Canada meets Russian foreign minister for first time in years

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion is sitting down with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Laos, a signal the Liberal government is looking to thaw relations with Russia.

Dion to raise Canada's concerns about Russia's involvement in Ukraine and Syria, standoff with NATO

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion is meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Laos today, the first such meeting of its kind betwen the two countries in years. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion sat down Monday with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov — the first meeting of its kind in years.

The 30-minute discussion took place in the tiny country of Laos on the margins of an annual meeting of Southeast Asian nations. It represented the most tangible move yet by the Liberal government to thaw relations with Moscow.

Contacts between the two countries had been largely limited to discussions between bureaucrats since Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014. The previous Conservative government took a harder line than even the U.S., steadfastly refusing to meet with anyone from the Kremlin until Russia left Crimea.

Dion spokesman Joseph Pickerill said the Dion raised "frank" concerns about Russia's involvement in Ukraine and Syria, as well as its current standoff with NATO in eastern Europe.

But the ministers also talked about the potential for co-operation in the Arctic, space and counter-terrorism — issues on which the Russians have been keen to focus as they have attempted to change the channel away from Ukraine.

The Liberals promised during last year's election campaign to re-engage with Russia after the previous Conservative government had cut nearly all ties. However, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been facing calls to keep up the pressure.

The Liberal government agreed earlier this month to organize a 1,000-strong NATO battle group in Latvia whose mission is to dissuade neighbouring Russia from flexing its muscles in the Baltic state. The U.S., United Kingdom and Germany are organizing similar forces in Poland, Estonia and Lithuania.

Earlier this month, Dion called it "terribly unfortunate" that Canada had to send military forces to Latvia. But he also said it was only a matter of time before he sat down at the table with Lavrov.

Sources say a meeting between Dion and Lavrov had been in the works for some time, and that this week's Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Laos was chosen because it represented a neutral site for both parties.