Hill Times | 13Apr2016 | Oksana Bashuk Hepburn  [video; 05:19]

‘Responsible conviction’ should not mean rapprochement with Russia

Last month, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion outlined the main thrust of Canada’s foreign policy. The emphasis is on fighting climate change, United Nations peacekeeping, post-conflict reconstruction efforts, women and refugees.

It’s also on re-engagement -- solving political differences by talking them through -- a Canadian way that works in some cases, but not in others.

In a destabilized world where dictators sow terror at home and abroad, reaching out is not enough. In this context Mr. Dion’s intent to re-engage with autocrats whom Canada has been shunning for disrupting global peace and security sounds hokey. Similarly, his focus on post-conflict reconstruction and refugees are the after-the-fact response to horrific acts, rather than a strategy to stop rogue leaders.

True, thanks to punishing sanctions, some dictatorships, like Iran, are moving forward and this warrants re-engagement. But not all.

President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a warmongering state with blood and destruction on its hands. Under his regime, dozens of journalists and political activists have been murdered. His government has waged war in Ukraine and Georgia and obliterated Chechnya. It suppresses free press and opposition, promotes hate propaganda on RT, and assists autocrats in countries like North Korea and Syria. Russia destabilizes Europe and the Middle East. There is no contrition or letting up.

Rapprochement with Putin can’t possibly be a Canadian value or bring positive results even if it’s done with “responsible conviction.” Without a willingness to change by Russia, talk and re-engagement -- cornerstones of Mr. Dion’s policy -- become shameful capitulations to Canada’s pro-Putin interests and their business-at-any-cost greed. When it comes to Russia, the minister’s guiding principle for Canada to be “a fair-minded and determined peacebuilder” is misguided.

Regrettably, Canada’s policy of engagement with Russia reads like the peace-at-any-price offer by Neville Chamberlain to Hitler. Ultimately, the appeasement led to the Second World War.
Re-engagement must not be one-sided. Russia must pay a price for the grief and destruction it has sowed. To have better relations with Canada, Mr. Putin’s Russia must adhere to international law and agreements it has signed.

Mr. Dion argues that non-engagement with Russia did not help Ukraine or Canada in the Arctic. This is partially true. It would be beneficial to re-engage, if Russia were a trustworthy neighbour. It is not. Canada’s engagement was limited because Russia invaded neighbouring Ukraine, destroying life and property, demanding peace then breaking it in order to pursue its imperialistic objectives.

Meanwhile in the Arctic, it’s flexing its muscles with some 30,000 personnel manoeuvres and building a fleet of 14 icebreakers. Is it preparing for more than just talk?

It’s hard not to grimace at Mr. Dion’s assurances that Canada will have its “eyes open” in re-establishing communications with Russia. The words conjure an image of a wide-eyed kitten discussing jurisdiction over the Arctic with a crazed bear.

Of course, Russia is happy to re-engage providing it’s not at its own cost -- even better if the talk ends punishing sanctions or at least halts any increases. The best scenario for Russia is engagement that allows it to pursue its own goals, as it did in Syria.

Russia commented on Mr. Dion’s foreign policy. It blamed Canada for its “self-isolation” without taking any responsibility for the chaos that prompted it, and offered a threat rather than a thank-you for Mr. Dion’s efforts: “unfriendly steps…will be met with resolve and reciprocity.”

Since the Liberals were last in power, the world has destabilized significantly, much of it due to Russia’s belligerence. Yet some high-profile Canadians with business interests in Russia, or a desire to have them, have urged Canada to re-engage. Such advice is self-serving, indeed dangerous to Canada, yet it has become Mr. Dion’s policy. It is already being acted out.

Global Affairs Canada is engaged in a trade mission to Ukraine in concert with the Canada Eurasia Russia Business Association, a pro-Putin entity. It’s surprising that Mr. Dion sanctioned a mission comprising pro-Russia interests to explore Ukraine’s sensitive aerospace sector. Did his staffers forget Russia is waging war against Ukraine?

Meanwhile, the Canada-Ukraine Chamber of Commerce, which together with the Conference Board of Canada is managing a multi-million-dollar project to promote Canada’s investment in Ukraine, is not involved in the mission.

Most democratically minded Canadians agree that Russia is a terrorist state and the greatest adversary of the free world, including Canada. Mr. Dion’s foreign policy is frightfully out of line with this reality. It needs re-thinking.

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn is a former policy adviser to the Canadian government.

The Hill Times