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Harper’s tough talk against Russia is “fluff” in light of defence cuts, Liberal senator says

It could be argued that no other world leader has matched Stephen Harper's vim and vigour in publicly slamming Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Just last weekend, Canada's prime minister even took the unusual step of penning an op-ed article berating Russia over the annexation of Crimea and their alleged role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

"Russia’s aggressive militarism and expansionism are a threat to more than just Ukraine," Harper wrote for the Globe and Mail.

"They are a threat to Europe, to the rule of law and to the values that bind Western nations. Canada will not stand idly by in the face of this threat."

But as Liberal Senator Colin Kenny points out those words are just "fluff" unless "Canada is willing to put its money where its mouth is."

It’s nice to hear strong words condemning Putin’s perfidy in Ukraine. But they ring a bit hollow when they mask not-so-nice weakness in this country’s capacity to back them up.
— Liberal Senator Colin Kenny

"This government – which swaggers around in fatigues, pretending to be a friend of the Canadian Forces – has a lot to answer for when it comes to maintaining a military that can play its role in the world when these kinds of crises arise," Kenny — formerly the chair of the Senate Committee on National Defence — wrote in his op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen.

"Never has a government talked such big talk about investing in its military while allowing it to erode so dramatically."

Kenny argues that defence spending has gone down in recent years from 1.4 per cent of GDP in 2009 to 1.0 per cent in 2013; he claims we spend less on defence than Denmark and Sweden.

"When you maintain personnel numbers and order cuts of 20 per cent in operations and maintenance expenditures, you’re creating a dysfunctional organization that can’t do what it is supposed to do," he wrote.

"It’s nice to hear strong words condemning Putin’s perfidy in Ukraine. But they ring a bit hollow when they mask not-so-nice weakness in this country’s capacity to back them up."

[ Related: ‘The world is a mess,’ good news for Stephen Harper’s re-election hopes ]

For its part, the government defends their record on defence.

"Our government has made unprecedented investments to rebuild the Canadian Armed Forces. After a decade of darkness under the previous Liberal government, we have increased the defence budget by over 27 per cent to ensure our men and women have the tools they need to succeed," Johanna Quinney, a spokesperson for Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, told Yahoo Canada News.

"Our continued investments will ensure that the Canadian Armed Forces is able to defend Canada and protect our borders, maintain sovereignty over our northern lands and waters, fight along side our allies and respond to emergencies within Canada and around the world. Unlike the previous government, we will continue to ensure that our men and women in uniform have the equipment they need to protect Canadian interests at home and abroad."

Moreover, Canada did recently send troops for a military exercise in Eastern Europe as part of the NATO's response to Russia's aggression in the region. The government also committed six Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 fighter aircrafts and up to 20 staff officers to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe to assist NATO planning efforts.

Overall, however, Canada's military budgets have been squeezed in recent years.

But they're not alone.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States cut their defence budget and other western countries have scaled back spending.

"The fall in U.S. spending in 2013, by 7.8 per cent, is the result of the end of the war in Iraq, the beginning of the drawdown from Afghanistan, and the effects of automatic budget cuts passed by the U.S. Congress in 2011," notes SIPRI's April 2014 report.

"Meanwhile, austerity policies continued to determine trends in western and central Europe and in other western countries."

Conversely, military spending in emerging and developing countries continues to rise significantly.

"China, Russia and Saudi Arabia — all made substantial increases, with Saudi Arabia leapfrogging the United Kingdom, Japan and France to become the world’s fourth-largest military spender," the study says.

"China, Russia and Saudi Arabia are among the 23 countries around the world that have more than doubled their military expenditure since 2004."

Perhaps that's something the West — not just Canada — needs to keep an eye on?

(Photo courtesy The Canadian Press)

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