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Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman shakes hands with his Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau during their meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, July 11, 2016.


Gesture-wise, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first visit to Ukraine was exactly what his hosts wanted to see. In terms of substance, however, the message to President Petro Poroshenko's government was that Canada is considering a step back from its all-in position of supporting Kiev, in favour – perhaps – of a defrost in relations with Russia.

Mr. Trudeau spent part of Monday morning with his head bowed in front of the simple black statue of a gaunt-faced girl that is the country's memorial to the Holodomor, the Stalin-inflicted famine of the 1930s. Later, he visited Kiev's central square, the Maidan, where the protesters who were killed during the 2014 revolution that ousted the Moscow-backed regime of Viktor Yanukovych, are memorialized as "the heavenly hundred."

There are few more sacred places in Ukraine, and Mr. Trudeau's visits were meant to show that his sympathies lie in the same place as his predecessor Stephen Harper's. Both the Holodomor statues and the Maidan are politicized memorials that commemorate the Ukrainian nation as the victim, and governments in Moscow as the aggressor.

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Where Mr. Trudeau intends to diverge with Mr. Harper is in how he supports Ukraine. Mr. Harper was Kiev's most outspoken international ally in the wake of Russia's 2014 seizure of the Crimean Peninsula, and its support for separatist militias in southeastern Ukraine. Mr. Harper told Russian President Vladimir Putin face-to-face "you need to get out of Ukraine," and said in separate remarks that he didn't see potential for co-operation with Russia so long as Mr. Putin was leader of the country.

Mr. Trudeau's remarks on Monday still came down on Ukraine's side of the issue. "We will stand with our NATO partners, and push on, as you've seen, our friends and partners to continue to be steadfast in support of Ukraine," he said Monday at a joint press conference with Mr. Poroshenko. "Not just because Ukraine is a good friend to Canada, but because of the values and principles that we stand for as a country."

Commenting on the wobbly Minsk ceasefire agreement that is meant to bring peace to the war-ravaged Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine, he praised Kiev's effort to live up to its side of the deal and said, "Russia has not been a positive partner."

The statement about Minsk was representative of the Trudeau government's quiet shift on the Russia-Ukraine file: supportive of Kiev and critical, without being belligerent, towards Moscow.

Mr. Trudeau's visit also included the formal signing of a Canada-Ukraine free-trade agreement that was negotiated by Mr. Harper's government. But the lack of angry words directed at Moscow seemed just as important as what was actually said and signed.

Mr. Trudeau also appeared to duck the question when he was asked by Mr. Poroshenko to extend the Canadian military's training of Ukrainian troops beyond the current mission end date of March 2017. Mr. Trudeau – fresh from a NATO summit where he signed up to an open-ended mission that will see an estimated 650 Canadian soldiers deployed to Latvia, which also shares an anxious frontier with Russia – said he would need to consult with Canada's allies on the point.

The Canadian mission to train Ukrainian troops, known as Operation Unifier, began last fall when 200 soldiers from the Royal Canadian Regiment arrived near the city of Lviv in the far west of Ukraine. The effort has been criticized as "deplorable" by the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, since Canadian-trained units have subsequently fought on the front lines of the war in Donetsk and Lugansk.

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Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst, said Mr. Trudeau was seen in Moscow as a "progressive" political leader who could potentially play an important role in mending ties between Russia and the West. But, he said, any Canadian leader would be influenced by the "big, big pressure" they come under from the 1.3 million-strong Ukrainian-Canadian community.

While Kiev and its Western allies see conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk as a de facto, if limited, Russian invasion – with Moscow accused of sending troops across the border to fight alongside separatist militia – the Kremlin says there is a "civil war" in eastern Ukraine pitting the Western-backed national army against the Russian-speaking population of the region. More than 9,000 people have died since fighting began in the spring of 2014.

Canada and other Western countries have hit Russia with several tranches of sanctions since 2014. It's expected that an end to the conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk would lead to the lowering of some sanctions, while others theoretically would remain in place as long as Crimea was under Russian control.

Yaroslav Baran, president of the Ottawa chapter of the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress, said that while diaspora groups would be disappointed to see the end of Operation Unifier, if that happened, the mission in Latvia was also an important effort that could help dissuade Russia from further military adventurism in Eastern Europe.

Mr. Baran said he wasn't worried about the change in Canada's tone towards Moscow under Mr. Trudeau.

"If one government wants to shut down dialogue entirely as a matter of principle and to send a signal, that's its prerogative. If another government wants to reopen dialogue in order to scold, you know, that's legit, too. It's a different approach. We'll see what the outcomes are, but I don't think that reopening dialogue is necessarily a sign that things are about to get cozy and chummy."

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Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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