Stephen Harper’s visit to Europe this week has cemented his reputation as the leading hawk on relations between Russia and the West among Group of Seven industrial powers and the most zealous ally of a new Ukraine government considered wholly illegitimate by Moscow.
In the debate over how to respond to Vladimir Putin’s moves to destabilize Ukraine, the Canadian leader cast his lot with Kiev and left little nuance in his words or deeds.
While Mr. Harper’s black-and-white approach to Ukraine may be rooted in domestic politics – a million Canadians have Ukrainian backgrounds – it is also another example of the “moral compass” Conservative foreign policy that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird touted in a speech on Thursday.
“Some may think it’s simplistic to talk in terms of right and wrong,” Mr. Baird told his department this week in an address. “And yet … every ship needs a compass.”
And so, by the time Group of Seven industrial powers formally turned their backs on Russia’s President over his annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, suspending the G8 until Moscow “changes course,” Mr. Harper was already going further.
He journeyed to Kiev to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk – becoming the first G7 leader to visit the beleaguered country since the crisis began – and pledged to restart talks on a free-trade deal. Even as Russian troops gathered on Ukraine’s doorstep, Mr. Harper blasted Russia, saying it is trying to return the world to “the law of the jungle,” called for a “complete reversal” of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and advocated kicking Mr. Putin out of the G8.
The Group of Seven stopped short of expelling Russia permanently. Mr. Harper raised the rhetorical ante during the rest of his European visit, casting Mr. Putin as a throwback to the Cold War, and all but writing off the chances of any rapprochement with G7 countries.
“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 said in Berlin on Thursday.
Mr. Harper’s views on prospects for future relations with Russia’s president differed markedly from those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is more sanguine about the possibility that the threat of bigger sanctions may help resolve the Ukraine crisis.
Fen Hampson, a director at the Ontario-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, said Ukraine is not just about Canadian politics for Mr. Harper. He said he believes the Prime Minister worries European leaders are too encumbered to stand up to Mr. Putin.
“I think Harper sees himself as Churchill in a circus of Chamberlains who fear the costs to themselves and the risks of provoking the Russian bear further,” Mr. Hampson said.
“The spectre of a return to the 1930s haunts Harper more than his fellow G7 leaders.”
It is far easier for Mr. Harper to take on Mr. Putin. Canada has relatively little trade with Russia. The United Kingdom has a rich and powerful Russian diaspora; France is selling warships to Russia. Germany relies on Moscow for 35 per cent of its natural gas supplies. “Canada does not have a hungry dog in this fight,” Mr. Hampson said.
Christopher Westdal, a former Canadian ambassador to Russia and Ukraine, praised Mr. Harper’s trip, adding that his “principled determination that there be real consequences, real costs for Russia, may have stiffened G7 spines – but not exceedingly.”
But Mr. Westdal said he is not certain Mr. Harper’s “bravado, however principled or popular,” will do much to help Ukraine.
“Escalating a dispute with Russia is surely a risky way to try to help Ukrainians, who need above all – and soon, before their bitterly divided state falls apart – to come to tolerable terms with the great power next door, to which, like it or not, their political economy and their national unity are so obviously, painfully, eternally vulnerable.”
He said Mr. Harper should urge Ukraine to constrain the “narrow ethnic ... nationalism” that endangers its unity, to ensure the terms of International Monetary Fund aid will not come with “inane conditions” for Ukrainians, and urge the country to find a way to “live intact in peace with Russia.”
“I worry as well that the call for ‘complete reversal’ of the Crimean annexation may be taken to heart by Ukrainians, dooming them to decades of costly, pointless yearning,”