Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has articulated Canada’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the resolve and assuredness of someone who looks like she has been preparing for this moment for a very long time.
It is no act. No one in the Canadian political class has studied Russia, or its now pariah president, more than Ms. Freeland. As a student of Russian history at Harvard and exchange student in Kyiv in the 1980s. As the Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times in the 1990s. Or, since 2015, in her successive roles as Canada’s minister of international trade, foreign affairs and finance.
“There are moments in history,” Ms. Freeland said on Monday, “when the great struggle between freedom and tyranny comes down to one fight, in one place, which is waged for all humanity.”
Her five-minute speech overshadowed that of her boss, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and went viral on social media. Like her other pronouncements on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military assault on Ukraine, it stood out from the boilerplate recrimination uttered by many politicians. It was personal, thoughtful and stated with conviction.
If Mr. Putin has confounded many Western leaders, Ms. Freeland seems to have had his number for some time now. She has never bought the narrative of Mr. Putin as a nationalist leader seeking to restore Russia to imperial or great-power status, suggesting rather that he has used that ruse as a cover for his own insatiable appetite for power and wealth.
“All the talk of a mystic Slavic brotherhood, of feelings of national humiliation, of responding to the threat posed by NATO and standing up for a multipolar world has done its job. It has also obscured what Putin really wants. He is a dictator whose thirst for power has eroded the economic prosperity his rule had hitherto partly rested upon. Foreign conquest is an obvious distraction and substitute,” Ms. Freeland wrote in Britain’s Prospect magazine in 2014.
Ms. Freeland’s Ukrainian roots – her grandparents immigrated to Canada in 1948 and her mother helped write the country’s constitution after it won its independence in 1991 – have undeniably shaped her own views on Russia and Mr. Putin.
When she was named foreign affairs minister in 2017, some experts worried Mr. Putin would see the move as a provocation. He had slapped an entry ban on her and 11 other Canadian politicians and senior bureaucrats after Canada placed sanctions on Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Ms. Freeland ended her predecessor Stéphane Dion’s efforts to seek a rapprochement with Russia and championed the adoption of Canada’s Magnitsky Act, enabling the sanctioning of foreign nationals for corruption or human rights violations. The law has come in handy now.
While at Foreign Affairs, however, Ms. Freeland was principally preoccupied with a different threat than Mr. Putin to the rules-based international order – specifically then-U.S. president Donald Trump, whose disdain for multilateralism had scrambled postwar global institutions.
She has had more success in persuading reluctant European allies to embrace far tougher sanctions on Russia and Mr. Putin than they had initially been prepared to accept, including a freeze on the foreign assets of the Russian central bank. The freeze effectively prevents the bank from intervening in foreign-exchange markets to shore up the ruble, which has plunged to a record low.
According to a Reuters report, Ms. Freeland directly addressed Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and central bank governor Elvira Nabiullina during a Feb. 18 meeting of Group of Twenty finance officials, warning the duo not to doubt the resolve of “like-minded democracies” to punish Russia if it invaded Ukraine. Politico reported on Sunday that Ms. Freeland had spent much of last week “pushing the idea of sanctioning the central bank” among her Group of Seven colleagues.
It would be an exaggeration to suggest Ms. Freeland was alone responsible for the West’s adoption of economic sanctions on Russia that few people, or even Mr. Putin himself, thought possible. But, on this issue, Canada does appear to have exerted substantial influence on its peers.
“What we are seeing here from Vladimir Putin is an attempt to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants to behave like a communist dictator, but he and his entourage had thought they could do that and continue to enjoy all of the fruits of global capitalism,” Ms. Freeland explained on Tuesday. “And what the world decided really, really clearly last week and then particularly this weekend, is you don’t get to do that.”
In 2014, following the Crimean annexation, Ms. Freeland, then a backbench Liberal MP, warned: “To secure his power at home, Putin has tested its limits abroad. Whether it is in Ukraine, or elsewhere, one day we will have to stop him.”
Fate, or something like it, seems to have put her in the right place at the right time.
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