When G7 countries meet without Russia on Monday, it will be something Stephen Harper always wanted.
He never thought Russia belonged in the club of big industrialized democracies. And he doesn't like Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Putin's power play in the Crimea has given the Prime Minister a good reason to let those sentiments show. Before heading to Monday's session of the G8-minus-Russia in the Netherlands, he stopped in Kiev to show support for the Ukrainian cause, and deliver some harsh words for the Russian President.
Mr. Harper has never had much love for Mr. Putin. But this is, as Mr. Harper noted in Kiev, a crisis that makes many nations nervous. One can hope the Prime Minister will have more to offer his G7 colleagues than antipathy for Mr. Putin. But he certainly has plenty of that.
Last June, when Russia and the other members of the G8 were at odds over Syria's civil war, Mr. Harper decided to fire a shot deliberately aimed at annoying Mr. Putin. "I don't think we should fool ourselves. This is the G7 plus one," Mr. Harper told reporters.
The Russian President wasn't amused, according to members of Mr. Harper's entourage. At dinner, Mr. Putin fumed and glared at Mr. Harper, and remarked that if anyone had something to say about him, he should say it to his face.
That spat was sparked by differences over Syria, and Russia's support for what Mr. Harper called the Assad regime's "thugs." But Mr. Harper had expressed similar sentiments long before. Even when Mr. Putin's protégé, Dimitri Medvedev, represented Russia as president at the 2008 G8 summit in Hokkaido, Mr. Harper suggested Russia didn't belong. Mr. Putin's presence only exacerbated the feeling.
It was partly lingering Cold Warrior sentiment. Mr. Harper grew up seeing the Soviet Union as a threat, and Mr. Putin pined for its influence. In person, he didn't like what he saw as Mr. Putin's bully-boy personality. "He doesn't like communists and he doesn't like thugs," one former aide said. "So it's a bad combination."
Of course, Mr. Putin is an authoritarian nationalist, not a communist. And Mr. Harper has dealt more warmly with Chinese leaders. Some who have worked for Mr. Harper think he would have made an effort with Mr. Putin and Russia if he felt there was something at stake. But bilateral trade was weak, Canadian companies found it hard to navigate Russian corruption, and there was nothing specific he wanted from Moscow, one said.
He certainly doesn't have reason to do so now. The G8, now mostly a forum for discussing security, is on its way to suspending Moscow. That would mark the end of a post-Cold-War experiment aimed at welcoming Russia into what was then the club of leading democratic, industrialized nations, in the hope that it would act like one.
Mr. Harper, with a Ukrainian-Canadian constituency of 1.2 million at home and little to lose with Russia, can be a tough critic, and call for a tough stance.
But there is something the G7, and the western world, need from Russia now: a new détente. And the real issue is finding useful ways to push Mr. Putin into it.
No one in the West really wants a war over Crimea. Economic sanctions will not make Mr. Putin pull back. They aim to punish a little, and warn Russia away from further incursions into Eastern Ukraine. European nations are unlikely to want to impose broad trade sanctions, because they depend on Moscow for energy, but Mr. Harper can press for expanded sanctions against Russian oligarchs, banks, and businesses, to make the nuisance a real problem.
There's a longer-term message to send: that Russia's fears about encirclement and isolation will become more real unless Mr. Putin cools the threat. Western leaders can signal that an extended crisis will mean that more of Russia's neighbours, from Georgia to (possibly) Finland, will be welcomed into a renewed NATO. Mr. Harper, who has cut Canadian contributions to NATO, has moved against that grain. And they can start making plans to reduce dependence on Russian energy, aided by the U.S. permitting exports of natural gas.
For Mr. Harper, this crisis that has put Mr. Putin where he always felt he should be: outside the Western club, treated more like an adversary. Now the question is how to handle that.
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