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Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin.
Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin.

Lawrence Martin

Why a tough-talking Trump won’t faze Putin Add to ...

Russia must withdraw its support for the “murderous regime” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That was the tough but easy position to take for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

She was climbing aboard the loud and vociferous public opinion bandwagon following the chemical weapons attack by Damascus. More important, with high-stakes economic issues on the table with Washington, she was taking advantage of another opportunity for Ottawa to be onside with the Donald Trump administration.

Many desire regime change in Syria, but what kind of regime to change it to is of course the hellish question. It’s a question no one, including Barack Obama or Justin Trudeau, has wanted to answer given a brutal array of possibilities that include an ISIS-beholden government. Another consideration is precedent. Western-enforced regime change didn’t exactly work wonders in Libya or Iraq.

Opinion: Invisible red lines: How Trump’s mixed signals risk global war

Rules of war are strange. What’s worse? Being killed by poison gas or blown to pieces by bombs and cruise missiles? But Mr. al-Assad crossed the line, dramatically heightening stakes with Russia and the United States in the process. In moving to a position that Mr. al-Assad must go, the Trump administration will look inexcusably feeble if it doesn’t follow up. It would be aping the Obama administration, whose biggest failing on foreign policy was breaking its pledge to move against Mr. al-Assad if he used chemical weapons.

As for Russian President Vladimir Putin, now that he’s ensconced in Damascus, is he one to retreat? The record hardly suggests it. He has many strategic interests in Syria: A naval installation, an air force base, potential energy resources, a base for combatting terrorism. As well, his presence in Syria makes him a more important player in the Middle East.

More significant is that his fortunes are staked on making Russia proud and strong again and it is through his muscle-flexing in foreign affairs that he has given the impression to his people that he is doing it. He can’t quit Syria. He can’t quit Ukraine. He has to continue to punch above his weight. It deflects from the penury at home where deflated oil prices flatten economic hopes.

It’s about the pride of his pride. One thing that struck me about Russians in three years spent there in Soviet times was not only the degree to which they were subjugated but, antithetically, their intrinsic sense of pride. It was attributable to size, the massive land, the reach of empire, the military might, the defeat at such horrendous cost of Hitler’s Germany. If they were downtrodden they still held to be being part of something strong, powerful.

I’d come to Moscow following a few years in Washington, where making the people feel proud was what Ronald Reagan did after the perceived downsizing of America under Jimmy Carter. Following the reticent rationalism of Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump now uses what distortions he can find to cast himself as the author of a return to greatness for his country. In the Trump foreign policy shop, traditionalists and cold-warrior types such as H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, are gaining the upper hand. It is welcome news given the helter-skelter approach of a president who operates with an alarming knowledge deficit.

In any new big power clash, Ms. Freeland, whose animosity toward Mr. Putin knows few bounds, would like to see Canada play more than a role of bystander. Pierre Trudeau was a contrarian who sought to have a disproportionate influence in the Cold War. But Justin Trudeau does not possess his father’s prickly outsider streak and is too much the new kid on the block to start throwing his weight around.

There is also a wild card in the deck that makes policy planning by Ottawa or anyone highly hazardous. The controversy over Russian interference in the U.S. election with the possible collusion of Trump associates could turn out to be inconsequential. It could also turn out to be momentous.

The one constant in the mix is Mr. Putin and his old-school Soviet-like expansionist designs. All that talk of a Trump rapprochement with him is now improbable.

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