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Politics NATO mission in Latvia unwise diversion from terror fight: Russian envoy

A sniper team from the 1st Battalion, Royal 22e Régiment locate and shoot a target in a night-shoot on a firing range in Adazi, Latvia during Operation REASSURANCE on April 18, 2016.

Master Corporal Andrew Davis/Master Corporal Andrew Davis

Russia's ambassador to Canada says the upcoming NATO deployment in Latvia – that Canadian soldiers will lead to deter Moscow's aggression in eastern Europe – will be bad for regional security and an unwise diversion of resources from fighting the biggest menace: terrorism.

Alexander Darchiev's comments follow high-profile terror attacks Monday in which an assassin killed Russia's envoy to Turkey and a truck plowed into a Christmas market in Berlin.

"It's a huge distraction of resources and diversion from the real threat that we have – that of international terrorism," Mr. Darchiev said of the NATO deterrence effort that will place Western fighter jets, troops and tanks in eastern European countries.

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"We need to co-operate in fighting terrorism," he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's decision to shore up its eastern flank and discourage Russian expansionism is the latest response to Moscow's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and its ongoing support for militants in eastern Ukraine who are fighting a bloody conflict with Kiev in the Donbass region. Canada is contributing a battle group, or about 450 soldiers, in 2017 as part of what has been called NATO's biggest military buildup since the Cold War.

Russia's envoy is also calling on Canada to play the role of "honest broker" in international diplomacy, a role that could require Ottawa to put some distance in its relationship with Washington.

"There will never be a romance between Russia and Canada, that's for sure, but I think if Canada wants to be an honest broker – the key word is honest – it should be in dialogue with Russia and the United States while being equally distant from this two," Mr. Darchiev said.

He later added China to the list of the big powers which Canada should be equally willing to deal with in a frank and straightforward manner.

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Mr. Darchiev said the best example of Canada playing an honest-broker role was in 2003 when Ottawa, under Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, refused to take part in the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Iraq. "Canada was courageous enough to stand up against the war in Iraq. That was important. Canada insisted the war itself was a blunder."

Mr. Chrétien was awarded, and accepted, Russia's Order of Friendship medal in 2014.

The government of Stephen Harper suspended all but low-level diplomatic contacts after Moscow seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has reopened channels with Russia, saying there is nothing to be gained from shunning Moscow.

Mr. Darchiev said deploying soldiers to Latvia will not help Canada deepen relations with Russia. "We can't have a genuine dialogue … we can't have both dialogue and deterrence. You can't have it both," he said.

He did, however, issue an appeal for the Trudeau government to allow Canadian and Russian intelligence agencies to work together more closely to fight terrorism, including tracking the movement of people. "This is an absolute necessity ... we need more co-operation," the envoy said. "There is willingness on both sides because it's a matter of life and death.

Mr. Darchiev said he could not elaborate on this needed co-operation on terrorism given the need for secrecy.

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Canada and the United States marched in lockstep in their approach to Russia under Mr. Harper and departing U.S. President Barack Obama, both when it came to Moscow's interference in Ukraine and its military intervention in Syria to help the regime of President Bashar al-Assad regain the upper hand.

The ascendance of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency could change that. Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, played down the occupation of Crimea by saying people there likely prefer to live under Russian rule. Mr Trump has also called NATO obsolete.

Mr. Darchiev rejects the notion that the president-elect is pro-Russian. "He is pro-American. He is more inward looking," he said.

"Our best hopes are we will have a dialogue and the dialogue will be honest and straightforward."

The Russian envoy said one thing is certain: The era of a "unipolar world with one indispensable power," meaning the United States, has passed.

"Some say it's the beginning of the end for liberal globalism with liberal interventions and nation building and democracy building. We are back to realpolitik where we have many players."

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He said it's time for a new deal akin to the Potsdam Agreement – the post-Second World War pact between Allied powers included the Soviet Union – where the United States, Russia and other major players come together to hammer out an arrangement that resolves disagreements and set rules. "We could come to bargaining table and would agree what rules we have. But these rules could not be imposed."

Asked if he thought that Canada should try to host such a summit, the Russian envoy noted that Slovenia, the birthplace of Melania Trump, had offered to host meetings between Washington and Moscow after the Trump inauguration to help the two countries resolve disagreements.

"I am not saying anything. I do believe Canada could play [a role] by urging the big fellows to find ways to come to a kind of fair settlement, to be a moral force."

Mr. Darchiev said he finds the Trudeau government more nuanced on Ukraine than its Conservative predecessors. "At least what we have noticed is the whole approach is more differentiated. It's not that black and white as it was before."

Asked when Mr. Putin and Mr. Trudeau might have a formal one-on-one meeting, the Russian envoy offered no details but said "I think it might happen." The two leaders have met in "pull-aside" encounters at international forums but have had no full bilateral meeting yet.

The economic sanctions imposed as a result of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine remain in effect. Mr. Darchiev calls them "pure symbolism" and says Russia has learned to live with them.

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"Our agricultural producers are now asking for sanctions to stay because it was a huge boost for agricultural production. It's not that good for consumers [though]."

Asked if he thinks Canada will ever accept Russia's takeover of Crimea, Mr. Darchiev says: "I would use another term. It's reunification of Crimea and Russia. My best hope is that our truth will be accepted at some point in the future."

Ukrainians are worried that Mr. Trump's pro-Russia stance may hurt their cause as Kiev continues to battle pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine that the West says are backed by Mr. Putin. The United Nations has said the number of documented deaths in eastern Ukraine, as of mid-September, was at least 9,640, with more than 2,000 of these civilians.

Mr. Darchiev said he believes the only way out of the crisis in Ukraine is to find a way for both sides to live up to the Minsk accords that were supposed to establish a truce in the fighting. He said that will require "direct dialogue" that brings Ukraine "and the other side" to the bargaining table.

Asked to identify one important thing that the Canadian government could do for Russia-Canada relations, Moscow's envoy switched from geopolitics to a trade program suspended by the sanctions. He asked that Ottawa restore the export guarantee program supports under the Export Development Corporation for companies doing business with Russia. "That would be a very good step."

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