Canada's credibility problem keeps doors closed during Ukraine talks

Much was made earlier this week about an alleged "snub" after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was not invited to a meeting about Ukraine. But experts ask why Canada would be invited when Russia sees us as a party to the conflict and our allies don't believe we have anything serious to offer the talks.

Whether a 'snub' this week was real or perceived, experts say Canada's exclusion from talks is justified

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaks to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a signing ceremony for a free-trade agreement in Kyiv in July. (Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

When the U.S., France, Germany, Britain and Italy talked with Ukraine about the meltdown in security there in 2014, the door was closed on Stephen Harper.

That was news.

The Conservatives had worked very hard to convince everyone — friend and foe alike — that Canada was Ukraine's best friend and the optics of being left on the sidelines at the NATO summit in Wales two years ago was unmistakable.

We have been seen as a party to the conflict.- Piotr Dutkiewicz, political science professor at Carleton University and Russia expert

It was, however, a footnote in the day's coverage, coming as it did on the same day that the former Conservative prime minister announced the first special forces deployment to Iraq to counter ISIS fighters there.

Contrast that with the amount of ink spilled last week after the G20, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was not invited to a meeting about Ukraine.

There was a flurry of hand-wringing, even though Canada has never been a part of the assembly of nations searching for peace in Ukraine. The club is known as the Normandy contact group, or the Normandy format. 

Liberals harder to pin down

The Liberals have been decidedly circumspect in their Ukraine policy: sounding hard-nosed, but not bellicose, and cautiously seeking an even-tempered dialogue with an increasingly ill-tempered Russia.

Harper, who recently received Ukraine's Order of Liberty, gave much more to shoot at in political terms.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper was a strong supporter of the current Ukraine government and last month was awarded the Order of Liberty, one of Ukraine's highest honours. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

But no one should be surprised Canada has been on the outside looking in under both Harper and Trudeau, say a pair of experts.

"We are perfectly positioned for a conversation on Ukraine, with so many connections and diaspora," said Piotr Dutkiewicz, a political science professor at Carleton University and an expert on Russia, "but no one will look at us seriously as an honest broker. We have been seen as a party to the conflict."

Much of that is the legacy of the former Conservative government, which practised bullhorn diplomacy and restricted relations with Russia to the point where Canada became a "non-entity" in Moscow, he said.

Re-engaging Russia

It might have been better coming out of the G20 to ask how Trudeau's policy of rapprochement with Russia is going.

The answer, it seems, is painfully slowly.

Dutkiewicz said the Liberals have outlined a clear and coherent vision, but have done little work to put a policy of re-engagement into action. Russia, he said, is interested in only two things with Canada — trade and investment and the Arctic — and Trudeau's government has not taken any steps on either issue.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department quietly tightened sanctions against Russia just ahead of the G20, aiming to hit those who had skirted previous penalties after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

It would be interesting to know whether Trudeau's government is prepared to follow suit.

Even though Canada is not part of the Normandy format, it has signaled it won't use its influence with Kyiv until Moscow lives up to all of its conditions under Minsk 2, the last fragile attempt to broker an end to the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Even if Trudeau's government was willing to go to bat in the name of better relations with Russia, it's doubtful it would be heard over Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who keeps warning that Russia is preparing for a full-scale invasion.

Ukrainian soldiers ride in an armoured vehicle near Kramatorsk in 2014. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Proximity to the U.S. taints our image

Dominique Arel, an associate political science professor and chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa, said Canada faces another credibility problem even if it were at the Normandy format table: its proximity to the U.S.

"We would have to be seen as not being a proxy" for Washington, he said, noting there has been little in the way of daylight between Canada and the U.S. in policy terms.

Since the Liberals have made a point of saying Canada's posture is less ideologically driven than it was under the Conservatives, it's free to speak forcefully on a range of issues related to Ukraine, notably corruption and the rule of law. 

There have been a number of disturbing trends, notably the murder of a prominent journalist in late July. 

Pavel Sheremet was known for his unflinching anti-corruption reporting throughout eastern Europe, and had made enemies of authoritarian presidents and oligarchs alike.

Poroshenko, in the aftermath of the killing, announced the U.S. would help in the investigation and the FBI was being dispatched.

Canada needs to show timely response

Yet, the case remains unsolved. Although, the suspicion is shadowy groups from nearby Belarus were responsible.

You would think getting to the bottom of Sheremet's death matters — beyond Trudeau's penchant for saying journalism matters in democracy — because $3 million was set aside by Canada last year to train investigative journalists in Ukraine to uncover corruption.

There was an official statement by the U.S. State Department hours after the killing, but nothing from Global Affairs Canada (although the department's director of development policy did retweet news of the event the day it happened).

Trudeau, no doubt, got an even bigger earful about the state of democracy from the civil society groups he met in Kyiv in early July.

If Canada is so anxious for a seat at any table when it comes to Ukraine, both Arel and Dutkiewicz say the Liberals need to address events in real-time and put some of their often-touted principles into practise.