At least there was hockey to talk about.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Russian President Vladimir Putin reminisced briefly but warmly about the epochal hockey series 40 years ago between Canada and the Soviet Union during a bilateral meeting Saturday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit.
It was the only time the two leaders found common ground during a meeting marked by disagreements about policy toward Iran and Syria, as well as the unimpressive Canada-Russia trade relationship.
The meeting – the first tête-à-tête between Mr. Putin and Mr. Harper since 2007 – began awkwardly with Mr. Putin running more than an hour late because of a packed schedule of other bilateral meetings. Mr. Harper then made Mr. Putin wait several minutes before finally entering the meeting room to stiff smiles and handshakes.
"I'll just say the tone with Mr. Putin, you know, there's a lot of things, it's not a secret, there's lots of things that Mr. Putin and our government do not necessarily agree on," Mr. Harper told reporters afterward, "but I'll always say that our conversations are extremely frank on these issues."
Mr. Harper said he spent part of the 50-minute meeting trying to encourage Mr. Putin to end its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Kremlin has provided diplomatic cover for Mr. al-Assad as he has used his army to try to crush the 18-month rebellion, using its veto at the United Nations Security Council to block resolutions designed to pressure the regime.
"I did bring up Syria of course. Obviously, the government of Russia and ourselves have very different perspectives on this. Our view is pretty clear that as long as Assad remains in power, practising brutality against his citizens, the situation is going to become more and more desperate and more chaotic for everybody. And that's why he needs to go and, obviously, Mr. Putin has a different perspective. But I urged Mr. Putin to play a more positive role."
Mr. Harper said he also encouraged Mr. Putin to continue to pressure Iran over its nuclear program.
Disputes over issues in the Middle East have started to affect the broader ties between Ottawa and Moscow. In a letter to Canadian delegates attending the APEC conference, Canadian ambassador to Russia John Sloan wrote that "because of the disagreements on Syria and other issues, our political relationship is in something of a holding pattern."
It's unlikely Mr. Harper managed to change the Russian President's mind on Saturday. In an interview broadcast on Russian television this week ahead of the opening of the APEC summit, Mr. Putin gave a combative defence of his country's policies in the Middle East.
"How come Russia is the only one who's expected to revise its stand? Don't you think our counterparts in negotiations ought to revise theirs as well? Because if we look back at the events in the past few years, we'll see that quite a few of our counterparts' initiatives have not played out the way they were intended to," he told RT television. "Look at what's going on in Arab countries. There have been notable developments in Egypt. Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, etc. Would you say that order and prosperity have been totally ensured for these nations? And what's going on in Iraq?"
Mr. Putin seemed more interested in discussing the anemic trade between Canada and Russia than Mr. Harper's thoughts about the Middle East. Hosting the APEC summit in Vladivostok – a port city of 600,000 that was a closed military base during the Soviet era – is part of a Kremlin push to deepen its engagement with the Asia-Pacific region, a task made urgent by the economic crisis in Europe.
In brief remarks before reporters were ushered out of the room, Mr. Putin lamented the fact that while the potential for Canada-Russia trade was "huge," the two countries had not yet been able to elevate their economic relationship to the level Russia would like. "Unfortunately, in absolute figures, the value remains limited," he said.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail ahead of the APEC summit, Canadian Trade Minister Ed Fast – who led a trade mission to Moscow in June – said Canada wanted to expand trade with Russia, but "Canadian businesses are still concerned about the investment climate. When Canadian businesses invest abroad, they look for certainty, they look for predictability and they look for the security of their investment."
In his remarks about the Canada-USSR hockey series, Mr. Putin particularly praised the Canadian players as "true goodwill ambassadors" for travelling to Russia this week to mark the anniversary. In particular, he asked Mr. Harper to pass on his thanks to them for playing a memorial game in the city of Yaroslavl, whose hockey team, Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, was wiped out in a plane crash a year ago.
Mr. Harper called the 1972 series "the beginning of our modern cultural relations."