Planning next steps for Canada-Russia relations

It may be premature to imagine Stéphane Dion visiting Moscow, but multilaterally, Canada’s re-engagement with Russia can readily begin.

By: /
April 11, 2016
A Russian police officer stands guard outside the Canadian embassy in Moscow, April 22, 2014. REUTERS/Artur Bainozarov

After a decade at daggers drawn, the two largest countries in the world are on speaking terms again. Our government has abandoned Stephen Harper's policy of vocal disdain and the attempted isolation of Russia. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Global Affairs Minister Dion emphasize that “Russia’s interference in Ukraine must cease” – but, the minister says, “the more we disagree, the more we have to discuss,” adding that "in our relations with Russia...we will seek the best results for Ukraine."

The Harper line, recall, was that we'd have no relations whatever with Russia until Crimea was back in Ukraine – and the cows came home. 

Canada seeks re-engagement with Russia bearing new credentials and commitments. We have a new leader with evident potential to play a significant role in the world. In a rough season, we’re in a new league. Our contender will need good lines, substantive support. What’s more, we are now embarked on a five-year campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. We’ll need coherent platform and performance. At our foreign ministry, we’ll need an A-team.

We seek re-engagement with Russia at a complex and dramatic juncture in East-West relations. On the one hand, we’re all but back to the Cold War. Popular Russian and Western narratives collide head-on. To the Kremlin, the West is an enemy again, out to contain and to weaken Russia. To the West, Russia is an aggressive spoiler, out to undermine Ukraine, Western unity, NATO, the EU and much more.

Sabres are rattling on both sides. Russia has made much show of new arms – from the Donbas to the Middle East. The West is bristling too. President Barack Obama seeks to quadruple, to US$3.4 billion, this year’s funding for heavy weapons for NATO in Europe, where NATO members’ military budgets and capabilities remain modest. The act reaffirms the North Atlantic link, that unique U.S. trans-oceanic projection of power. Once again, as through the last hundred years, Europe in distress seeks U.S. remedy.

On the other hand, while all these risks have been escalating, East-West relations are being warmed by the flames of the Middle East. Driven in part by the wanton slaughter of Christians, the Pope has met the Patriarch. That’s epochal. To fight vicious Islamic fanatics, Christendom unites! Catholics may gain an antidote to celibacy. The Kremlin, which coddles and sanctions the Russian Orthodox church, may gain soft power, of possible use in Ukraine, which the ancient Christian schism still divides.

In the Middle East, Russia and the U.S. are already cooperating, albeit fitfully, by bringing Iran in from the cold, head-bashing Syrian parties and their backers to talk, abiding Bashar al-Assad (for a while at least) and fighting ISIS. With luck, a major East-West, Shia-Sunni proxy war may yet be averted.

So what’s it to be: Cold War II, with reinforced NATO deterrence of an alienated Russia, or cooperation, if at the start only opportunistic, with sanctions relief and rapprochement?

There is no simple answer.

It looks to me like a bit of both. F. Scott Fitzgerald comes to mind: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Some spring’s sprung, but there's a lot of ice to thaw. Canada’s bilateral relations are constrained by sanctions, likely to be lifted only in step with allies and the fulfillment, halting at best, of the Minsk peace plan for Ukraine. What’s more, in mid-March, in order to “demonstrate our firm resolve…and strengthen our collective ability to hold [Russia] to account,” we imposed new sanctions on specified Russian and Ukrainian entities and individuals (a kick in the shin which does seem an odd first step in our new dance).

Multilaterally however, Canada’s re-engagement with Russia can readily begin. In the world of the UN and its myriad agencies, of the Arctic Council, the OSCE, the NPT, the NATO-Russia Council, the International Support Group for Syria and many more, Russia is unavoidable, its diplomats able and relentless. In all these settings, our delegations can start again with Russia’s, seeking common ground, despite our withered bilateral links.

Bilaterally, we can start anew with a few basics, such as the resumption of normal diplomatic and Embassy functions and officials’ policy consultations focused on concrete interests. We might begin with subjects relatively free of contention, such as anti-terrorism or cooperation in the Arctic.

Without getting ahead of ourselves, we should also be planning for Ministerial engagement. It may be premature to imagine Stéphane Dion visiting Russia or Sergei Lavrov coming here, but the two ministers might well soon schedule substantive talks on the margins of a multilateral encounter.

Having paid Russia the essential respect of diplomatic re-engagement – and in doing so recognized that its interests must be taken into account – what matters now is what substance we bring to the encounter, what attitude and comprehension, what vision of Eurasian security, what policy pursued in NATO.

Minister Dion's plan to seek the best outcome for Ukraine in our relations with Russia makes good sense. I think there is no good outcome for Ukraine that involves hostility with Russia, no good outcome without reconciliation, an end to this tragic Slavic civil war, nor without Ukrainian freedom to trade with both Europe and Russia, not just one or the other. Bilaterally and multilaterally, by all means, these are the outcomes we should seek for Ukraine.

In our consultations with Russia – and with the U.S. and our NATO partners – we will need to address the bigger picture as well: above all, the need for a better fence between Russia and NATO, a “mending wall,” in Robert Frost’s phrase, the need for new understanding and a big new security deal. In it, a neutral Ukraine, essential cartilage in the skeleton of Eurasian security, might, at last, be given a chance – by both sides – to unite, recover, reform and progress.

And the rest of us might sleep better too.

This article is an extract from a policy paper prepared for CGAI, the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.