Moscow’s envoy in Canada is urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to telephone Vladimir Putin so he can hear the Russian President explain how there is “zero chance” that Russia will invade Ukraine.
Oleg Stepanov, the recently arrived Russian ambassador to Canada, told The Globe and Mail Tuesday that Mr. Putin would accept a phone call from Mr. Trudeau to discuss the crisis in Ukraine and Moscow’s massing of more than 100,000 troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border.
“I am 100 per cent sure my president would pick up the phone immediately,” Mr. Stepanov said, noting the two leaders have never sat down for a bilateral meeting in Mr. Trudeau’s seven years in office.
Mr. Putin would welcome the opportunity to make the case to Mr. Trudeau that he has no plans to invade Ukraine, and to explain the Kremlin’s opposition to NATO encroachment on its borders, Mr. Stepanov said.
He noted that leaders of the United States, Britain, Germany and many other Western countries regularly engage with Mr. Putin and he urged Canada’s government to do likewise.
But even as he dismissed the chance of invasion, Mr. Stepanov raised a scenario in which some Ukrainian politicians – whom he declined to identify – could trigger a conflict.
He urged Canada and other Western governments to work with Kyiv to deter this group.
“My government’s concern is that there is a party of war in Kyiv. There are radical politicians there who could use the current, heated situation in order to provoke conflict from their side,” the envoy said.
Mr. Stepanov’s comments come a day after the NATO military alliance announced it was putting forces on standby and reinforcing Eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets in response to Russia’s troop buildup near its border with Ukraine.
He called on Ottawa and its allies “who have particular interests in Ukraine to work with the government in Kyiv to keep them restrained and to persuade them from any possible provocative steps in Donbas or elsewhere in Ukraine.”
As he talked about the need for Russian-Canadian engagement, the envoy said the Kremlin would even waive a travel ban it imposed on Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland in 2014 after Canada slapped economic sanctions on Russian elites for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of Ukraine. Back then Russia retaliated by enacting travel bans on Ms. Freeland and other Canadian officials – actions that the ambassador characterized as “how the game is played.”
The travel ban would only be overlooked, however, if Ms. Freeland were to come to Moscow for serious high-level talks – discussions that the Russian envoy expressed hope would convert Canada into what he called a “voice of moderation” on the Ukraine crisis.
“If miracles happen and Madame Freeland wants to come to Moscow with a special message from the Prime Minister, I am sure the exception can be made,” he said.
However, he expressed concerns that Ms. Freeland, a Ukrainian-Canadian whose mother helped draft Ukraine’s constitution, is heavily influencing government policy in favour of Kyiv. He noted that she holds regular discussions with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, a group that represents people of Ukrainian origin in Canada.
“She is a member of the Ukrainian diaspora,” Mr. Stepanov said. “She is the right hand of the Prime Minister ... so she is an influential voice in decision-making.”
The ambassador laughed when told that Canada is recalling the spouses of diplomats and their children under 18 from Kyiv as a precaution against a possible Russian invasion.
“It’s your taxpayers’ money,” he said. “You want to pull them back, you [will] need to transport them back as I am sure the situation will calm down.”
Mr. Stepanov denied that Russia hacked the computer system of Global Affairs Canada last week; it suffered a multiday meltdown that security experts called a cyberattack. And the ambassador dismissed warnings from the Communications Security Establishment, the top-secret federal agency that handles signal intelligence and cybersecurity, to beware of Russia cyberattacks.
“No, absolutely not,” he said when asked about the disruption of computer networks at Global Affairs, discovered on Jan. 19. “Russia is not conducting any malicious activities in cyber sphere against Canada or any other country.”
When told Washington accused Russian intelligence services of a major hack of U.S. government departments and private companies, such as Microsoft Corp., in late 2020, Mr. Stepanov said, “They always do that if it helps to raise their self-esteem but the problems with the Americans and others is that it is very easy to blame the Russians.”
The federal cabinet met Tuesday and will meet again Wednesday to approve an extension of the Canadian Armed Forces training mission in Ukraine for another six months. It is expected to approve a package of measures including the provision of small arms to that country’s military.
The Russian ambassador questioned why Canada would provide weapons to Ukraine when Kyiv appears to have sufficient inventory of arms – since it’s also exporting defence equipment abroad.
Mr. Stepanov noted that the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks weapons sales, records Ukraine’s arms exports. In 2019, SIPRI’s database shows, Ukraine exported missiles and armoured combat vehicles. In 2020, Ukraine exported missiles and aircraft. Also the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms shows that in 2020, Ukraine exported portable anti-tank missile launchers and rocket systems, and firearms, including pistols, sub-machine guns and assault rifles.
“For me it’s quite surprising to see that the country continues to make a profit from arms exports and at the same time asks its foreign partners to supply additional weapons to it,” he said.
“If you feel threatened by Russia or any other country, you don’t sell your weapons; you stock them.”
Asked why Russia had placed more than 100,000 battle-ready troops on the border to Ukraine, the ambassador said: “It’s our land, It’s our army. The army has to conduct drills from time to time.”
With a report from Reuters
For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.