Canada’s foreign affairs minister looks to thaw relations with Russia at Arctic summit

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks with the media as she arrives for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Friday, March 31, 2017. (Virginia Mayo, Pool/AP Photo)
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says she is ready to meet her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov at the upcoming Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Alaska in May, to discuss bilateral relations and co-operation in the Arctic.

That’s a sudden about-face, given Canada’s snub of the Russians by failing to send any political representation to Arkhangelsk, where the International Arctic Forum ended this week.

Speaking to reporters from Brussels, where she attended the NATO foreign ministers meeting on Friday, Freeland said she’s “very much looking forward to attending” the Arctic Council meeting in Fairbanks.

“I believe that Sergey Lavrov will be there and that would be a very valuable opportunity for all Arctic countries very much, including Canada, to talk about our shared interests in the Arctic region,” Freeland said, responding to a question from Radio Canada International. “And I would be absolutely prepared to have a bilateral meeting with Sergey Lavrov at Arctic Council if that works for both of our schedules.”

Freeland said she already had an opportunity to “chat” with Lavrov last November at the sidelines of the APEC summit in Lima, Peru, and at the G20 foreign ministers meeting in Bonn, Germany, in mid-February.

Crimean freeze
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper walks past Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit Thursday Sept.5, 2013 in St.Petersburg, Russia. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The frosty relations between the two Arctic neighbours plunged to new lows under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its covert support for pro-Russian rebels in parts of Eastern Ukraine.

Canada, home to about 1.3 million Ukrainians and the first country to recognize Ukraine’s independence, froze nearly all political and military contacts with Russia, with the notable exception of co-operation in the Arctic.

The Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came in at the end of 2015, saying that re-engagement with Russia was one of its foreign policy objectives.

No thaw in sight

Many analysts at the time believed that Arctic co-operation between Canada and Russia, which survived the deep freeze of relations between Moscow and Ottawa, could serve as a perfect platform for a diplomatic thaw.

The heads of the eight Arctic nations’ coast guards take part in the Arctic Coast Guard Forum Academic Roundtable at Coast Guard base Boston, June 9, 2016. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard)

However, Russia’s continued meddling in Ukraine and Canada’s decision to lead a 1,000-strong NATO battle group in Latvia made the prospects of a quick Canadian-Russian rapprochement increasingly unlikely, especially after Trudeau turfed Stéphane Dion from the foreign affairs portfolio.  Dion, the main cabinet champion of normalizing relations with Russia, was replaced with Freeland in January.

Freeland, a 49-year-old former journalist, speaks fluent Russian and Ukrainian and is a fierce critic of the Kremlin. She is on the list of 13 Canadian politicians and activists barred by Moscow from entering Russia because of her pro-Ukrainian activism.

Harder line towards Moscow

In February, the newly minted minister’s feud with the Kremlin got even more personal after a Russian investigative journalist published a story accusing Freeland of essentially whitewashing the story of her Ukrainian maternal grandfather.

The story alleged that Freeland’s grandfather was an editor of a virulently anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalist newspaper that actively collaborated with the Nazis in German-occupied Poland during WWII.

While Freeland did not dispute the fact that her grandfather had worked at the Nazi-sanctioned newspaper, the story was seen in Canada as a crude attempt by Moscow to discredit her and interfere in the Canadian political process.

Then in early March, Freeland announced that Canada is officially extending its military training mission in Ukraine by another two years, until the end of March 2019.

Arkhangelsk snub
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of Iceland Gudni Johannesson attend a session of the International Arctic Forum in Arkhangelsk, Russia March 30, 2017. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Ottawa also decided not to send a cabinet minister to represent Canada at the International Arctic Forum hosted by President Vladimir Putin in Arkhangelsk, which wrapped up Thursday.

Unlike its NATO allies Norway and Denmark, who dispatched their foreign ministers to Arkhangelsk, Canada was represented by a senior foreign affairs bureaucrat in charge of the Arctic file, Alison LeClaire.

Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Børge Brende met with Lavrov on the sidelines of the Forum, while Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö and Iceland’s  President Guðni  Jóhannesson participated in a panel discussion with Putin.   

A message of unity

Freeland said Russia was one of the main topics discussed at the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.

“Issues on the agenda primarily were Russia, Ukraine, counterterrorism and burden sharing,” Freeland said. “On Ukraine, I spoke about Canada’s strong commitment to an independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine.”

She also spoke about the battle group that Canada will be leading in Latvia, as part of a 4,000-strong NATO-enhanced presence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, to shore the defences on NATO’s northeastern flank against a possible Russian threat, Freeland said.

“It was a very good and very frank conversation,” Freeland said. “I have to say the message that I take from the meeting today is that there is strong trans-Atlantic unity in NATO, strong unity of all the NATO allies.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Freeze or thaw? What Freeland’s appointment means for Russia-Canada relations in the Arctic, Radio Canada International

Denmark:  Nordics to step up security cooperation on perceived Russian threat, Yle News

Finland: Niinistö plays down possible Trump-Putin meeting in Finland, Yle  News

Iceland:  The Arctic Council at 20 – View from Iceland, Eye on the Arctic

Norway:  Law of the Sea and International Law is the “Constitution” of the Arctic says Norway’s foreign minister, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: International Arctic Forum kicks off in Arkhangelsk, Radio Canada International

Sweden: Swedish foreign minister to meet Russian counterpart, Radio Sweden

United States: Arctic Council – 20 years in a warming world, Deutsche Welle’s Iceblogger

Levon Sevunts, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Armenia, Levon started his journalistic career in 1990, covering wars and civil strife in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1992, after the government in Armenia shut down the TV program he was working for, Levon immigrated to Canada. He learned English and eventually went back to journalism, working first in print and then in broadcasting. Levon’s journalistic assignments have taken him from the High Arctic to Sahara and the killing fields of Darfur, from the streets of Montreal to the snow-capped mountaintops of Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. He says, “But best of all, I’ve been privileged to tell the stories of hundreds of people who’ve generously opened up their homes, refugee tents and their hearts to me.”

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