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Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attend a ceremony in Moscow in 2019. Canada-Russia relations have never recovered from 2014 when Moscow invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.The Canadian Press

Two Canadian experts on Russia have penned an article in a prestigious Moscow journal that has strong connections to the Kremlin, calling for a thaw in relations between Canada and the Russian Federation.

Gilles Breton, a former diplomat, and Carleton University political-science professor Piotr Dutkiewicz wrote the article in Russia in Global Affairs, arguing that the time has come for “meaningful conversations” with Moscow.

Canada-Russia relations have never recovered from 2014 when Moscow invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula; Canada is home to the largest population of ethnic Ukrainians outside Ukraine and Russia.

Since that year, Ottawa has slapped sanctions on more than 430 people, companies and organizations over Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine, most of these in co-ordination with allies. Many of the sanction targets are in Russia.

The authors, who sit on the board of the Canada Eurasia Russia Business Association, are urging the federal government to end its policy of limited contact with Moscow, even if Ottawa disagrees with many of the Kremlin’s actions at home and abroad.

“Realism dictates dealing with Russia as it is now, not with the Russia of our imagination,” they wrote in an article titled An Action Brief for Canadian-Russian Bilateral Relations. “We need to have a working channel of communications with Russia’s foreign-policy establishment.”

The Moscow journal’s board of trustees is headed by billionaire oligarch Vladimir Potanin, who appears on the U.S. Treasury’s list of 210 Russians closely associated with President Vladimir Putin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sits on the journal’s editorial board.

The Canadians also published the article as an open letter on the Carleton University’s Centre for Governance and Public Management website. They called for resumption of talks between senior Canadian and Russian bureaucrats, as well as bilateral exchanges among universities, non-governmental organizations and even amateur hockey matches to rebuild relations.

In an interview, Mr. Breton said there has been virtually no serious dialogue with Moscow since Russia used military force to annex Crimea.

“We are not trying to correct the situation where we decided after 2014 … not to engage with the Russians, not to have the same interaction that everybody else in the G7 are having with the Russians to advance their own interests,” he said. Mr. Breton served three postings in Moscow including as deputy head of mission.

Prof. Dutkiewicz said Canada is at a disadvantage today. “Our NATO partners and G7 partners all have much better relations with Russia than we have.”

Mr. Breton noted that even Ukrainian leaders are talking to the Russians, and it makes no sense for Canada to sit on the sidelines.

“I would like to see Mr. Champagne pick up the phone and call Sergey Lavrov and say ‘Okay, I would like to talk to you about this or that,’ “ he said, referring to Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne. “If you don’t do that, you are not advancing your own interests.”

Mr. Breton said he is certain the Russians would welcome a resumption of high-level talks with the Canadian government.

“They are not crying for it but I think they would welcome it,” he said. “Somebody showed the [our] paper to them and they said this is the right thing,” he said.

Marcus Kolga, a human-rights advocate and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said Russia-Canada trade relations are not strong to begin with. Russia was Canada’s 32nd biggest trading partner in terms of merchandise trade in 2019, right behind Singapore.

He said he worries that this proposal would help to legitimize Mr. Putin’s Russia.

“There is no reason why we should be exposing more Canadian companies to the kleptocratic nature of the Russian government,” Mr. Kolga said.

“We have an adversary who is threatening our allies. An adversary who is killing critics and threatening critics abroad.”

“It’s not in our national interests to start resetting relations,” he said.

Prof. Dutkiewicz said Canada’s business relations with Russia are suffering while those of some other allies are not. “We’re not going to be friends, we’re not going to be allies. We’re not going to be deep partners, but we can do certain things together in business, investment, in fighting the pandemic.”

Asked why Canada should engage with Russia even after more evidence of malicious behaviour surfaced in 2020, Mr. Breton said lack of discussion hasn’t made things better. U.S. intelligence agencies blamed Russia for the recently revealed “Solar Winds” cyberattack that widely affected U.S. government and private-sector computer systems. Many Western countries also hold Moscow responsible for an August, 2020, attempt to assassinate opposition leader Alexey Navalny with deadly poison.

“These kinds of situations won’t be resolved if we don’t engage in some form of [discussion] to set the rules,” Mr. Breton said. “I can see people don’t like it … but you have to start somewhere,” he said.

“Nobody else has stopped having relations with Russia as a result of that. The Germans and the Americans have not stopped having conversations with Putin.”

Mr. Breton said he is not urging Canada to remove sanctions against Russia imposed in 2014 although, he noted, Canadian farmers were hurt by countersanctions imposed by Mr. Putin.

Asked about the proposal, Canada’s department of Global Affairs would only say that bilateral relations “remain challenging and dialogue has been limited due to Russia’s repeated disregard for international law and the rules-based international order.”

However, media spokesperson Jason Kung said Canada does “engage with Russia on areas of mutual interest, most notably the Arctic, and for the purpose of advancing Canadian values and reinforcing our position against Russia’s unacceptable actions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.”

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