Harper's tough stance on Ukraine out of step with international reality

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper portrays himself as the West's tough guy in hounding Russia for its intervention in Ukraine — the annexation of Crimea and its backing for separatists controlling vast swathes of the coalfields in the east of the country.

Evidence suggests Russia pays scant attention to Conservative leader's voluble approach

Conservative leader Stephen Harper's calling out of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit hasn't affected change in Ukraine, Ron Popeski writes. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper portrays himself as the West's tough guy in hounding Russia for its intervention in Ukraine — the annexation of Crimea and its backing for separatists controlling vast swathes of the coalfields in the east of the country.

But his voluble approach may be out of step with diplomatic efforts to tackle calamities in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Harper famously told Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin at a G20 summit last year to "get out of Ukraine" and fulminated that Russia should be formally — and once and for all — kicked out of the more exclusive club of G7 industrialized states as long as Putin remains in power.

He told other party leaders in this week's foreign policy debate that no country has stood with Ukraine more than Canada. 

Such high-profile stands may play well at election time with Canada's 1.2 million-strong Ukrainian diaspora, whose clout and influence extend far beyond their numbers.

Canada, of course, has a history of privileged relations with Ukraine. Along with Poland, it immediately recognized Ukraine's break from Soviet rule on the strength of a 90 per cent referendum vote in favour of independence in 1991 and has since offered considerable assistance and helped oversee many of its elections.

Harper's indignant defence

But does Harper's indignant defence of Ukraine's lost "territorial integrity" after the Crimean debacle, the separatist takeovers, a downed Malaysian civilian airliner and tolls of 8,000 dead and 1.4 million displaced contribute to the resolution of international crises, now that the Ukraine conflict has been pushed from centre stage by the Syrian civil war?

And are the Russians listening at all?

The evidence would suggest that Moscow pays scant attention.

And the strident exchanges have reopened a decades-old debate over how best to deal with a Russia viewed as a troublemaker and bully — by engaging or isolating it.

A Kremlin spokesman in June described Harper's comments on making Russia's suspension from G7 permanent as a "revival of the rhetoric of the 1970s." Other Western countries, notably Germany, have suggested a prolonged Russian absence from G7 discussions made no sense, on whatever grounds.

Reduced to irrelevance

In terms of advancing diplomacy, Harper's truculence has all but reduced to irrelevance Canada's efforts to tackle the crisis.

U.S. President Barack Obama overcame his clear reluctance and met the Kremlin leader this week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session.

By all accounts, little progress was recorded in bridging the diplomatic chasm in terms of both Syria and Ukraine. Putin still insisted on supporting the "legitimate government" of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the best option to drive back Islamic State militants and secured little immediate support for his notion of a "broad coalition" to achieve this.

He gave no ground in rejecting out of hand the administration of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who came to power after a popular uprising removed his Moscow-backed predecessor. The Kiev authorities, he said, were the product of a "coup" engineered from outside the country with U.S. connivance.

Obama said there could be no return to the way Syria was run before the outbreak of civil war 4½ years ago and made it clear Washington still views the seizure of Crimea as the complete overturning of the post-Cold War world order.

At least they're talking

But at least the two were talking for the first time in two years.

Putin told Russian reporters that the two sides now had an understanding on strengthening their joint efforts and thinking on "creation of appropriate mechanisms."

And with more than 130,000 dead in Syria and four million refugees outside the country, that is probably no mean feat.

With that, world leaders — and public opinion weary of low-level conflict in Ukrainian villages, however strategic, and alarmed at the tragedy of dead Syrian refugees washed up on beaches — appear to be implicitly rejecting any notion of isolating Russia and favouring engagement instead.

Russian liberals point to a history of isolating Russia repeatedly spawning 20th century catastrophes at home — the Holodomor and 1930s Stalinist terror among them.

For the Americans, the issue is a practical one aimed at problem-solving in Syria.

And not even the surprise Russian air strikes on Assad's opponents this week — with a mere one hour's notice for Washington — did anything to dampen a U.S. commitment to confer more closely with the Kremlin.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has remained in close contact with Moscow throughout the Ukraine conflict, was quick to consult his veteran Russian opposite number, Sergei Lavrov, and patch together an agreement on talks to avoid accidental confrontations in Syria and establish Moscow's intended targets in the country.

The two sides, Kerry said, had agreed to explore further options to help wind down the conflict.

Ron Popeski, born and raised in Winnipeg, was a Reuters correspondent in Europe and Asia for more than 25 years, including several stints in Ukraine and Russia. He is now back in the city.


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