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Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks to the media in Hamilton, Ont., during the Liberal Cabinet retreat, on Jan. 24.NICK IWANYSHYN/The Canadian Press

Divisions within the Group of Twenty over what to do about Russia made for awkward conversations at last week’s meeting of G20 finance ministers. The event’s Indian hosts kept trying to change the subject on the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland refused to go along to get along, however, and accused the lower-level Russian officials who attended the meeting of being accomplices in President Vladimir Putin’s devastation of Ukraine.

“You are apparatchiks, you are economists – you are not soldiers. But all the same, you also bear personal responsibility for this criminal war,” Ms. Freeland told them in Russian, according to a Reuters account. “We know who you are and we will not forget.”

Ms. Freeland was not the only top Western official to call out Russia’s representatives. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told them that “their continued work for the Kremlin makes them complicit in Putin’s atrocities.” But Ms. Freeland’s comments drew particular attention because, unlike Ms. Yellen, she is considered a leading contender for the top job at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization when Jens Stoltenberg’s term ends this fall.

Speculation about who could succeed Mr. Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, began heating up again last month after his spokesperson said he would not seek to further prolong his stint as NATO’s Secretary-General. His tenure was extended for a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shifted the alliance’s priorities overnight.

Since then, NATO has gone from being in a state of “brain death” (as French President Emmanuel Macron asserted in 2019) to reassuming its intended role as the fulcrum of Western military co-ordination. Mr. Stoltenberg’s successor nevertheless faces the daunting task of maintaining cohesion among the alliance’s 30 member countries (set to grow to 32 with the pending entry of Sweden and Finland) as the war in Ukraine drags on and, once it ends, ensuring NATO does not slip back into its former comatose state.

There is a long list of potential candidates for the job, and the failure of leading NATO countries to settle on an acceptable successor to Mr. Stoltenberg could scuttle plans to name a new secretary-general by the alliance’s July summit in Lithuania. But by all accounts, the race to replace Mr. Stoltenberg is in full swing.

A Feb. 13 Foreign Policy article identified Ms. Freeland, along with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, as “among the most-talked-about names” for the post. Others include Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova, ex-Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte.

Ms. Freeland’s candidacy, sources told Foreign Policy, is “backed by Washington.” But that may not be enough. France and Germany could push for someone from a European Union country. Mr. Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz, who have spoken of a negotiated end to the war in Ukraine, might also favour the choice of a NATO head considered less openly hostile toward Mr. Putin than either Ms. Freeland or her fellow candidates from the Baltic states.

A Russian-led smear campaign against Ms. Freeland, whose maternal grandfather edited a Ukrainian nationalist newspaper with pro-Nazi leanings during the Second World War, is also seen as potentially hurting her candidacy. Mr. Putin has described his offensive in Ukraine as an attempt to “de-Nazify” the country. But the disinformation campaign against Ms. Freeland could also be seen as a feather in her cap.

However, Université du Québec à Montréal postdoctoral fellow Laurent Borzillo dismissed the idea of Ms. Freeland succeeding Mr. Stoltenberg as “illusory,” for the simple reason that the top military job at NATO is typically held by a U.S. general and it would be unlikely to have two North Americans leading the alliance at the same time.

“It is implausible that the current American [Supreme Allied Commander] Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli would give up his seat to a European within the next three years,” Mr. Borzillo wrote in a Feb. 22 article for UQAM’s Network for Strategic Analysis. “Therefore, the ‘Freeland option,’ or even any other Canadian candidacy, can be eliminated, contrary to what many articles on this subject may suggest.”

The biggest strike against Ms. Freeland’s candidacy remains Canada’s reputation as a NATO scofflaw that flouts its rule to spend at least 2 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence. As Finance Minister, Ms. Freeland has taken only timid steps to move Canada toward that target. Her 2022 budget promised “a swift defence policy review to equip Canada for a world that has become more dangerous.” Canadians will not be the only ones watching to see if she keeps her word in her 2023 budget.

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