When Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets his Group of Seven counterparts to discuss the crisis in Ukraine next week, he’ll be the only leader able to give a first-hand account.
Harper heads to Ukraine today, where he will cement his status as one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sharpest critics within G-7. He will meet Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Kiev tomorrow and repeat his condemnation of Russia’s “illegal military occupation” of Crimea, the prime minister’s office said in a statement.
The trip comes days before G-7 leaders meet during a nuclear security summit in The Hague to discuss how to respond to Russia’s actions. The dispute over Ukrainian territory has set off the bitterest confrontation between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
Harper’s animosity toward Putin and Russia is driven by a principles-based foreign policy and he isn’t afraid to speak his mind to his counterparts, said John Kirton, director of the G-8 research group at the University of Toronto.
“He’s regarded as a man of conviction who’s very clear,” Kirton said in a telephone interview yesterday. Paraphrasing former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Kirton said of Harper: “The man’s not for turning.”
There’s little doubt about Harper’s views. In June, he accused Putin of supporting “thugs” in the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and said the G-8 had evolved into the “G-7 plus one.”
Like the U.S. and other allies, Canada has imposed financial sanctions and travel bans on Russian officials. Harper’s government has also recalled its ambassador to Russia, suspended military cooperation and pledged C$220 million ($196 million) in financial aid to Ukraine.
“Mr. Putin’s reckless and unilateral actions will lead only to Russia’s further economic and political isolation from the community,” Harper said after Crimea voted to join Russia in a March 16 referendum.
Canada has also clashed with Russia over territorial claims in the Arctic. In January, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada planned to claim the North Pole, prompting Putin to promise to devote “special attention” to Russia’s Arctic military presence.
Harper’s verbal attacks have come despite the relatively small trading relation between the two countries. Canada trades more with Peru and Algeria than it does with Russia, and Canada is the only G-7 country not among the list of Russia’s top 20 trading partners.
At the same time, Canadian companies such as Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. have seen an impact from the crisis in Ukraine. In Russia, Valeant sells $400 million to $500 million worth of over-the-counter medicines like AntiGrippin for treating colds. Sales growth in the country was as high as 20 percent and has slowed since the onset of the Russia-Ukraine dispute to low double digits, Chief Executive Officer Mike Pearson said.
The visit also gives Harper the opportunity to bolster political support among the nation’s 1.2 million Ukrainian Canadians, said Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat who’s now vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. Canada had a population of 32.9 million in 2011, according to the last national census.
“It’s heartfelt, but it’s also very good politics,” Robertson said.
Harper, who has called Canada an emerging “energy superpower,” may also use the trip to emphasize Canada’s potential as a reliable supplier of crude and natural gas. The European Union is looking at ways to reduce its reliance on Russian gas exports, according to a draft EU document released this week.
The crisis underscores the need for Canada to build crude pipelines and liquefied natural gas terminals that would enable shipments to Europe, said former natural-resources minister Joe Oliver.
“A lot of countries are under the Russian boot,” Oliver said in an interview in Toronto on March 14, five days before he was appointed finance minister. “We present ourselves, not currently but hopefully, as a potential source of energy to Europe.”
As a member of NATO, Canada can play a “small but important role” in encouraging other countries in the alliance to recognize the threat posed by Russia, said Roland Paris, director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa.
“I expect that he’ll offer very strong support of the Ukrainian government in Kiev and that he’ll lambaste Russia for its intervention in Crimea,” Paris said. “Whether that criticism goes beyond words, mild sanctions and the symbolism of recalling an ambassador remains to be seen.”
Harper will also meet Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and then travel to Germany for an official visit, where he’ll meet Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Harper, 54, has shown that he has a “binary” view of foreign policy that categorizes countries as good or bad, Robertson said.
“It’s the autocrats versus the democrats,” he said. “It’s the Cold War 2.0.”