Skip to main content

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2002.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien is meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week, a tête-à-tête that comes even as relations between Ottawa and Moscow are severely strained over the invasion of Ukraine.

The former Liberal leader, whose law firm, Dentons, has an office in Moscow, is expected to meet Mr. Putin on Thursday in the Russian capital and discuss the current state of relations between his country and the West.

The InterAction Council of former world leaders, a group composed of ex-heads of government, issued a statement on Friday saying Mr. Chrétien is meeting with Mr. Putin to gather material for the council's deliberations on relations with Russia in June, 2015.

Rob Huebert, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary, described relations between the two capitals right now as "probably the frostiest they've been since the end of the Cold War."

He said Mr. Chrétien must be careful not to leave the impression he is condoning Mr. Putin's actions. "He goes over as a former head of government," said Mr. Huebert, who follows Ottawa-Moscow relations. He added that the visit would make sense if it was a "feeler" for an attempt to ease tensions.

"A public figure that goes over to meet" Mr. Putin, the University of Calgary academic said, "gives validation to that individual."

In the past year, Canada has suspended much of its diplomatic co-operation with Russia over Mr. Putin's annexation of Crimea and moved with allies to expel Moscow from the Group of Seven industrial powers. Ottawa recently announced it is sending soldiers to Ukraine to train forces there who are facing off against Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The InterAction council said Mr. Chrétien, who is the co-chair of their organization, will "report back to the group on his discussions with the Russian President."

The Chrétien-Putin meeting is not sanctioned by Ottawa or undertaken on behalf of the Canadian government. The Harper government made a point on Friday of distancing itself from Mr. Chrétien's activities in Moscow.

"We are aware a meeting may occur. Mr. Chrétien is not representing the government of Canada," Prime Minister's Office spokesman Stephen Lecce said.

"The government of Canada's position on Vladimir Putin's aggression against Ukraine is very clear. Mr. Putin must get out of Ukraine."

Mr. Harper has made a hard line against Russia a central part of his foreign policy – a stand that plays well with more than one million Canadians of Ukrainian origin. Last November, at a G-20 meeting in Australia, Mr. Harper famously rebuked Mr. Putin, telling him: "I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine."

Mr. Chrétien has a history of good relations with Mr. Putin.

In January, 2014, before Moscow invaded and annexed Crimea, Mr. Putin awarded the former Liberal prime minister Russia's Order of Friendship for "his substantial contribution to the strengthening and development of friendship and co-operation with the Russian Federation."

In a statement on Friday, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress said it is confident Mr. Chrétien, as a former head of government, will not undermine Canada's position, but will rather stand with Ottawa on Ukraine.

"We fully expect that Mr. Chrétien will support the position of the government of Canada and all of our allies in condemning the illegal annexation, by the Russian Federation, of Crimea as well as the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine," said Taras Zalusky, executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

The Liberal Party declined to comment on Mr. Chrétien's planned visit with Mr. Putin.