Some may not agree, but Russia plays and will continue to play an influential role globally and/or regionally in areas that are of vital interest to Canada and Canadians. We need a slow but precise confidence building measures. That applies to Canada and Russia.
Our foreign policy is about securing Canadian interest. Canadian interests are located – among other places globally – either in Russia itself or in places where Russia and Canada may compete, collaborate or coexists. They can embrace economic, political, environmental, social and many other areas where we can – as country and as citizens — gain or loose.
That is the case as well of our relations with Russia.
From the last years of the Cold War through early 2014, Canada-Russia relations developed in such a dynamic and multi-sectoral way that they came to include dialogue and cooperation even on some of the most sensitive and controversial issues. There were, of course, difficult moments such as at the time of the Russia-Georgia conflict, yet the overall trend of mutually beneficial cooperation was positive. The efforts of many decades of Canadian trade promotion and engagement were also paying off rather well.
From March 2014, Canada-Russia relations took a major turn for the worse because of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine over Crimea and the Donbass. Considering the unconditional Canadian support for Ukraine, Canada not only participated in several waves of sanctions, but went further than any G7 or NATO country in curtailing its engagement with Russia.
This created a sterile environment in our bilateral relations.
The current status of our relations is probably best characterized by the Chief of the Defence Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces General Jonathan Vance, who referred to Russia as “the most immediate military threat to this country”. The Russian Ambassador to Canada, Alexander Darchiev, meanwhile, has referred to the “Gloomy, but not hopeless status of Russia–Canada dialogue.”
From a Canadian perspective, Russia is not a likeminded country. Additionally, the gruesome fates of several prominent critics of the V. Putin government cast a long shadow.
It is institutionally designed and politically committed to have a high degree of insulation from internal challenge and any external influence. Therefore, Russia seeks to systematically constrain and restrict the political/economic influence of “others,” especially from the Euro-Atlantic establishment and – in the case of deepening confrontation – to immunize herself from both direct and indirect, internal and external influence (be it economic, political or military).
From a Russian perspective Canada is perceived positively for its progressive liberal governance as well as for its traditionally unassuming, constructive approach to foreign policy. It is seen as a welcome, but definitely not indispensable, political interlocutor and economic partner.
Canada, meanwhile, is currently seen in Russia as one of the Western leaders of the “anti-Russian crusade”. Canada is also quite short of politically diversified, well-informed and politically connected experts and research centers that would provide policy makers with relevant and timely information and thereby informally bridge the information gap on Russia.
Although Canada had over the years considerable differences of opinion with Russia over the acceptability of many elements of Russia’s international behaviour, the Ukraine crisis was met with a response that for the first time excluded virtually any meaningful conversation with Russia.
This was not the case for our close allies the US and the EU.
The Canadian approach reflected the desire to show the Ukrainian diaspora a stronger opposition to Russia’s actions. It may also have been a consequence of the then-Prime Minister’s deep-seated personal scepticism about the value of Canada’s international interaction. Such a virtually unprecedented refusal of dialogue did not have an impact on attempts to resolve the conflict, since France and Germany engaged in diplomatic activity that led to the conclusion of the Minsk I and II peace arrangements, with Canada as a mere spectator.
The policy of limited contacts with Russia mostly has symbolic value, but it became so closely associated with Canada’s support for Ukraine that it even emboldened Ukrainian officials to criticize perceived Canadian attempts at ending that policy in order to pursue its own national interests. This attempt to veto Canada-Russia dialogue happened while Ukraine itself was ostensibly engaged in its own dialogue with Russia.
The reality is also that it puts Canadian exporters to Russia at a clear disadvantage over their competitors from other G7 countries and the Euro-Atlantic community. Our competitors have been able to rely on the active support of their trade commissioners and their export credit agencies in working the Russian market, Canadian enterprises have not.
Simply put we need same level playing field as our partners. This is not the case now.
Such an acknowledgement cannot be a cause of concern for the Ukrainian government as it itself is currently more focused and active than ever on finding a negotiated resolution with Russia to the conflict in the Donbass.
The situation is that we are, so far, unable and to a certain extent unwilling to secure and advance our own national interests in and with Russia.
Even if the assessment of Russian Ambassador that “there is little hope for returning to normalcy in the foreseeable future” is correct, we think that it is in the Canadian national interest to create conditions for a more pragmatic approach with a “non-like-minded” country. The same rationale applies to Russia’s approach to Canada. We do not need to become friends. The objective is not to nurture a relationship for the sake of the relationship.
Mounting global-scale challenges will require more than ever before a coordinated international response, and Russia and Canada will have to talk with each other to stay relevant on global matters such as – for instance — environment, new technologies, connectivity and health.
At the foreign policy level, if Canada wants to play a meaningful role globally as well as on the specific issues that matter to Canadians, we need to have a working channel of communication with Russia’s foreign policy establishment. We need that at a level that will guarantee that Canada will still matter in that conversation. It is always better to be at the table than on the menu on important global matters.
The whole spectrum of international security issues can be part of the subject of useful discussions with Russia.
Some issues like the fight against terrorism may yield themselves more easily to real cooperation. Other more controversial and thorny issues such as cybersecurity would require some confidence-building measures and a more long-term approach. Consultations between experts would nevertheless open the door to some eventual form of conflict resolution.
