are asking him to accomplish what none of them can. It’s inherently empowering rhetoric, and its message is: Putin is strong. Putin is in control. Putin provides an effective challenge to the established order, and all anyone can do is beg Putin for favours.

There’s another message, and it has the advantage of being more accurate. It’s that Putin is so weak that he has, alone among Russian leaders in over a century, already lost effective control over almost all of Ukraine. His consolation prize is the shaky allegiance of a bunch of vodka-swilling thugs who pick fights on the steps of backwater town halls and, on a really good day, manage to shoot down a passenger jet by mistake. No wonder his wife, Lyudmila, left him a year ago. He’s a loser.

There’s an arena where Harper and his advisers are masters in the art of wrapping derision around a kernel of truth. That’s domestic politics. In 2006, Harper did away with Paul Martin by announcing five simple priorities for government action, making Martin look scattershot and impulsive. In 2008, the Conservative ad machine questioned Stéphane Dion’s competence as a leader; in 2011, they questioned Michael Ignatieff’s loyalty to Canada, a country they said he was “just visiting.”

This is common practice in domestic political campaigning. In his autobiography, Tony Blair explains how he defeated a bunch of British Conservative leaders. “I defined [John] Major as weak; [William] Hague as better at jokes than judgment; [Michael] Howard as an opportunist . . . Expressed like that, these attacks seem flat, rather mundane almost, and not exactly inspiring—but that’s their appeal. Any one of those charges, if it comes to be believed, is actually fatal. Yes, it’s not like calling your opponent a liar, or a fraud, or a villain or a hypocrite, but the middle-ground floating voters kind of shrug their shoulders at those claims. They don’t chime. They’re too over the top, too heavy, and they represent an insult, not an argument. Whereas the lesser charge, because it’s more accurate and precisely because it’s more low-key, can stick. And if it does, that’s that. Because in each case, it means [he’s] not a good leader. So game over.”

Sometimes, I suspect leaders engaging in foreign policy actually have no intention of being effective. They want to strike a highfalutin tone for domestic consumption. They don’t actually expect the world to change. But if I’m wrong, and Harper’s goal is actually to influence events in Russia and Eastern Europe, then it’s time to bring out the really effective tools: mockery, derision, deflation. The bureaucrats and foreign-policy lifers have had their chance. It’s time for Harper to sic his campaign team on Putin.

As a bonus, the CBC and the University of Toronto faculty will have a fit.


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