Dealing with the Trump administration will no doubt be the top priority of Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s newly minted foreign minister, but it was the question of her attitude towards the Russian Federation that generated the most headlines when she took the job in January.
Those hoping that Canadian-Russian relations might improve under the current government reacted very negatively. Her nomination was a “catastrophe,” professor Michael Carley of the Université de Montréal told Sputnik News. Similarly, Piotr Diutkiewicz, Carleton University’s distinguished professor of Russian studies, told the CBC that dialogue with Russia under Freeland’s leadership was hard to imagine. “I believe it will be a period of frozen relations on both sides … Ms. Freeland is heavily anti-Russian biased,” he said.
During Stephen Harper’s final term in office, the Canadian government pursued a policy of cold-shouldering Russia. On the rare occasions when Canadian officials found themselves in the same room as their Russian counterparts, they used the opportunity to deliver lectures. Not surprisingly, constructive dialogue about matters of mutual interest proved to be impossible.
The Liberals’ victory in 2015 brought hope that things would change. To some extent, this did indeed happen, as foreign minister Stéphane Dion carried through with a promise to engage with Russia. Mark Gwozdecky, Global Affairs Canada’s assistant deputy minister for international security and political affairs, visited Moscow in November last year and met Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov. Junior diplomats and military officers have been spotted at functions at the Russian embassy in Ottawa; and Global Affairs and the Russian embassy co-sponsored a conference at Carleton University on the subject of Canada-Russia; Dialogue and Co-operation in the Arctic.
In an interview for this article, Kirill Kalinin, spokesman for the Russian Embassy, said that prior to the 2015 general election, Russian diplomats “did not have contact with our colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs.” Now, however, “professional contacts have resumed” and “people have started to discuss issues.” This constitutes a “big improvement,” Kalinin said.
However, the choice of Freeland as foreign minister has sparked fears that the brief détente might come to an end. Freeland is a long-standing critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has often called for even stronger measures to be taken by western states against Russia. Before the 2015 election, for instance, she criticized the Harper government for being too soft and demanded that Russia be excluded from the SWIFT international banking system.
Despite this, it appears for now that Freeland is unlikely to halt the Canadian government’s policy of incremental, “controlled engagement.” In a statement for this article, Michael O’Shaughnessy, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, said, “Canada believes in the importance of engagement, dialogue and diplomacy; including with countries where we have profound disagreements.” According to O’Shaughnessy, Canada will continue to condemn Russia for its actions in Ukraine and will work with allies to maintain sanctions and economic pressure on Russia. But it will also “continue to engage with Russia for the purpose of advancing Canadian interests and expressing Canadian values on issues such as the Arctic and international security.”
In light of these statements, the fears that accompanied Freeland’s appointment may prove to be exaggerated. The current government seems to understand that its predecessor’s policy was counterproductive and that Canada needs to talk with Russia in order to solve common problems. That said, it is clear that engagement will not mean an end to sanctions and a return to relations as they were before the start of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014. More probably, the new normal will involve limited conversations between the two countries on matters of mutual interest, but within an overall relationship that remains quite tense.
This should come as no surprise. Russian-Canadian relations have almost never been particularly good. There was very little contact between the two nations prior to the First World War, and following the Revolution of 1917, Canadian governments looked upon the Soviet Union as a dangerous ideological opponent. In the mid-1920s, there were considerable tensions between Canada and the Soviet Union as a result of propaganda and currency forgery allegedly carried out in Canada by the Soviet trade delegation.
In 1931, Canada went so far as to impose a trade embargo on Soviet imports. Only in 1942, in the midst of the Second World War, did Canada establish diplomatic relations with the USSR. After the end of the war, the Gouzenko spy case sent relations once again into a tailspin. Pierre Trudeau’s brief attempt to strengthen Canadian-Soviet ties in the 1970s did not achieve much, and by the early 1980s, the Mulroney government was back to casting the Soviet Union as a serious threat. Another rapprochement in the 1990s turned out to be equally short-lived.
And yet, the two countries’ interests coincide far more than they conflict. As neighbours in the Arctic, Canada and Russia share concerns about issues of resource development, environmental protection and the delineation of international borders. They also have common interests in ensuring a stable international order and countering threats to security such as terrorism and weapons proliferation.
