Stephen Harper will use a trip to Europe this week to fight any impulse on the part of Western leaders to normalize relations with Russia, reprising his role as the most vocal hawk on Vladimir Putin among the Group of Seven industrialized countries.
The Prime Minister’s first stop will drive this point home. At at time when Europe is embroiled in a new Cold War over Russian aggression in Ukraine, Mr. Harper is travelling to Warsaw to celebrate the Polish Day of Freedom, which marks the 25th anniversary of Poland’s emergence from Communist rule and a significant milestone in the fall of the Soviet Union.
In the run-up to a G7 meeting in Brussels that will be dominated by the Ukraine crisis, Mr. Harper will meet with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whom the Harper government considers a fellow traveller on Russia-Ukraine policy. Poland is hosting NATO exercises designed to deter any expansionist moves by Moscow, and Mr. Tusk is pitching European leaders to form a natural-gas purchasing bloc as a means of thwarting Russia’s “energy stranglehold” over continental countries.
Mr. Harper, described by Conservative sources as a Cold War warrior at heart – one who’s never trusted Russia under Mr. Putin – is well aware his continued hard line on Moscow plays well both with one million Canadians of Ukrainian descent and Polish Canadians.
He will be able to bring Mr. Tusk’s concerns as a regional neighbour of Russia’s to the June 4-5 Group of Seven meeting, where leaders will be grappling with how to develop a united strategy that goes beyond the relatively narrow and limited sanctions the West has imposed on companies and individuals in Mr. Putin’s inner circle.
Europe is divided on what to do about Moscow, with Germany unwilling to risk its vital economic relationship with Russia even as the West sees Mr. Putin’s hand in the pro-Kremlin separatist movements clashing with Kiev in eastern Ukraine.
On May 27, European Union leaders put off further sanctions against Russia, citing Mr. Putin’s signalling his apparent willlingness to deal with new Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko.
“The new conventional wisdom in European capitals and Washington is that the limp package of sanctions worked, so to speak, and they have stopped Putin from invading the rest of Ukraine or subverting the recent elections,” said Fen Hampson, a director at the Ontario-based Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Mr. Harper, by contrast, would prefer a tougher line, Canadian officials say. “Without a doubt we will be pushing for more sanctions,” one official said. “The Prime Minister does not want to return to normal.”
The G7 is expected to unveil more commitments to help put Ukraine’s economy on a more stable footing and lessen its reliance on energy supplies from Russia-- which could badly hurt Kiev by turning off the natural gas pipeline shipments.
John Kirton, co-director of the University of Toronto’s G20 Research Group, expects the G7 to state firmly that existing sanctions will remain in place until Crimea is returned to Ukraine. He also expects more specific conditions for the triggering of future sanctions. Plus, he anticipates another financial aid package to help Ukraine’s new president-elect.
“This would be a very profound expression that we are backing Poroshenko not just with words but money,” Prof. Kirton said.
In an effort to isolate Moscow, the G8 made itself into the G7 in March, cutting out Russia.
It’s not working, as this coming week will demonstrate. On June 6, Mr. Putin will end up sharing a stage in Normandy, France, with many of the G7 leaders as Russia joins the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day landings that marked a turning point in the Second World War.
French President François Hollande, whose country is selling warships to Russia, has already agreed to meet with Mr. Putin ahead of the commemoration, the first time a Western leader has met with since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March. “Putin is still persona grata, at least as far as European leaders are concerned. Hollande’s meeting with him more or less cements that,” Mr. Hampson said.
During a news conference last weekend, Mr. Putin said he’d be happy to meet with Mr. Harper during the Normandy commemorations. Canada is refusing the offer.
“The Prime Minister has no plans to meet with Putin or talk to him in Normandy,” said Jason MacDonald, PMO director of communications. “The Putin regime is clear on our position: They need to withdraw from Ukraine, including Crimea.”
The Russian government, for its part, says Canada’s policy on Ukraine is irrational. “We are just hearing the Cold War rhetoric from your government which does not contribute to the settlement of the crisis. Instead it’s just increasing the tension,” Andrey Grebenshchikov, the second secretary of the Russian embasssy in Canada’s political section, said.
“You’ve got a very black and white picture of what is happening on the ground. Canada, as other western partners, tends to legitimize only one side in this crisis.”