Stephen Harper and Barack Obama are each urging European allies to support sanctions targeting Russia’s energy sector, with both leaders saying North America could help Western Europe end its dependence on Russian natural gas.
At the same time, Mr. Harper is sharpening his public criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, characterizing him as a throwback to the Cold War who is out of touch with his younger citizens over how he’s handled the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
Mr. Harper, who is scheduled to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Thursday, used a Wednesday speech to a Munich business audience to knock down the notion that Russia has tremendous margin of manoeuvre to punish the West. Ms. Merkel is a key intermediary between the West and Russia, and her country is a major consumer of Russia’s natural-gas exports, which would be a main target of any sanctions.
Such measures could disrupt European economies. But Mr. Harper said a reduction in gas shipments to Europe would be devastating for Russia, where the government treasury depends heavily on petroleum revenue.
The Prime Minister said Russia’s economy is “one-dimensional” and extremely vulnerable to sanctions because of its reliance on natural gas exports. “It’s a double-edged sword … Europe is extremely dependent on the energy supplies, but on the other hand, Russia is extremely dependent on the energy revenue and for all intents and purposes it’s a one-dimensional economy in that regard,” Mr. Harper said.
Mr. Obama, who met with top European Union officials Wednesday in Brussels, said in a speech that Mr. Putin had miscalculated if he thought he could divide the West or count on its indifference over his annexation of Crimea. “If the Russian leadership stays on its current course, together, we will ensure that this isolation deepens,” Mr. Obama said.
The U.S. President pitched Europeans on a U.S.-European trade deal as a way to reduce the EU’s reliance on Russian energy and strengthen its ability to stand up to Moscow.
Mr. Harper expressed hope that liquefied natural gas shipments to Europe could one day offer another overseas market for Canada. “We’re overwhelmingly dependent on the Canadian market and American market [for sales] and we’re looking to take that business global.”
The Prime Minister said critics have accused the West of treating the crisis over Crimea as if it’s an extension of the now-concluded Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in the decades following the Second World War. He denied he sees the conflict with Moscow in these terms, but said he believes Mr. Putin does and predicted this is creating a rift within Russia.
“It’s increasingly apparent to me that the Cold War has never left Vladimir Putin’s mind,” he said. “I think he still thinks in these terms. I think underlying his invasion of Crimea and his threats to Ukraine is unfortunately that kind of thinking.”
Mr. Harper said he believes many Russians, especially younger ones, disagree with how Mr. Putin is conducting himself in his aggressive seizure of Crimea.
“I don’t believe that’s where the Russian people are, particularly the younger generations in Russia. I’ve been in Russia several times and I find the ordinary Russian people, especially the younger people, to be very Western in their outlook, their values, their desires,” Mr. Harper said. “They want the same standards of governance and information flow that the rest of us have. So I think this is a bit of a throwback that over time I hope will be resolved.”
The G7, which has suspended Russia’s participation in the G8 coalition of industrial powers, warned this week of co-ordinated sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy, such as energy, if Moscow escalates the crisis further.
Mr. Harper told the Munich business audience he wants to see sanctions increase against Moscow – and he didn’t make this ramp-up contingent on Russia grabbing more foreign territory.
“We must pressure the Putin government to change this and we must employ sanctions that if anything will increase over time to keep the pressure on [Moscow] to move away from this kind of a direction in its foreign policy,” he said.
“We simply cannot afford the risk of Europe going back to being a continent where people seize territory … where bigger military powers are prepared to invade their neighbours or carve off pieces.”
The Prime Minister’s Office said Mr. Harper has visited Russia at least three times while prime minister.
The sell job on sanctions comes as the NATO military tries to come to grips with how it will respond to Russia. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will join NATO talks in Brussels next week on the matter. And in Crimea, Russian forces took over the Ukrainian minesweeper Cherkasy, the last military ship controlled by Ukraine in Crimea, in an operation in which they used stun grenades and fired into the air.