Whether it’s sharp differences over gay rights, political meddling in Ukraine or controversy over same sex adoptions, there’s no shortage of acrimony between Canada and Russia these days.
But it’s not all bad, insists Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird — himself an outspoken critic of Russia’s so-called anti-gay law — because he says the two countries are getting along just fine in one important area: the Arctic.
“On the Arctic and other issues, we can and have worked well,” Baird said a recent interview. “I have a professional relationship with my Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
“I don’t agree with him on some things. But he’s a smart, experienced and effective foreign minister for his government.”
Baird’s careful diplomatic language comes in the face of some other, more recent tough talk from him on those three other major irritants in the Canada-Russia relationship as the Winter Olympics in Sochi are set to begin next month.
Baird has publicly lambasted Russia for its anti-gay legislation, and has written to Lavrov about the matter. He also joined anti-Russian protesters on the streets of the Ukraine capital of Kyiv on a recent visit. The government has also been critical of a Russian law that bans Canadian adoptions because same-sex marriage is legal in this country.
Baird’s conciliatory approach on the Arctic also comes because it is a key part of the Harper government’s agenda: developing Canada’s untapped northern economic potential, including vast deposits of undiscovered oil and gas.
That makes Canada and Russia allies, in part because they are members of the Arctic Council, the eight-country body that Canada has recently assumed the chair of for two years.
Last month, after Canada made a sweeping claim to the United Nations of a large swath of the Atlantic seabed and the Arctic Ocean, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a show of assigning more military assets to his country’s Far North.
Baird’s office held its powder, saying Canada would “continue our co-operation with our partners in the Arctic, as a responsible neighbour should.”
One leading expert on Arctic affairs said it makes for good strategy for Baird and the Conservatives to put on a happy face when talking to Moscow on Arctic issues, as long as they’re working hard to strengthen Canada’s foothold in the region.
Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary said that while the Harper government is making nice with Moscow on the Arctic, it must get serious about delivering on the military assets it has promised as part of its northern strategy.
That means delivering ships and overhead surveillance that would be seen as a counter to Russia’s military build-up, and an assertion of Canada’s sovereignty.
“I think that ultimately that history tells us you’ve got to be able to defend your own interests and values,” Huebert said.
“The worst thing would be to put on a smiley face and hope for the best. The best thing to do is put on a smiley face and get serious about our own capabilities. If you’re putting on a smiley face to work out and to buy time, that’s the strategy you need to have.”
Russia’s military build-up is all about reinforcing its nuclear deterrent, not racing to be the first to lay claim undersea reserves of oil and gas, he added.
“If you read all of the Russian documentation and you talk to any Russian off the record, they’ll tell you the number one security requirement of Russia is to protect its nuclear deterrent.”
Other countries — notably Arctic Council member Norway — recognize this, Huebert said, and Canada should be following their lead on pursuing their investment on military resources for the north.
Norway has recently made two of its largest defence expenditures, he noted.
“This is a country that’s been invaded by the Germans, faced a direct invasion threat from the Soviet Union, and yet it’s in the post-Soviet era where they turn around and spend a vast fortune rebuilding both their air force and their navy for a very, very combat capable capacity.”
But keeping a level-headed course with Russia on the Arctic is not easy for Baird and his fellow ministers, Huebert said.
He said Canada has stayed largely silent, in public at least, on Putin’s crackdown on Russia’s own indigenous northern people because diplomats are likely working behind the scenes to improve the situation.
“Baird probably didn’t want to rock the boat. You never saw Baird making a strong condemnation of that, though I’ve heard consistently off the record that Canadian officials, including Baird, were outraged by what the Russians are doing.”
For his part, Baird said he doesn’t shy away from raising the tougher issues directly with Lavrov, the veteran Russian foreign minister who has Putin’s ear.
“In St. Petersburg at the G20, we had a long discussion about human rights, and about their policies on sexual minorities,” he said. “I’m never hesitant or reluctant to raise these issues.”
But doesn’t that make it difficult to keep a cool head on the Arctic?
Baird replies with a wry smile: “Challenges and problems — it’s what keeps us in business here.”
Follow us on Twitter: