Skip to main content

A moment of theatre allowed Stephen Harper to wrap up a summit just the way he wanted. A little jab at Vladimir Putin went a long way.

There he was, the tough guy facing up to the bully, standing up for a cause that has roughly 100-per-cent public support in Canada. The same stroke also relieved him of the awkward duty of talking much about another issue that was starting to creep up inside the G20 summit: climate change.

And Mr. Harper managed to say something Mr. Putin deserved to hear.

The moment, recounted to reporters by the PM's communications director, Jason MacDonald, was an unusual bit of publicly advertised face-to-face confrontation.

As they met amid a group of leaders, Mr. Harper told the Russian President, "Well, I guess I'll shake your hand, but I only have one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine."

It was in some ways just like Mr. Harper, and in other ways, not at all. He does not like Mr. Putin, or his actions in the Ukraine. He can be blunt speaking about other leaders in public, and confrontational face-to-face. But he does not usually criticize face to face and in public.

This was a bit of bravado, and obviously Mr. Harper wanted Canadians to hear about it.

It certainly fit the tenor of the summit. Western leaders planned to give Mr. Putin a rough ride. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the summit's host, had promised to "shirtfront" Mr. Putin – an Australianism that apparently means colliding head-on. He did not, but British PM David Cameron issued warnings in a meeting with Mr. Putin that aides described as "tense."

This is all blowing off steam with rhetoric. After Mr. Putin's falsehoods about Russian involvement in Ukraine and his seeming arrogance, who does not want him brought down a peg? There's also no doubt it is Mr. Harper's sincere view.

If all of it spreads the notion Mr. Putin is growing isolated, it might even have a real effect, too – although so far, most Russians seem to think Mr. Putin is standing up to Western bullies. Still, perhaps the G20 hubbub will amplify second thoughts for Russians whose economy is hit by sanctions (a little) and lower oil prices (a lot). The Canadian Prime Minister is not a player with much real impact on Russia, but he emphasized a Western sentiment. So, good on Mr. Harper for being blunt.

And why not? It's not like picking a fight with say, China. Canada does not have a lot of trade riding on relations with Russia. So Mr. Harper's government imposed tough sanctions, although with exceptions for parts of the Russian oil sector that have potential business with Canadian firms. Unlike European nations such as Germany, which depends on Russian energy, Canada need not worry that tough talk will hurt crucial interests. It's a freebie.

His remark also helped deal with a classic summit problem: handling photo ops with a leader viewed as a villain back home. At some point during this summit, probably in sight of cameras, Mr. Harper was going to come across the Russian President, who is disliked by Canadians and hated by most of the 1.2 million Ukrainian-Canadians. So Mr. Harper had shaken his hand, but reviled him, too.

What else? Another issue was creeping up the agenda at the G20: climate change. It is an issue Mr. Harper likes to avoid, and his Putin moment helped.

The United States and China had just announced an agreement on climate change that, although symbolic, outlined an important big-power understanding before next year's global talks. That provided new momentum and renewed questions about what countries without substantive climate-change plans, such as Canada or Australia, will do.

And although Mr. Abbott had insisted climate change would not be on the agenda, the United States and the European Union forced it on, in talks one EU official described as "trench warfare."

Mr. Harper might have found himself pressed harder about how he would deal with a renewed climate push by bigger powers. He did not. Other nations pledged billions for a climate fund for developing nations; Mr. Harper merely said Canada would provide an unspecific sum.

That was not going to grab big headlines. Mr. Harper's flourish with Mr. Putin already had. With one low-cost move, he snubbed the Russian leader on the world stage, emphasized an assertive stand that is popular at home, fixed an awkward photo op and avoided a tricky issue. Well played, Prime Minister.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe