Russians scorn Harper's 'shirt-fronting' of Putin

Russians are bewildered by what they see as Canada's "militancy" over Ukraine, Nahlah Ayed writes. "Why is Canada so strongly against Russia?" Pravda keeps asking.

'Why is Canada so strongly against Russia?' Pravda keeps asking

Don't anger the bear? Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Russia's President Vladimir Putin cuddle a couple of koalas prior to the start of the G20 meeting in Brisbane, Aust., on the weekend. Abbott had promised to confront Russia over Ukraine but largely played host instead. (Getty Images)

Anyone dreaming of a public "shirt-fronting" of Vladimir Putin at the G20 meeting over Russia's meddling in Eastern Ukraine instead woke up to an unsettling vision.

The enduring G20 image is of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott — who made the chest-butting promise — laughing together with the Russian president while cuddling koalas.

As broken promises go, few are as public and as unmitigated.

Instead, we're told, it was Canada's PM who semi-publicly took the Russian president on.

Stephen Harper apparently told Putin in one of the leaders' private sessions "I guess I'll shake your hand, but I only have one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine."

It was a kind of verbal shirt-fronting that might have remained private had it not been for the efforts of a Harper spokesman more than happy to share it.

A Putin spokesman, meanwhile, said the Russian leader gave his now standard reply: "Unfortunately it is impossible, because we are not there."

While not exactly a geopolitical "dust-up," as some described it, it's given Harper international headlines and a lot of applause, particularly among Ukrainians and their supporters.

In Moscow though, the incident has likely been added to a litany of Canadian "aggression" that, if not raising the ire of Russians, certainly raises many eyebrows.

Even before this latest confrontation, Russians were bewildered by what they see as Canada's "militancy" on Ukraine, putting bilateral relations "on the brink of collapse."

"Canada is neither a global player nor a world power; its army is weak and poorly armed. Why is Canada so strongly against Russia?" asked an article in the English edition of the newspaper Pravda earlier this year.

Little to lose

Once seen as a largely benign, fellow Northern nation whose worst affront, from the Russian point of view, was narrowly winning the 1972 hockey series, Canada now, after nearly a year of tough talk on Ukraine, has Russians scratching their heads.

"I fail to understand why Canada is so hurt by what's going on in Ukraine. Please explain it to me. I fail to understand it," Duma member Alexander Romanovitch, a representative on the foreign affairs committee, said in a recent interview with CBC News.

Stephen Harper walks past Russia's Vladimir Putin at the 2013 G20 Summit in St.Petersburg, Russia. This year's G20 in Brisbane was even frostier by all accounts. (Canadian Press)

"You should leave this problem, relations between Russia and Ukraine, for Russia and Ukraine to decide … without intrusion from France or Canada or the U.S."

Canada, however, has been a fiercely vocal critic of Russia's role in Ukraine since the revolution in Kiev last February, with the PM and foreign minister pointedly criticizing Putin and invoking a Cold War rhetoric that admittedly puzzled many at home too.

But Canada, clearly, has hardly been alone in its criticism.

At the G20, Putin left the meeting early after apparently feeling shunned by Western leaders, and following a tense meeting with Britain's David Cameron, who reportedly warned him Russia was at a "crossroads" and must stop supporting the separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

And from the start, U.S. President Barack Obama has led the anti-Russia charge throughout, with Europe following closely.

Western leaders suspended Russia from the G8, moved the meeting from Sochi to Brussels, and began a series of sanctions that have slowly put the squeeze on the Russian economy — and Putin's wealthy friends.

But the Russian head-scratching over Canada's position grew feverish when Ottawa started imposing sanctions — economic and political — in tandem with the U.S., and consistently exceeding those of European countries who were arguably more invested in the Russian economy, given they're "in the neighbourhood."

Though Canada and Russia can be in conflict when it comes to Arctic issues, bilateral investment and trade is relatively modest, which might be precisely why Canada is so vocal

It has little to lose, says Andrey Kortunov, president of the Moscow-based, Russian government-backed New Eurasia Foundation.

"This is not Europe, it's not Germany it's not Italy. Therefore Canadians can afford to take the position that they take without paying too high a price."

Political posturing?

Pravda has singled out Harper for criticism. An op-ed piece in August titled "Harper's Bizarre," called on him to "stand down. And accept reality: the Russian speakers in East Ukraine have spoken; loud and clear they voted to join Russia."

Pravda also seems to relish speculating that while Canada's confrontational tone may have something to do with the Arctic and with toeing the U.S. line, it's more likely Harper is playing to the large Ukrainian diaspora in Canada.

"An election campaign for the vote in 2015 is currently unfolding in Canada, so the support of the influential Ukrainian community for the ruling Conservative Party is very important," said one article.

That's also been suggested at home, too, of course. But in Moscow, they seem to be going out of their way to belittle Canada's tough talk.

Canada, "In reality does not matter much," says Romanovitch. "The Canadian position on the Ukrainian crisis, unfortunately, causes nothing but a grin."

Still, apparently outraged, Russia has slapped countermeasures on Canada that include parallel travel bans on officials as well as bans on Canadian products.

Not all Russians and Ukrainians are close. Photo shows a man buying toilet paper printed with the image of Russian President Vladimir Putin on a stand in Kiev's Independence Square, Ukraine, last month. (The Associated Press)

And earlier this year, Putin himself criticized Canada's stance.

"Look at where Canada is, and look at where Ukraine and Russia are," he said back in May. "Neither Canada nor the U.S. have the same amount of interests in Ukraine as Russia does."

Romanovitch, naturally, agrees. He says Russia has deep family and political ties to Ukraine — on its very doorstep — that the West seems reluctant to acknowledge.

Meanwhile, he says, the Canadian PM is a "13-hour flight away."

Touting the official line, he says Russia hasn't done anything wrong. On Crimea: "It is not an annexation, it's a reunion," he says.

On Eastern Ukraine, he concludes, "Russia never annexed Eastern Ukraine. So we have nothing to give back."

As long as Russia takes that line, you can expect at least the verbal shirt-fronting to go on.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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