Freeland's promotion a 'very, very bold move' in Canada-Russia relations

The appointment of Chrystia Freeland as Canada's top diplomat could signal the Trudeau government's abandonment of warmer relations with Moscow, say experts.

New foreign affairs minister says being on Russia's sanctions list 'a question for Moscow,' not her

Chrystia Freeland looks on after being sworn-in as Canada's foreign affairs minister during a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Jan. 10, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The door may be open in Washington to Canada's new foreign affairs minister, but it's closed — even barred shut — in Moscow.

And depending on whom you ask, it may stay that way.

Chrystia Freeland, who is now Canada's top diplomat, is one of the prominent names sanctioned by Russia.

And a spokeswoman for that country's foreign ministry hinted on Wednesday that removing her from the blacklist would depend on the Trudeau government taking action.

Maria Zaharova told CBC News on Wednesday that the sanctions were a "countermeasure" in response to those Canada imposed on Russia.

"Withdrawing her from the list is an issue of reciprocity, mirror-like," Zaharova said, adding that nothing prevents Freeland from meeting with Russian officials outside Russia.

 "We are ready to co-operate and to improve relations with Canada," she said. "We are ready to normalize relations with Canada."

A spokesman for Freeland answered late Wednesday, suggesting Canada was not about to update its sanctions policy.

"I can tell you that there is no quid pro quo for aggression and illegal action on their part," said Joseph Pickerill, referring to the Russian annexation of Crimea.

The Liberal government attempted to frame the shuffling of six ministers — including the unceremonious end to the career of Freeland's predecessor, Stéphane Dion — as a shakeup ahead of the U.S. inauguration of Donald Trump.

But international experts and observers say the Kremlin will likely be the one to sit up and take notice.

Freeland's elevation in cabinet represents a tacit recognition that Russia has moved back to the top of global affairs, and that the file requires someone with a deep understanding of the issues and the players.

"It's a bold appointment," said Dominique Arel, an associate professor and the chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa. "Symbolically, it is a very, very bold move."

He said Freeland, whose maternal grandparents were Ukrainian, "has been outspoken and articulate on the Ukraine question." That's what landed her on the sanctions list following Russia's annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014.

We are open to develop bilateral relations on the basis of mutual respect and reciprocity.- Kirill Kalinin, Russian embassy spokesman in Ottawa

Both Arel and Paul Grod, the head of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said they can't imagine Freeland will remain on that list much longer, even if her removal is a diplomatic courtesy.

Her blacklisted status is "a question for Moscow" to address, Freeland told reporters, noting that she supports the Liberal government's long-standing view that it's important to engage with all countries, including Russia, where she lived for four years as a journalist.

'Hope … to further re-engage'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had brushed aside concerns after his new foreign minister was sworn in, pointing to her success in finalizing a free trade deal with Europe.

"As for how she gets along with Russia, well, she speaks fluent Russian," Trudeau said.

Freeland has criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin for his tactics in Ukraine and has attracted attention in the Kremlin for writing about corruption in Russia. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Ukraine's ambassador to Canada, Andriy Shevchenko, said he believes Freeland's appointment means Canada will continue to stand fast when it comes to sanctions, imposed by the former Conservative government and recently enhanced by the Liberals.

In late November, Trudeau's cabinet quietly agreed to impose another round of restrictions, adding six members the Russian parliament to Canada's list. Each of them represent districts within the contested Crimean region. 

The Liberals campaigned in 2015 on the intention of warming relations with Moscow, but another expert in eastern European studies says that "brief era" is drawing to a close.

Making Freeland the country's top diplomat will return the exchange between the two countries back to the deep freeze, said Piotr Dutkiewicz, the director of the Institute of European and Russian Studies at Carleton University.

He said Moscow's animosity towards her extends beyond criticism over Ukraine. The Kremlin remembers her book, Sale of the Century, which was published in 2000 and took on the nation's economic culture of kleptocracy.

"I believe it will be a period of frozen relations on both sides," he said. "Ms. Freeland is heavily anti-Russian biased."

Although the Russians are "pragmatic," he said he wonders what kind of dialogue they can have with her.

At odds with Trump's America

Dutkiewicz also said he believes Freeland's views will create a wedge between Canada and the U.S., at least on the question of Russia — if Trump is truly as friendly toward President Vladimir Putin as his Twitter posts would suggest.

A falling out with Washington over Moscow would be disastrous, he said.

"It will further diminish our capacity in the forum of international relations," said Dutkiewicz, who suggested the U.S. would simply stop inviting Canada to the table on issues such as Ukraine. "And you know that old phrase: if you are not at the table, you are on the menu."

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly stressed the importance of a positive relationship between the United States and Putin's Russia. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Grod disagreed and said he believes that Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, could find a lot of common ground with Freeland, since both of them have intimate knowledge of Russia and its key players.

In contrast to Freeland, Tillerson — the former ExxonMobil CEO — was honoured in 2013 with one of the Kremlin's highest honours, the Order of Friendship.

Shevchenko says President Petro Poroshenko sent a Twitter note to congratulate Freeland, but no one in Kiev is expecting the country will get a free ride because she knows it so well.

"She knows our strong sides and our drawbacks," he said. "She know quite well the Ukrainian elite. She knows quite well the corruption we have been fighting. I think we can expect a very strong, sincere and honest conversation between the two countries."

Ukraine crisis a long game: Liberal MP

10 years ago
Duration 7:13
Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland comments on what role Canada should play in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Russia and Crimea

Freeland attempted to strike a gracious tone when asked about her blunt criticism of Putin's government.

"I know Russia well," she said. "I lived in Moscow for four years and really, really enjoyed it. And I have a really deep love for the Russian language and Russian culture."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

With files from Susan Ormiston