Canada’s approach toward Russia and its strongman President Vladimir Putin has come full circle since the 2015 election. We’ve blown cold and warm and cold again, with governmental and ministerial changes in Ottawa underscoring how personalities and domestic politics, not longer-term strategic objectives, dictate our foreign policy.
The hostile approach taken by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, who famously told Mr. Putin to “get out of Ukraine” at a G20 meeting in 2014, has also been embraced by Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. It was Ms. Freeland, after all, who last year lumped Mr. Putin in with North Korea’s dictator and the Islamic State as “clear strategic threats to the liberal democratic world, including Canada.”
In between Mr. Harper and Ms. Freeland came Stéphane Dion, Prime Minister Trudeau’s first foreign affairs minister, who sought to reset Canada-Russia relations before getting turfed from cabinet.
“Canada’s severing of ties with Russia had no positive consequences for anyone: not for Canadians, not for the Russian people, not for Ukraine and not for global security,” Mr. Dion said in early 2016. “Canada must stop being essentially the only one practising an empty chair policy with Russia, because by doing so, we are only punishing ourselves.”
It’s now clear, however, that Mr. Dion was not speaking for Mr. Trudeau when he gave his 2016 speech and articulated the doctrine labelled “responsible conviction” that was to guide Canada’s foreign policy under him.
In a new book on Canadian foreign policy in the Justin Trudeau era, former Dion adviser Jocelyn Coulon describes a mid-2016 PMO meeting attended by the Prime Minister and Ms. Freeland in which Mr. Dion made the case for rapprochement in advance of an upcoming meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Businesses in Quebec had been complaining about being shut out of the Russian market because Canada had joined other countries to impose sanctions after Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea, while France continued to sign contracts with Russia.
The meeting, Mr. Coulon writes, “went badly.” Ms. Freeland was against any rapprochement and Mr. Trudeau, “hesitant and incapable of expressing his thoughts on Canada-Russian relations,” sided with her. After that, Mr. Dion was essentially shunned by his boss, only to be replaced by Ms. Freeland in early 2017. Since then, Canada has hardened its stand toward Russia, passed its own version of the Magnitsky Act, slapped sanctions on more Russians and expelled Russian diplomats.
On the face of it, Ottawa’s actions seem appropriate given what is publicly known about recent Russian mischief abroad and Mr. Putin’s role in orchestrating it.
Global Affairs perhaps has classified information on Russia, relayed by allies, on which Ms. Freeland has based her claim that Russian diplomats here sought “to interfere with our democracy.” But all Mr. Trudeau offered this month when pressed to provide evidence of that were the “efforts by Russian propagandists to discredit our Minister of Foreign Affairs in various ways through social media by sharing scurrilous stories about her.”
These are apparently related to Ms. Freeland’s grandfather, who oversaw a pro-Nazi newspaper in occupied Poland during the Second World War, a fact Ms. Freeland’s Russian critics have sought to exploit, twist and amplify for their own purposes.
Still, Mr. Coulon makes a convincing case that Canada has for too long allowed diaspora politics and fealty toward the Americans shape its approach toward the Russians. Little consideration has been made of the longer-term consequences of inviting former Soviet satellites to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Jean Chrétien proposed Ukraine’s entry into NATO in 1994 because, in the former Liberal prime minister’s own words, “a million Canadians have Ukrainian roots.” The Ukrainian diaspora in Canada, of which Ms. Freeland is a proud member, has only grown larger and more electorally critical since then.
NATO’s expansion right up to Russia’s borders is a provocation no Russian president could accept. It is seen in Russia, as Mr. Coulon notes, as a betrayal of a promise made in exchange for Russia’s acceptance of the reunification of Germany in 1990.
For Canada, which has Russia as an Arctic neighbour, dealing with the Russians is not a choice. As the North is opened up to commerce and travel, it will increasingly be our reality. Neither Mr. Trudeau nor Ms. Freeland, Mr. Coulon worries, have been thinking ahead and Canada risks paying a heavy price for it.