Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has landed in Kiev, just as tensions in Ukraine are reaching fever pitch with Russian troops on alert at the border and NATO urging Moscow not to escalate the already volatile situation.
Mr. Baird is in the Ukrainian capital to lead a Canadian delegation that is expected to meet Friday with members of the new government, opposition parties, civil society and religious groups. Despite the apparent threat to Ukraine's sovereignty over the southern region of Crimea and with international anxiety brewing over Russia's next move, the scheduled meetings have not been cancelled or postponed.
As it stands, the one-day program will continue as planned and no changes have been made as a result of the events evolving in Ukraine, a government source said. Mr. Baird is expected to launch the program with a visit to Kiev's Independence Square, where he will pay respect to those who lost their lives in the uprising that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
In his first official statement from the ground in Kiev, Mr. Baird welcomed the "appointment of a legitimate government" Thursday and recognized Arseniy Yatsenyuk as Ukraine's new prime minister. He also said Canada expects the country's sovereignty to be respected and its territorial integrity maintained, and noted Ottawa's confidence that the new leadership will focus on governance and root out corruption.
"We look forward to the next steps in Ukraine's regeneration," he said. "Meaningful economic reform must be supported by the international community, including through key international financial institutions. Elections in May will consolidate the restoration of democracy."
When asked about safety concerns regarding the delegation, Rick Roth, a spokesman for Mr. Baird who is traveling with the minister, said he could not comment on security matters.
The tumult in Ukraine has set up a diplomatic tug-of-war between the West, which has expressed support for the demonstrators, and Moscow, which has questioned the legitimacy of the interim government, saying it will find it difficult to work with "Kalashnikov-toting people in black masks." But now that Russia has assumed control of the main access to a Ukrainian port city that is home to a major naval base, and now that more than 150,000 Russian troops and hundreds of tanks and helicopter gunships are on alert for war games in the areas bordering the former Soviet state, Western leaders fear more than a war of words.
Russia says the military exercise is meant to check combat readiness. Still, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned Russia to stay out the crisis, and the secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Canada is a member, told reporters the events in Crimea are "dangerous and irresponsible," the New York Times reported. The newspaper also noted it was uncertain how far NATO could go in its admonishments of Russia, since Ukraine is not part of the western alliance.
Meantime, Russian media have reported that Mr. Yanukovych, a Moscow ally who last fall accepted a $15-billion Russian bailout in favour of signing a popular association agreement with the European Union, had been seen in a Moscow hotel and is now staying in a Kremlin sanatorium just outside the city.
Canada's delegation includes three Conservative caucus members and four Ukrainian-Canadian community leaders – a composition that drew criticism Wednesday from opposition leaders who said they'd liked to have sent representatives, too. Paul Grod, the head of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and a delegate member, is also now in Kiev while at least one MP, James Bezan, will arrive late Thursday evening, local time.
Joe Clark, the former Conservative prime minister, criticized the Tory government for excluding MPs from other major parties from the Canadian delegation.
At a session Thursday on Canadian foreign policy at the Canada Institute's Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., Mr. Clark was asked whether Canada's long-standing and bipartisan tradition of including MPs from all parties on key international missions still had value.
"Let me tell you what we did," said Mr. Clark, whose seven-year tenure as foreign minister spanned one of Canada's most active periods of international leadership in the most frigid days of the Cold War and then as the Soviet Union collapsed. "We involved opposition parties regularly" in delegations overseas and "relied on them" to add different perspectives, he said.
"I do not understand why there is this exclusion of parliamentarians," he said, adding that the government under Stephen Harper has shown "a tendency to play domestic politics with international events. … I think it's highly counterproductive."
With reports from Mark MacKinnon in Ukraine and Paul Koring in Washington.