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Joshua R. Kroeker

Doctoral candidate at Heidelberg University, International Relations MA Candidate, St. Petersburg State University

The annexation of Crimea was a disaster for Russian-Canadian relations. There is no doubt that they are at their lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The problem, however, is not the weakening of relations between Canada and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The problem is that Canada’s actions are purely symbolic and at times even malign for Canada’s objectives.

Canada is used to holding the moral high ground in international affairs. This is the legacy left by great Canadians such as Lester B. Pearson and Lloyd Axworthy. Undoubtedly, the world needs morality. A moral Canada is stronger and better Canada. A world in which Canada stands up for what is right and fights what is wrong is a better world. The problem with our current moral perception of Russia and the world is that it is only symbolic, holding little weight or effectiveness with Russia.

Admittedly, Canada has sanctioned a number of Russian officials and businessmen, as well as some aspects of Russian industry. Effectively hurting the Russian economy or not, they have not caused any rollback in Russia’s 2014 actions. Russia’s response has also been damaging, with Russian import bans on Canadian pork hitting Canadian farmers hard. Canada has not, however, armed Ukraine in its conflict against Russia on its Eastern borders, despite many requests from the Ukrainians. 200 Canadian military personal in Ukraine is ultimately a drop in the bucket. Canada’s support of Ukraine has been overwhelmingly in the form of “good-guy-bad-guy” rhetoric.

Five years later, this policy makes little sense. It’s not helping Canada and it’s not helping Ukraine. In fact, it’s doing just the opposite. If Canada refuses to sit down with Russia and talk, especially where it is needed, we risk entrenching ourselves in this conflict even further so that any improvement in relations will be virtually impossible, and areas where amicable relations will be required will be too frustrated to succeed. Ultimately, we cannot push Russia out of the international community. Communication between our countries is key. As the political maxim goes, it is a lot harder to build institutions than to tear them down.

The annexation of Crimea was a disaster for Russian-Canadian relations. There is no doubt that they are at their lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The problem, however, is not the weakening of relations between Canada and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The problem is that Canada’s actions are purely symbolic and at times even malign for Canada’s objectives.

Canada is one of the strongest supporters of Ukrainian sovereignty. For good reason: the Ukrainian community in Canada makes up a culturally vital and prized part of our Canadian identity. This point was made abundantly clear after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. At the G20 in Australia of that year, Mr. Harper did, after all, tell Putin to “get out of Ukraine.”

Since the Harper years, Canada’s policy towards Russia has been one of tough rhetoric: The government has again and again condemned the aggressive actions of the Russian government; Foreign Minister Baird met with protestors on Kyiv’s Maidan; in line with our allies, Canada has sanctioned vital industries in Russia and frozen the accounts of individuals involved in the annexation and other belligerent actions; in 2018, Mr. Trudeau vocally condemned Russia for its involvement in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer, and his daughter, in Salisbury, England; Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has adamantly spoken out against Russian aggression and in favour of Ukraine.

From Harper’s confrontation with Putin in 2014 through to this past election period, Canada has employed a policy of symbolic morality politics: condemning Russia for its global transgressions based on Canada’s moral perception of the world order. The Canadian Government, as do most Canadians, sees the actions of Russia in Ukraine (and Syria) as abhorrent and belligerent. Canada has been calling out Russia for being a global bad guy. The issue with this is that it is merely symbolic. For the past five years, Canada has talked a big game but has rarely taken constructive action. Canada is the proverbial barking dog. Not only does it not bite, but it hides behind our southern neighbour when things get rough.

Canada is used to holding the moral high ground in international affairs. This is the legacy left by great Canadians such as Lester B. Pearson and Lloyd Axworthy. Undoubtedly, the world needs morality. A moral Canada is stronger and better Canada. A world in which Canada stands up for what is right and fights what is wrong is a better world. The problem with our current moral perception of Russia and the world is that it is only symbolic, holding little weight or effectiveness with Russia.

Admittedly, Canada has sanctioned a number of Russian officials and businessmen, as well as some aspects of Russian industry. Effectively hurting the Russian economy or not, they have not caused any rollback in Russia’s 2014 actions. Russia’s response has also been damaging, with Russian import bans on Canadian pork hitting Canadian farmers hard. Canada has not, however, armed Ukraine in its conflict against Russia on its Eastern borders, despite many requests from the Ukrainians. 200 Canadian military personal in Ukraine is ultimately a drop in the bucket. Canada’s support of Ukraine has been overwhelmingly in the form of “good-guy-bad-guy” rhetoric.

Five years later, this policy makes little sense. It’s not helping Canada and it’s not helping Ukraine. In fact, it’s doing just the opposite. If Canada refuses to sit down with Russia and talk, especially where it is needed, we risk entrenching ourselves in this conflict even further so that any improvement in relations will be virtually impossible, and areas where amicable relations will be required will be too frustrated to succeed. Ultimately, we cannot push Russia out of the international community. Communication between our countries is key. As the political maxim goes, it is a lot harder to build institutions than to tear them down.

With a new liberal mandate this past October, Canada is in the position to make changes in its foreign policy. In 2015, the liberal government signalized a thaw in Canadian-Russian relations. This never came to pass. Indeed, we are running out of chances. It’s time to act before we have no chances left.

Communication and cooperation in the Arctic are a great place to start. Russia is not looking for conflict in the North. Rather, Russia has indicated on multiple occasions that it is ready to cooperate, both politically and in terms of business in the North. Russia’s active participation in the Arctic Council and its signing of the Ilulissat Declaration are evidence of this. Russia, like Canada, also has a disproportionately large stake in the Arctic. With Canada and Russia being the two largest Arctic powers, Russia having some 40 plus ice breakers (in comparison to Canada’s 15), and Russia’s swift development of its northern infrastructure, interaction between the two nations is unavoidable. Ukraine Crisis or not, Russia is looking to move forward in the Arctic. It would be best for Canada to constructively join them at the table. The recent posting of Alison LeClaire, Senior Arctic Official and Director General of Circumpolar Affairs, as Canadian Ambassador to Russia is a great first step. It signalizes that Canada is prepared to talk and get serious about the North.

International business is another sphere in which Canada and Russia can improve relations, if even slightly. Both Canada and Russia have significant experience natural-resource based economies. Technologies in mining, forestry, fishing, oil, and gas are developing. It would be in the best interest of both states to develop personal, appropriate, amicable relations in these spheres.

Sitting down with Russia is question of pragmatism, not appeasement. What is best for Canada globally is best for Canadians at home – especially those living in the North. This does not mean that Canada needs to cease its support of Ukraine, roll back sanctions, or stop denouncing Russian aggression. It means that Canada – alongside Russia – needs to find unique solutions for the more pressing and difficult questions. This implies not just talking, but also listening.

Going forward, Canada will benefit from finding a balance in standing up for global injustices and working together with our more difficult partners in areas where we have mutual interests. The Arctic is the most pressing, but by no means only sphere in which Canada and Russia can sit down as equals, coming up with constructive and pragmatic solutions to mutual problems. A Russian proverb made famous by Ronald Reagan in the 80s, “trust but verify” has unique relevance today. Under a newly elected Liberal government, Canada is once again in a position to thaw relations with Russia, cooperate where needed, but continue to stand up for Canadian values in the spheres where it counts.

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