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Russian President Vladimir Putin, seen here on March 4, 2020, and his country 'represent the greatest short-term threat to North America,' Lieutenant-General Christopher Coates said.SPUTNIK/Reuters

Canada’s top general says Russia poses the most immediate military threat to this country and the international community today, while China represents a significant risk for cyber attacks.

Speaking to the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence on Wednesday, General Jonathan Vance said the rules-based international order is threatened by Russia and China on a daily basis. He cited Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and its disinformation campaigns, as well as China’s “malign activities” in cyberspace.

“The most immediate state-sponsored military threat, if I could caveat it that way, that we face right now and today in physical space is Russia. I would say that China poses a more credible threat in cyberspace right now,” Gen. Vance said.

Defence and security experts who spoke at the conference earlier Wednesday echoed that warning regarding Russia, urging democracies, including Canada, to step up their response to the threat.

Lieutenant-General Christopher Coates, the Canadian deputy commander of North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), said North America is “no longer a sanctuary” and cannot rely on its geography to protect the continent from international security threats. Although Lt.-Gen. Coates highlighted Russia’s development of long-range precision weapons, he expressed more concern about the strategic threats posed by the “shifting balance of power” around the world.

“Russia today represents the greatest short-term threat to North America,” Lt.-Gen. Coates said.

“The threats that we face as Canadians are perhaps not the military system that are pointed towards us in North America but the shift in the ... rules-based international order.”

Latvia’s state secretary of defence, Janis Garisons, is on the forefront of resistance against Russian aggression, as his country has endured cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns from Moscow. Speaking to the conference, he said Russia has a knack for exploiting cyber weaknesses, as it has in Latvia, and said democracies are not resilient enough to combat the attacks.

Mr. Garisons thanked Canada for its military commitment to deter Russian aggression in the Baltics as a part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission in the region. The deployment is Canada’s largest international military operation, engaging 540 soldiers, 240 sailors and 135 Air Force members.

Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based public policy think tank, used a football analogy to explain the state of Russian aggression.

“We are collectively ... standing around waiting for the next play to start while the ball is actually live and the Russians are running back toward our goal. This is not an interwar period. The war is on,” he said.

Canada is more influential than it thinks when it comes to combatting Russian aggression, Dr. Kagan said, as it has a larger gross domestic product than Russia. But he said Canada has yet to fully exert that power.

“You [Canada] have a lot of opinions about what the world order should be but relatively little interest in actually engaging to make it so,” Dr. Kagan said.

Canada has imposed sanctions on more than 430 Russian individuals and entities since 2014, and repeatedly condemned Russia’s aggression in the region.

In response to a request for comment, the Russian embassy in Ottawa referenced a tweet from December, which said the “fake Russian threat is used to justify even more waste of taxpayers dollars” on other countries’ defence spending.

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