Posted: Nov 18, 2016

Author: Mikhail Molchanov


Canada is likely to follow the U.S. lead if Donald Trump intends to re-think America’s current antagonistic relationship with Russia.

Following Republican candidate Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, new questions are emerging as to the possible direction of his foreign and national security policies. Anticipations differ widely – from cautiously optimistic, in the case of Russia, to skeptical, as in certain European quarters, to outright alarmist, as in the Baltic States or Ukraine.

Canadian pundits have had a fair share of their own misgivings about the U.S. President-elect, questioning the wisdom of his promises to revamp, if not retire, the NATO alliance and to restore a good, working relationship with Russia.

Canada-Russia relations have not been in good condition as of late. Canada joined in the Western sanctions against Russia in the wake of what Ottawa still condemns as the illegal annexation of Crimea. In March 2016, the sanctions were expanded with the addition of two individuals and 10 business entities to the so-called “black list.” In addition, the discussion continues about whether or not to enact Canada’s version of the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions on Russian officials, involved in the alleged murder of Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption campaigner.

Moreover, Ottawa has taken a negative view of Russia’s military modernization. The liberal government has set aside $350 million over the next three years for the deployment of Canadian troops and armor in Latvia “to counter the threat of Russian aggression on Europe’s eastern flank.” Canada has also expressed profound disagreement with Russia’s actions in Syria.

At the same time, there are areas where Russian and Canadian interests run in parallel, even if not always coincide. One of those relates to collaboration in the scientific study and exploration of the Arctic. Speaking at the Arctic Circle Assembly last month, Parliamentary Secretary Pamela Goldsmith-Jones stressed the point, specifically mentioning the need for cooperation between Canadian and Russian scientists.

Conservative commentators immediately retorted that offering Russian President Vladimir Putin an olive branch was unacceptable and the idea of separating the two countries’ northern policies from other vexing issues in their current relationship betrays an idealistic approach on the part of the liberal government. A Crimean exile who recently visited Ottawa has once again called on the Canadian government to enact a law imposing sanctions of Russia’s corrupt officials deemed responsible for human rights abuses.

For now, the government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau resists. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion insisted that existing human rights laws in Canada provide enough protection to the victims of abuse and harming relations with Moscow by copying the U.S. law would be pointless.

A recent visit of high-profile diplomat Mark Gwozdecky, Global Affairs Canada political director, to Moscow, where he met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov for closed-door talks on Ukraine and Syria, raised opposition concerns in Canada that, despite the federal government’s assurances to continue a tough line toward Russia, it may be looking for a way to weaken them.

While Gwozdecky visited Moscow shortly before Trump winning the presidency of the United States, the post-election changes south of the border will profoundly impact Canadian foreign policy. Trump has been accused of favoring rapprochement with Russia, even at the expense of the U.S. traditional commitments in Europe.

In his first post-election phone conversation with Putin, the U.S. President-elect said he was “very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia.”

As Reuters notes, if Trump actually attempts to reset the U.S.-Russian relationship to both countries’ benefit, the transatlantic and European front against Russia could crumble.

The government of Canada closely watches developments in Washington. Trump’s businesslike approach will undoubtedly reinforce Ottawa’s pragmatism in dealing with Russia. Trudeau indicated the possibility of a more flexible approach when, after reiterating Ottawa’s support to Ukraine, he noted the necessity of closer cooperation with Russia across the range of issues of mutual interest. In addition to Arctic cooperation, the prime minister named counterterrorism and concerns around the Middle East as issues or areas where “there are opportunities to at least have a constructive dialogue with Russia.”

Canadian business interests should be added to the list. The Canadian economy suffers from sanctions imposed on Russia – both directly and through a ripple effect those sanctions have on the Canadian-European trade. The coming into force of the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement may aggravate that negative effect even further.

Trade turnover between Russia and Canada dropped by 37 percent in 2015, and by a further 22 percent in the second quarter of 2016. While Canadian business loses its positions on the Russian market, its market share goes to other countries, China first and foremost.

The Trump presidency promises the return of realism and pragmatism in international relations, and relations with Russia in particular.

At the best-case scenario, the Trump presidency promises the return of realism and pragmatism in international relations, and relations with Russia in particular. It stands to reason that Canada should follow the U.S. lead, all the more so because of its own interest in restoration of a good, working relationship with Russia.

However, this does not mean that Ottawa’s principled position in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty will be changed or diluted. It only means that Canada will have a better chance to influence Russia if it avoids unnecessarily antagonizing it, opting for conditional and targeted cooperation instead.

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