Ottawa reduced to 'gestures' on Ukraine, say former top envoys

The Harper government's response to the Russia-Ukraine crisis smacked of empty gestures from a country that has become increasingly marginalized on the world stage, two retired Canadian ambassadors charged Sunday.

Ex-diplomats and experts divided over Canada's recall of ambassador

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird arrives to brief the media on the latest developments in Ukraine in Toronto on Sunday. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

The Harper government's response to the Russia-Ukraine crisis smacked of empty gestures from a country that has become increasingly marginalized on the world stage, two retired Canadian ambassadors charged Sunday.

Those scathing reviews came from two of the county's most distinguished ex-diplomats: Jeremy Kinsman, who has served as Canada's senior envoy to Russia, Britain, Italy and the European Union, and Paul Heinbecker, the former ambassador to the United Nations and an adviser to past Conservative and Liberal prime ministers.

They were highly critical of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision Saturday to temporarily withdraw Canada's ambassador to Russia, and of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird for not ruling out the expulsion of Russia's ambassador to Canada, Georgiy Mamedov, in a later televised interview.

Both dismissed the Canadian response as "gestures" that underscored Canada's lack of clout on the world stage, especially since its historic failure to win a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2010.

"We are the great practitioners of grand gestures," Kinsman said Sunday in a telephone interview from California.

"Pulling your ambassador out for consultations — I happen to believe always you don't do that. That's strictly a gesture. This is the one time when you want your ambassador there."

Russian envoy 'dean of the diplomatic corps'

Kinsman said that recalling Canada's ambassador and suggesting the Russia's envoy to Ottawa could be next is "silly" and that the government simply wants to be "seem to be doing something."

"That's just childish," he added. "Georgiy Mamedov is the dean of the diplomatic corps. He's being there for 11 years, he's been dealing with Canada for 30. He's a professional."

Heinbecker said at times like these it is essential to maintain high-level diplomatic contact — not cut it off.

"Mamedov is one of the guys you really want to be able to talk to," Heinbecker said in an interview in Ottawa.

"Mamedov was the guy who negotiated the end of the Kosovo war. He knows a little bit about how to cope with these kind of West-versus-Russia situations."

Heinbecker said he hopes Canada's envoy returns to his post in Moscow within days and that the Harper government recognizes the need to keep its embassy there, and Russia's in Ottawa, functioning at full strength.

"It's a government given to gestures. It's foreign-policy by declaration and by gesture, all calculated with an eye on the next election," Heinbecker said of Ottawa's general response to the crisis.

'Principled step in the right direction'

Fen Hampson, director of the global security at Waterloo, Ont.'s Centre for International Governance Innovation, defended the government's decision as "a principled step in the right direction." He also praised Baird for visiting protesters in Kyiv in December.
Foreign Minister John Baird visited the central Independence square in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dec. 5, 2013. (Sergei Chuzavkov/AP)

On Saturday, Harper also announced that Canada planned to boycott preparatory meetings of ministers and officials for the G8 summit, which is supposed to be held in June in Sochi, where the Winter Olympics just ended.

Hampson said Canada should begin discussions with other G8 members about expelling Russia, "which was admitted on our watch at the Halifax summit" in 1995. He also said Canada has an influential role to play in NATO.

"As a NATO member, we should also be pressing to beef up NATO forces in Central Europe and the Balkans while also ensuring in ongoing talks between NATO and Russia that the situation does not escalate or get out of hand," he added.

Roland Paris, director of the University of Ottawa's Centre for International Policy Studies, said Canada needs to do more to reinforce its commitment to NATO.

"These events also underscore the ongoing importance of the NATO alliance. There is a perception among some officials at NATO headquarters that Canada's commitment to the alliance has waned in recent years."

Senior Foreign Affairs Department officials also summoned Mamedov on Saturday, and reamed him out "in the strongest terms certainly in my time at Foreign Affairs," Baird told Global's West Block on Sunday. Baird did not rule out expelling Mamedov, saying "we'll obviously be revisiting this on an hour-by-hour basis."

Loss of Security Council seat

Kinsman and Heinbecker said all the bluster underscored the fact that Canada's ability to influence world events has been greatly diminished since loss of the Security Council seat in 2010. Baird has since said Canada won't mount a repeat campaign to win a seat.

This past weekend there was a reminder of Canada's failure to win a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2010. Had Canada succeeded its two-year term would've expired by now.

However, tiny Luxembourg chaired Saturday's crucial council meeting on the crisis, as part of the rotating duties that the rotating cast of non-permanent countries is allowed to perform at the influential world body.

"Generally speaking, you can see that the big issues do get discussed at the UN Security Council," said Heinbecker.

"When you take yourself out of that game, you lose one of the vehicles you have for having some influence."

Added Kinsman: "If you're not there, you're not involved. It's the same as pulling out your ambassador. You need to be present for any discussion. Outcomes always involve compromise."

Baird is flouting the "evidence" that compromise is a necessary feature of international diplomacy and you need to be at the table to negotiate it, said Kinsman.

The reality, said Kinsman, is that Ukraine is Russia's neighbour and the two have to be encouraged by the West to find a diplomatic solution to the current crisis.

Heinbecker said there is no prospect that NATO countries will ride into Ukraine like the "calvary" based on the lack of military intervention to save Georgia or in Syria.

The only way out of the situation, said Heinbecker, is a diplomatic effort, "a mixture of carrots and sticks."

Instead of simply boycotting the G8 meeting the other member countries should convene a separate G7 at the same time as the Sochi meeting would have taken place, he said.

"That would send some kind of a message to Putin."