Putin has repeatedly made it clear that a strong Russia depends upon a strong economy, which in turn depends upon international stability and Russia’s integration into global institutions. Supporting a stable international order is thus as much in Russia’s interests as it is in Canada’s. The differences that exist between the two countries, for instance on the subject of Ukraine, pale in significance when compared to these larger mutual goals.
Both sides are, of course, responsible for the failure to exploit their common interests to build a good relationship. That said, in recent years it has been Canada that has taken the initiative in sanctioning Russia, sidelining Russia and denouncing Russia — not vice-versa. There remains a strong sense that Russia is a hostile and aggressive power that needs to be treated as such. There are a number of explanations for this.
First, Canadian attitudes towards Russia must be understood in the context of decades of Russophobic thinking. Stereotypes of Russia as authoritarian and imperialistic exert a powerful influence on how Canadian political elites view that country. Sensible, dispassionate analysis of Russian politics is almost entirely lacking. Russian foreign and domestic policies are instead described in the darkest tones, with newspaper headlines such as “Putin’s secret plan to destroy the west.” Whatever one thinks of Russian policy, these exaggerate the supposed threat Russia poses to Canadian interests while generating demands for a hostile response.
Second, although some Canadian companies (especially in the mining sector) have invested heavily in the Russian Federation, overall, Canada does very little trade with Russia. Canadian exports to Russia amount to less than $1 billion a year, a tiny amount compared to the $20 billion a year exported to China, and the $350 billion exported to the United States. Canada-Russia trade rose in the 1990s, but began declining after 2010, and has fallen considerably since the start of the Ukrainian crisis. Notwithstanding the existence of the Canada Eurasia Russia Business Association, Canada lacks a strong business lobby favouring good relations with Russia. Canadian governments can pontificate about the evils of Russia without risking a political backlash or serious damage to the economy. Russia thus provides a suitable target for politicians wanting to show how tough they are.
Third, Canada’s desire to be a good ally has led it to unquestioningly follow the lead of other NATO members. Instead of questioning the wisdom of measures such as NATO expansion, European missile defence and the deployment of additional NATO troops in Eastern Europe, Canada has gone along enthusiastically, forgetting that alliances are meant to serve our interests, not to be ends in themselves.
Fourth, there are political forces within Canada that favour a tense relationship with Russia. The most prominent of these is the Ukrainian lobby, although the extent of its political influence is hard to estimate. The Harper government’s support for the Maidan Revolution, a political upheaval that has brought Ukraine nothing but woe, was remarkably irresponsible. Since then, by focusing relentlessly on Russian aggression as the cause of the war in Donbass, the Canadian government has encouraged a belief in Kiev that its problems are purely external and can be solved by getting foreign countries to exert pressure on Russia. This has distracted attention from the important internal causes of the conflict and has prevented action from being taken to address those causes.
What can Canada do?
Russians’ expectations are fairly modest. While they would like to see an end to sanctions, they are realistic enough not to expect this in the short term. Instead, according to Kalinin, what they seek is the “normalization of ties,” which he says involves “honest dialogue” and means that Russia’s national interests are taken into consideration. It should not be too difficult for Canada to satisfy this desire, as Canada appears to recognize that there are areas in which constructive dialogue with Russia is possible, most notably the Arctic, where there are still unresolved issues, such as overlapping territorial claims. With this in mind, the most important thing that the Canadian government should do is continue to expand the policy of engagement begun under Dion. Canada should also ensure engagement involves real dialogue rather than merely lectures to the Russians. Russians do not think Canada has the moral right to lecture them, and are offended, not persuaded, when it does.
Next, although Russians are not expecting great changes, they do want consistency. Engaging Russia on the one hand, while criticizing it and strengthening sanctions against it on the other, is not likely to generate a positive response.
Improvements in inter-governmental relations are not likely to be long-lasting if they do not rest upon a strong base of Russian-Canadian ties at a lower level. Not only have such ties always been somewhat weak, they have become even weaker in recent years. Long-term progress requires an effort by Canadians in a variety of professions — businesspeople, academics, politicians, public servants and others — to revitalize networks with their Russian counterparts. These ties can become the foundation of a future relationship based on mutual understanding.
The government of Canada and ordinary Canadians have a role to play in improving relations between the two largest countries in the world. If they take the opportunity, Canada can only benefit.
Paul Robinson is a professor of public and international affairs in the faculty of social sciences at the University of Ottawa.