Stephen Harper and his German counterpart Angela Merkel cemented their resolve to stand up to Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Berlin, but the Group of Seven’s two most senior members offered markedly different views on the prospects for future relations with Russia.
Mr. Harper, speaking at a joint news conference with the German Chancellor, said he thinks it would be very difficult for Russia to rejoin the Group of Eight under Mr. Putin.
The Prime Minister said he believes that Russians, and in particular the younger generation of Russians, share the values of the West and want to be partners. He said the view of most Western powers is that they will some day have “common interests and the projection of common values on the international scene.”
The problem, he said, is the current President of Russia.
“The difficulty, of course, is that, notwithstanding all of our efforts to make Mr. Putin a partner, he has not desired to be a partner. He has desired to be a rival,” Mr. Harper told reporters at a news conference with Ms. Merkel.
“That is just the reality we have to come to terms with,” the Prime Minister said, adding later that Mr. Putin “has created a rivalry instead of a partnership.”
Ms. Merkel, the chief intermediary for the West with Mr. Putin – she can speak Russian and he can speak German – sounded more sanguine on prospects for resolving the conflict over Crimea.
“I am quite relaxed – let’s put it that way,” she told reporters.
While Ms. Merkel has agreed to present a united front with Canada and other allies on the resolve to impose sanctions should Russia escalate the crisis, she offered a more measured take on prospects for winding down the conflict over Crimea.
She is holding out hope that the West’s warning of sanctions could by itself make a difference.
“We’re trying through talks and also through announcing what we’re going to do, we’re trying to win the other side over to pursue a course where it is allowed [for] Ukraine to take its own sovereign political decisions,” the German Chancellor told reporters.
Mr. Harper’s comments were echoed in Ottawa by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who invoked the legacy of former prime minister John Diefenbaker to back up his government’s approach to the crisis in Ukraine. Mr. Diefenbaker was “on the right side” of history when he fought back against Soviet communism, Mr. Baird said, adding that the former Canadian leader stood for the kind of principled values that today’s Conservative government is working to promote abroad.
Mr. Baird also said he plans to travel to Moldova next week to show Canada’s support for the former Soviet state, which is wedged between Ukraine and Romania. Moldova’s government has expressed fear that the separatist region of Trans-Dniester could be annexed by Russia.
Germany’s reluctance to write off Mr. Putin may be related to its stronger dependence on Russia. Ms. Merkel said Germany depends on Russia for 35 per cent of its natural gas needs. She’s also facing pressure from big German businesses to avoid a confrontation with Russia. The CEO of Siemens this week met with Mr. Putin in Moscow and pledged a long-term commitment to investing there.
Mr. Harper is on the last day of a European trip that began with a visit to Kiev to show support for the beleaguered Ukrainian government and continued in The Hague where G7 leaders announced they had cut Russia from their coalition of industrial powers over its illegal annexation of Crimea.
Mr. Harper said he feels Mr. Putin would have to thoroughly overhaul his approach to foreign affairs before coming back to the G8.
“Personally, and I only speak for Canada here, I don’t see any way of a return of Mr. Putin to the table unless Russia fundamentally changes course on its orientation towards the world,” he said.
Ms. Merkel was more open to Russia returning to the G8. “The G8 can only happen if there is a certain, conducive atmosphere and part of that … is a common understanding of international law and shared value.”
Ms. Merkel said she hopes “we don’t need” more sanctions against Russia and spoke in reassuring tones about what she’s asking of Moscow in terms of ending its interference in Kiev’s affairs.
“It is not as if all of these decisions need to be against Russia but that Ukraine is in position to make its own decisions: For example, free and fair elections, elect a president … and to pursue trade and economic links with all of those partners they wish to have,” Ms. Merkel said.
“This is a very simple demand and a very clear demand.”
The crisis in Ukraine began last fall when the country’s pro-Russian president balked at deal forging greater political and trade ties with the European Union and instead accepted a bailout from Moscow. Months of ensuing demonstrations and clashes led to Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country and Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea.
Mr. Harper flies back to Canada on Friday.
With a report from Kim Mackrael in Ottawa