Stephen Harper is expected to tour Kiev’s Independence Square – the heart of the uprising that overthrew Ukraine’s pro-Russia government – on Saturday in a trip that takes him to the centre of Europe’s biggest crisis in decades.
In his visit to Russia’s doorstep, Mr. Harper will embrace the new government, which Moscow dismisses as illegitimate, and will stand with Ukraine in the struggle for Crimea.
It’s a volatile time to be visiting Ukraine. Mr. Harper’s March 22 stop there is scheduled for the day after a military truce in Crimea between Kiev and Moscow is set to expire. On Monday, Mr. Putin declared the Black Sea peninsula a sovereign state after a heavily disputed referendum in favour of Crimea separating from Ukraine and joining Russia.
Mr. Harper, who will be the first Group of Seven leader to visit the Eastern European country during this turbulent period, has ardently embraced the cause of Ukraine, a foreign affairs file where solid domestic political benefits and his own conservative convictions mesh neatly.
Conservative sources describe Mr. Harper as a Cold War warrior at heart – one who’s never trusted Russia and certainly not under President Vladimir Putin – and say he’s well aware that his increasingly outspoken criticism of Moscow plays well with the more than one million Canadians of Ukrainian descent.
It’s a “happy convergence of what he believes is right as a matter of policy and what is beneficial as a matter of politics,” one Tory source said.
Mr. Harper, who leaves for Europe on Friday, will meet the country’s senior governmental leadership during his visit, including Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Later in his trip, Mr. Harper will pay a visit to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is functioning as an intermediary between the West and Mr. Putin. This would enable him to send messages to Moscow through the German leader.
Mr. Harper has been particularly cautious about foreign policy since Canada’s costly combat mission in Afghanistan, but is taking a close interest in Ukraine.
The Conservative government has no compunctions about anti-Russian rhetoric, with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird calling Moscow’s seizure of Crimea a return to “old Soviet-style aggression.” At the Group of Eight summit last summer, Mr. Harper cast Moscow as a pariah. “I don’t think we should fool ourselves. This is the G7 plus one,” the Canadian Prime Minister said last June.
Conservative sources say as long as the conflict between the West and Russia remains a matter of sanctions and aid money, Canada has an opportunity to cut a sizable profile on the international stage. The Canadian government would be left on the margins if the West was considering a military response to Crimea, they say.
Moscow faced an increase in Western reprisal Monday, as Canada, the European Union and the United States all imposed fresh economic and travel sanctions on those they blame for threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty. Mr. Putin was spared from all three lists, but those close to him, including a presidential aide and the country’s deputy prime minister, were hit.
The Canadian and American rosters were essentially identical – the only difference was the American inclusion of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, whom Canada had already targeted on March 5 – signalling close co-ordination between Ottawa and Washington. Both governments also warned Moscow on Monday it could soon face additional consequences.
Mr. Harper announced the latest sanctions ahead of a meeting with Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada, where he took the opportunity to again rebuke the “Putin regime” and condemn Sunday’s referendum in Ukraine’s breakaway Crimea region.
“It’s my strong belief that we must keep the pressure on,” Mr. Harper told reporters. “What the Putin regime has done cannot be tolerated and can never be accepted.”
The list of sanctioned individuals include seven Russian officials and three Ukrainians. Among the targeted Russians are a presidential adviser, a presidential aide, Russia’s deputy prime minister and other government leaders. The Ukrainians include the “Prime Minister of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea,” the chairman of the Crimean parliament and the leader of a pro-Russian political organization.