Ottawa is making no apologies for taking sides in the political transition unfolding in Ukraine, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper backing the country’s territorial integrity and reaching out to allies as Western nations expressed growing alarm over Russia’s actions in Crimea.
Friday was an active day for Canada on the international stage: Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird met on the ground with Kiev’s new leadership the same day the country’s new interior minister accused Russia of “armed invasion” in its southern Crimea region. And Mr. Harper spoke about the developments in Ukraine with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is considered a main link between Western leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Prime Minister also spoke earlier this week with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
At a press conference in Kiev on Friday, Mr. Baird laid bare Canada’s commitment to Ukraine, even as ousted president Viktor Yanukovych emerged in Russia to assert his political status and challenge the legality of the planned May election. Mr. Baird said Canada would offer economic, technical and political support, noting Ottawa is ready to work with the International Monetary Fund and suggesting it will again deploy election observers. And when asked whether he fears siding with the new government could hamper Ottawa’s diplomatic relationship with Moscow, Mr. Baird said, “Canada is not the world’s referee.”
“We stand on the side of the Ukrainian people,” he said after meetings that included the interim President and the newly appointed interim Prime Minister. “We stand for peace, prosperity, security and freedom. We expect the Russian Federation to honour the commitments it made in the Budapest Declaration [committing to Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty], and we certainly don’t apologize for standing with the Ukrainian people in their struggle for freedom.” Some veteran Canadian diplomats question Canada’s partisan approach . Christopher Westdal, who was Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine from 1996 to 1998 and to Russia from 2003 to 2006, said Ottawa has lost credibility with Moscow and has no role to play now as an intermediary on this issue. “I think there are limits, and I think there’s a price to pay in terms of any influence with Russia,” he said. “Our credibility is lopsided.”
Ottawa says it has been collaborating with its allies, and its position that Mr. Yanukovych is no longer the former Soviet state’s leader is hardly unique among Western nations. But while others, including Ms. Merkel and U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, have made clear there is no inherent contradiction between Ukraine’s long-standing ties to Russia and a closer association with Europe, Mr. Baird spoke of “a path which leads to Ukraine’s European integration.” And although Mr. Harper did not mention Moscow when speaking publicly on the issue on Friday, he left no doubt where Ottawa stands.
“Given developments that we see that are worrying, to us, I think it is important as Canadians that we emphasize our very strong support – we emphasize this with all countries in the region – our very strong support for the territorial integrity and respect for the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” he said in Brampton, Ont.
Mr. Westdal said the government’s firm stand on Ukraine can be viewed through a domestic lens: Canada is home to 1.3 million Ukrainian-Canadians, and a federal election is around the corner in 2015. “We’ve got a diaspora-driven foreign policy,” he said. “It might work at the polls, but it doesn’t do much good in the world.”
With a report from Adrian Morrow in Toronto