Canada should reassess its approach to Russia, say opposition critics who accuse the federal government of not having a plan and taking cues from the international community rather than leading the way.
On March 26, the Liberal government kicked out four Russian diplomats as part of a wave of expulsions in more than 20 countries offering solidarity to the United Kingdom, which blamed Russia for a nerve-agent attack on its soil against a former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in early March. Last week, the international chemical weapons watchdog backed the U.K.’s findings that a Russia-developed, military-grade nerve agent was the type of chemical used to poison the two.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said he’d like the government to re-evaluate all Russian diplomats in Canada, though he said that’s not likely to happen.
“I think we probably could have [gone] farther than just the four diplomats,” said Mr. Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, Man.). “They are active in trying to destabilize our electoral process and influence the outcomes.”
He said it’s important Canada’s sanctions “be in step” with its allies.
“If we want to send a loud message as it relates to the Salisbury attack then we need to take an even bigger stick and weed through those diplomats that are here in Canada that may have connection and ties to what happened in the U.K.”
On Monday, Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland (University–Rosedale, Ont.), along with her counterparts in the other G7 nations, called on Russia “to urgently address all questions related to the incident in Salisbury” and the use of the “military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia.”
Her initial statement on March 26 noted the expulsion was in solidarity with the U.K., but that those kicked out had “used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada’s security or interfere in our democracy.”
While most agree it’s “highly likely Russia did it or Russians did [the poisoning],” former diplomat Jeremy Kinsman said, it’s still “entirely hypothetical.”
“You couldn’t convict a criminal on that but everybody feels [the Russians] did it,” said Mr. Kinsman, who was the Canadian ambassador to Russia from 1992 to 1996, as well as in the U.K. and to the European Union.
In announcing that four members of Russia’s diplomatic staff, serving either at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa or the consulate general in Montreal, had been kicked out, Ms. Freeland’s statement said they had been “identified as intelligence officers or individuals,” and that for “similar reasons, three applications by the Russian government for additional diplomatic staff in Canada will now be denied.”
Though Mr. Kinsman said he’s “not absolving” the Russians of responsibility for the attack in England, the reasons given for the expulsion of diplomats in Canada can’t directly be tied to the incident, because of that hypothetical nature.
The Liberals didn’t have to say what they did, Mr. Kinsman said, pointing to security concerns. The government should have used the typical phrase for such matters, that they were being “expelled for activities incompatible with their diplomatic status,” he added.
Instead, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) went with what Mr. Kinsman called a “silly remark,” when he pointed to “Russian propagandists” as working to to discredit Ms. Freeland, against whom Russia has maintained a travel ban since 2014 for advocating for Western sanctions against the country.
Last year, media reports alleged details of Ms. Freeland’s maternal grandfather’s past as a Nazi propagandist, which she didn’t deny but suggested should be dismissed as part of a Russian disinformation campaign.
“It has nothing to do with that,” said Mr. Kinsman. “I don’t think it’s happening in Canada in dimensions that are going to make a difference to our democracy,” and to the same extent it may have happened in other countries.
Liberal MP Ruby Sahota (Brampton North, Ont.) said as much on CTV’s Question Period in early April, that “the only reason” for the expulsions was to stay in solidarity with the U.K. over the Skripal poisoning.
NDP MP Randall Garrison (Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, B.C.), his party’s defence critic, also questioned the rationale, calling the March 26 statement a “peculiar press release.”
“If the government had evidence [Russians] were interfering in Canadian democracy and affecting Canadians’ security, then what took so long for them to be expelled? Why wait until it was part of the response to what happened in Britain?”
The Russian Embassy did not respond to request from The Hill Times for an interview with Ambassador Alexander Darchiev. In late March, as CBC reported, when Mr. Trudeau said Mr. Putin needs to start playing a more positive role in the world, the embassy fired back, saying “confrontational rhetoric” was prompted by “U.K. slanderous Russophobic hysteria,” calling it “counterproductive.”
In this instance, and others, with Russia, Mr. Garrison said the government “appears to have an uncoordinated approach to the broader international issues,” including with how it responds to Russian provocations.
In response to questions from The Hill Times, Global Affairs Canada referred to the two statements issued on Monday on Russia and from the Prime Minister’s Office supporting actions taken in Syria in the aftermath of chemical weapons used April 7 in eastern Ghouta.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad from the beginning of the seven-year civil war that has ravaged the country, with Russia using its United Nations veto to block some international sanctions, and saying the most-recent chemical attack was staged by foreign agents.
In retaliation on April 13, U.S. President Donald Trump approved an American missile strike aimed at alleged Syrian chemical weapons facilities, a move that Mr. Garrison called “a violation of international law” and criticized Mr. Trudeau’s support for.
In a statement the same evening, Mr. Trudeau said “Canada supports the decision by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France to take action to degrade the Assad regime’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks against its own people.”
“We have a bunch of one-off actions that seem to be responsive to our allies rather than a pursuit of any consistent policy for Canada,” he said, saying Canada has stopped being a leader on the diplomatic front and has instead become “a cheerleader for the United States.”
Mr. Bezan, meanwhile, said Canada should do more than offer verbal support, questioning whether Canada was asked to do more.
Canada has “zero” relationship with Russia at this point, but needs one given its impact in the Arctic and other key areas on the world stage and as a member of the Security Council, Mr. Kinsman said.
In contrast Mr. Bezan said he thinks some in the PMO still sympathize with former foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion’s approach of “responsible conviction”—which he said is a “code word for appeasement”—and should follow an even stronger path.
“We have to continue to push our allies to do more to isolate and deter Putin’s imperialistic ambitions.”
Mr. Dion’s former adviser Jocelyn Coulon recently penned a book that offered some insight in the frosty relationship with Mr. Trudeau, as news outlets reported, including an anecdote that Mr. Dion wanted a better relationship with Russia, but Mr. Trudeau didn’t want to hear that.
Mr. Dion’s successor, Ms. Freeland, stands in stark contrast to his way of thinking about Russia. For instance, she’s been blacklisted by Russia from entering the country.
Mr. Kinsman said he tells Ms. Freeland Canada should pursue better ties. But he’s convinced Canada’s well-organized 1.2 million-strong Ukrainian population won’t make that easy.
“Just because we’re all for Ukraine and against what they did in Crimea doesn’t mean you don’t have the relationship. Unfortunately the [Prime Minister’s Office] thinks having lousy relations with Russia is great for the vote for people in Canada.”
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