Canadian businesses with interests in Russia are urging Ottawa to reconsider imposing tougher sanctions in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea, as Canada's allies ponder new restrictions.
European Union ministers are meeting on Thursday to discuss another round of measures, which is expected to add names to a list of Russian and Ukrainian officials who face bans on travel and business dealings. Canada and the U.S. have also issued similar targeted lists.
Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird and his EU and U.S. counterparts have warned of broader, more damaging financial or trade measures – moves that could block imports and exports, or bar dealings with Russia's banks. This could also have a major effect on Canadian firms with operations in Russia, including a number of mining and oil-and-gas companies.
Speculation about more comprehensive sanctions is already affecting global commodities markets. Analysts blame concerns over potential punishment aimed at Moscow, in part, for a rise in the price of nickel, a big Russian export.
Robert Fotheringham, chairman of the Toronto chapter of the Canada Eurasia Russia Business Association, said the current limited sanctions have already dented a burgeoning confidence in Russia among some Canadian businesses – confidence it took a long time to build.
His group is urging Ottawa to choose "balance and restraint" and pursue dialogue instead of "lobbing insults" or taking more punitive measures that could do permanent damage to the relationship. Large companies with interests in Russia, such as Toronto-based Kinross Gold Corp., have also been meeting with Ottawa to send a similar message.
"Russians are our friends. It's Cold War thinking to automatically think the Russians are bad and we should automatically oppose them," Mr. Fotheringham said. "When a friend does something that you are not happy about, you talk to them, you have a dialogue."
The direct economic effect on Canada of any new sanctions would be limited. Canadians have $5-billion invested in Russia, Mr. Fotheringham said, and bilateral trade sits at $3-billion a year.
However, companies with operations in Russia are clearly at risk. Milos Barutciski, an international trade lawyer at Bennett Jones LLP in Toronto, says he has been speaking for weeks to clients with interests in Ukraine and Russia and says they are concerned about what future sanctions may entail.
He said those with operations on the ground in Ukraine have more immediate concerns, such as the fear of civil unrest or worse: "If you're a Canadian company there, the legal issue is one thing, but as the thing starts spinning out in various directions, you start thinking about the security concerns."
Despite the turmoil, Kinross, which is one of Canada's largest gold producers, said Thursday that it was business as usual in Russia. The company's two Russian mines account for about 27 per cent of its total gold production.
The Toronto-based miner would not comment on whether it had any backup plans if stricter sanctions begin to affect its ability to do business.
But the company said it has spoken to Canadian government officials about its "desire to see a balanced approach to resolving this situation, which considers Canadian interests in Russia."
Experts say sanctions are often ratcheted up gradually, pointing to the escalating penalties the international community has applied to Iran and Serbia.
The Russian sanctions imposed so far pale in comparison to the penalties imposed against Iran, which were years in the making and eventually slashed its oil revenues and hurt the country's economy. The United States prohibited financial institutions from doing oil transactions with Iran's central bank, the main conduit for Tehran's oil payments.
Russia is also a huge exporter of natural resources and ranks among the world's largest producers of nickel, oil and steel.