Mounting global challenges, such as climate change, also require an ever-more coordinated global response. Canada’s objective of playing a constructive role on global issues requires a dialogue with all significant states. That includes Russia.
On a broad range of regional issues of interest to Canada, Russia is also a key player. Through the work on the Arctic Council agenda, we have kept open the dialogue on the most important and most symbolic Canada-Russia issue. This does not cover the whole range of Canadian interests, including economic ones, and needs to be complemented with a more robust bilateral interaction.
Other regional issues over which a dialogue is warranted include first and foremost Middle East (Syria, Iran) and Eurasian (Afghanistan) security.
At the foreign economic relations level, Russia at this time is neither seen as a major trade partner nor as a highly attractive investment destination. On trade, long gone are the days when the value of Canadian exports in the form of grains dwarfed the value of Russian exports 250 to 1. After all the sanctions have had their effect, the area where Canada continues to have a trade surplus with Russia is machinery and equipment. The point is that exports are no longer limited to commodities and raw materials, but tend to have a significant component of value-added goods. The Russian economy may not be so large, but it has a degree of internal diversification that creates opportunities for Canadian exporters of specialized goods. Russia is also an attractive market in terms of professional services. Beyond the existing market for value-added goods and professional services, trade with Russia is consistent with our own trade diversification policy. Trade with Russia also has a sustainable development dimension that is in line with Canadian global objectives. In areas where Canada has an initial comparative advantage such as cold climate clean technology, we are not actively promoting our own long-term interests.
A New Canadian Pragmatism
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new conditions for the conduct of international relations. There are, of course, fewer in-person meetings. This will present new challenges for in-depth conversations on sensitive subjects, but it will allow for more frequent contacts and will temporarily dispense with the formality of official visits.
If our goals will even remotely match the Russian agenda and we will be able to demonstrate a political will to dialogue, then we can be assured of the mutual interest in talking to each other.
What is needed at this point of deep mutual distrust is to have the basic courage to re-start the dialogue, to know where we are going in our relations, and to be clear on what is our end goal.
In practical terms, what is first specifically needed is a signal from a suitably senior official that those that have an interest in a conversation with their Russian counterparts can proceed. That has to be accompanied by the drawing of a main initial agenda that reflects Canadian priorities and that can be presented to the Russian side. This might be achieved by the re-convening of a meeting on Strategic Stability at the level of Assistant Deputy Minister for Canada and Deputy Minister for Russia. Such overview meetings used to be a feature of the relationship prior to 2014. The point is to have the discussion started by official’s senior enough to deliver a message, but not by Ministers themselves, as this would be premature and possibly misconstrued.
The message would also have to be clear that the removal of sanctions is not on the agenda.
The nihil obstat message would obviously be shared within GAC, but it should also be conveyed to Parliamentarians, other federal departments, and to provincial and territorial governments.
There would also have to be a message to the Trade Commissioner Service that a pro-active trade promotion approach, similar to that maintained by our main political allies and trade competitors, is the new course of action. Specifically, instructions would also have to conveyed to Export Development Canada (EDC) that it can “re-open” Russia, so that Canadian exporters are not at a disadvantage to EU/US business.
Humanitarian people-to-activity was also affected by political constraints as it was by COVID-19 requirements. Talking to each other, explaining our position, listening to Russian arguments at different levels usually creates a foundation to deeper contacts. At the moment we do not have any meaningful mechanisms to make it happen (in forms of grants, projects, research).
A work plan
The circumstances would not seem ripe for the elaboration of the type of all-encompassing Canada-Russia work plan that was a feature of previous stages of the relationship. Global Affairs Canada (GAC) would, however be in a position to draw early on a priority list of the issues (mentioned above under opportunities) on which it would wish to re-instate a political dialogue.
It seems that, taking into account the current state of our relations with Russia, the New Pragmatic Approach that we propose needs to be based on a balanced mix of new (informal and formal) and “traditional” approaches to construct a renewed web of communication and a basic level of mutual trust.
New platforms of communication such as seminars and conferences in the most prestigious Universities and NGOs, amateur hockey matches on the side of larger events, informal meetings during professional association gatherings, informal meetings of policy influencers, activity on social media are a few of the many opportunities that can be quite easily rejuvenated along low-key official consultative meetings.
A more elaborate plan, if it is found necessary, would have to await the results of the resumption of the informal dialogue between Canadian and Russian stakeholders.
Even without a formal plan many stakeholders would likely want to proceed with their own initiatives once they know that it is politically acceptable. Consultations between high-level specialists on issues such as climate change negotiations come to mind, as do formal interactions between provincial governments in Canada and their regional counterparts in Russia.
The way ahead
Realism dictates dealing with Russia as it is now, not with the Russia of our imagination.
From a foreign policy point of view, including the economic and environmental dimensions, our national interest will be better served and our international position stronger as we access diplomatic intelligence that can only be gained through direct substantial dialogue.
We have no illusions.
At best, our relations will remain a mix of competition and cooperation. The challenge is to move from limited contacts to a form of engagement that is fully reflective of our own national objectives and concerns.