Countering the threat that Russian President Vladimir Putin poses to democracies around the world will require those countries to confront floundering faith in public institutions among their citizens, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday.
“Vladimir Putin is undoubtedly a threat to Ukrainians, and to people outside their borders. Even as we are clear-eyed about the challenges he presents, we mustn’t despair,” Trudeau said in a keynote address to the Munich Security Conference in Berlin, Germany.
“Democracy is always stronger than authoritarianism,” he added, before noting: “If we’re going to be honest with each other, democracy hasn’t exactly been at its best.”
Since Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Western leaders have repeatedly emphasized that the Russian president underestimated the resolve of democratic countries and the NATO military alliance to respond.
Myriad rounds of sanctions are now in place against Russia, targeting the wealth of Putin and his inner circle as well as Russian companies and banks — including the Russian central bank that Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland frequently describes as Putin’s “war chest.”
The result has been a collapse in the value of the Russian currency and deep economic shockwaves, including ripple effects on the price of gas in the West.
Trudeau said Western leaders are united in their resolve to make Putin pay for his invasion of sovereign Ukraine. But he said it is crucial for democracies to take stock of the rising apathy, cynicism, declining voter turnout and misinformation that is plaguing their citizenries.
“It’s our job to rebuild that trust, to give people reasons to have faith in our institutions, to get involved in civic life,” Trudeau said.
“We can’t let fear, anxiety and envy overcome the hope, the earnest optimism, that is necessary for democracies to thrive. We can’t settle for simplistic answers to complex problems. We can’t let nativism distract from the hard work of building better systems.”
He added, “These challenges are not easy for any of us, but addressing them head on is essential.”
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Sigmar Gabriel, former German vice-chancellor and chairman of the think-tank Atlantik-Brücke, spoke just before Trudeau at the conference and described the situation facing the world as a new “dark ages.”
“Until 10 days ago, we did not want to believe that Vladimir Putin would dare to invade its neighbour,” Gabriel said. “He wants to determine the future and fate of Europe again, and it’s not the old Soviet Union that serves as his model for this — it’s tsarist Russia.”
The Munich Security Conference is taking place just steps from the Brandenburg Gate.
Until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the gate stood at the boundary between East Berlin and West Berlin. As Gabriel noted in his remarks, it was before the gate that former U.S. president Ronald Reagan demanded of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “Tear down this wall.”
“No other buildings represent this difficult and war-torn history of Europe and Germany better than the Brandenburg Gate,” Gabriel said.
“Throughout the Cold War, it was the symbol of a world divided; a world in which two ideological blocks stood face-to-face, threatening mutually assured destruction with nuclear weapons. But it also stands for the ability to overcome dark ages.”
The question facing leaders now increasingly appears to be whether they can do so.
Members of the House of Commons defence committee on Wednesday heard testimony from Canadian government and military officials about what to make of an apparent pause in Russian advances.
While the shelling has continued, a large convoy seen on the road towards Kyiv has remained largely in place on the road for days amid questions about why Russia hasn’t advanced more quickly.
“Our assessment is that Mr. Putin’s campaign is not going the way he had envisioned,” said Maj.-Gen. Paul Prévost, director of staff for the Canadian Forces’ Strategic Joint Staff.
“We see the same as you see in the media we see on the intelligence side. They’re running into logistics problems, military issues. They were expecting to maybe have a bit more control of the airspace, their equipment is failing.”
Prévost was asked whether the military has any theories for why that might be.
“We do have a sense of this. Unfortunately some of it is classified,” he said, but did note that perhaps the Russian military — despite having a large number of resources in Ukraine — is not very modern.
“There’s always been a recognition that they may have a large force that is not very modern.”
There’s also the likelihood that Putin is currently assessing his next steps, Prévost told the committee.
“I think he’s reassessing,” he said, pointing to “more and more talks happening between Russia and Ukraine.”
At the same time, Canadian officials are keeping a close eye on what Putin may do next.
Kevin Hamilton, director general of international security policy with Global Affairs Canada, said any potential scenarios he could lay out to the committee would be “speculative.”
But he noted one of the concerns being increasingly raised if the potential for more violence.
“There is a risk that, as egregious as this war has been to date, he could resort to options that are even more lethal,” Hamilton said. “So that’s an issue we’re alive to.”
Ukraine on Wednesday accused Russia of bombing a children’s hospital in the besieged port of Mariupol during an agreed ceasefire to enable civilians trapped in the city to escape.
The local city council said the hospital had been hit several times by an air strike.
“The destruction is colossal,” it said in an online post.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called it an “atrocity,” and said “people, children are under the wreckage.”
A spokesperson for the Kremlin told Reuters: “Russian forces do not fire on civilian targets.”
With a file from Reuters.