Wesley Wark is a senior fellow at CIGI and an expert on national security and intelligence.
Four years ago, Canada expelled a quartet of Russian spies and stopped three other Russian so-called diplomats from coming to Canada. That action was taken in solidarity with the United Kingdom over the chemical weapons poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy living in Britain, and his daughter, Yulia. It was approved by our then-foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland.
The crimes against the Skripals – shocking as the Russian botched assassination in a quiet English cathedral city using a lethal and banned chemical agent (Novichok) was – pale in comparison with what we have witnessed after the Russian retreat from Kyiv. It is now time that Canada acts in solidarity with Ukraine over the horrific war crimes committed by Russian troops and intelligence services in the suburbs of the capital city.
These war crimes have been documented by journalists, by human-rights NGOs, and reported on by Western diplomats. President Joe Biden has reiterated his stand that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has adopted a much lower key version of the same message. The Foreign Minister, Mélanie Joly, has chimed in about holding “those responsible” to account.
This is not good enough. Canada may have exhausted the paltry inventory of lethal weapons it can send to Ukraine, but it has not even begun to take diplomatic action. A small band of demonstrators have positioned themselves outside the Russian embassy in Ottawa, but otherwise little else has changed on the diplomatic circuit. Canada must now close the Russian embassy to protest the country’s war crimes and invasion, offering selected asylum to any Russians courageous enough (and with an unblemished record) who want to defect. We should also recall our ambassador from Moscow and voluntarily reduce our staff there to a small consular establishment that can take care of Canadians in distress.
It is repugnant that we pretend to any normalcy in diplomatic relations with Russia. Not while the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and his servants at the United Nations claim that evidence of war crimes is fake news, staged by the Ukrainians with the U.S. pulling the strings. As Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the UN said: “The Russians have a credibility problem. We know they’re lying because their lips are moving.”
Nor should we kid ourselves, as Global Affairs Canada might be wont to do, that maintaining normal relations serves some useful end. No Russian ambassador in Ottawa has the ear of the Putin gang. There are no back channels to call into play, no helpful fixer role to be played. No Canadian ambassador in Moscow has any entree into Russian decision-making circles. Western ambassadors in Moscow have been reduced to talking among themselves and watching out the windows. Waiting for things to get back to “normal” in relations with Russia will be akin to waiting for Godot.
Where our foreign service is doing excellent work is in the countries neighbouring Ukraine and Russia, assisting with humanitarian relief efforts and trying to hasten the path of those Ukrainians who want to come to Canada. Our staff in Moscow could be more effective in joining their ranks.
Germany has just announced that it will expel 40 Russian intelligence officers under diplomatic cover; France will expel 35, Italy 30 and Spain 25. In total, European Union countries have expelled more than 230 Russian officials since the Ukraine invasion began. Canada’s score to date is zero expulsions.
Nor would we miss the Russian ambassador to Canada, Oleg Stepanov. The ambassador penned an opinion piece for The Toronto Star in January laying out a glorious vision for Ukraine as a “neutral state,” free from internal conflict, living in peace with itself and its neighbours. He emphasized that, “Russia had no desire or intent to invade Ukraine or meddle by other means into its internal processes.” There was more of the official line, not worth repeating. It was all lies. Twenty-four days later Mr. Putin unleashed his war machine.
The Russian ambassador is no longer moving his lips (or pen) so frequently, but the Russian embassy’s official Twitter account maintains its noxious spew of propaganda, including declaring war crimes evidence as fake news. Do we need this?
Time to give the ambassador the bum’s rush. Canadians would approve and surely all parties in Parliament can line up in support of this, with the memory still fresh of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appeal to Canada, in which he urged us to “expand our efforts to bring back peace to our peaceful country. I believe and I know that you can do it.”
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