A friendship gone cold

Everything between Canada and Russia was going more or less smoothly until Ottawa decided to take a stand against Moscow's attacks on Chechnya.


Monday, January 10, 2000

After months of the sharpest verbal clashes between Ottawa and Moscow since the Soviet era, Canada is now facing a new Kremlin strongman who continues to wage war in defiance of Western opinion.

By some measures, Canada's relationship with its giant Arctic neighbour has sunk to its worst level since the Cold War. Disagreements over the Russian military campaign in Chechnya have triggered a series of bitter exchanges and protests.

The resignation of president Boris Yeltsin and the rise of the hawkish Vladimir Putin has added another element of uncertainty in a relationship that has drifted into disillusionment and disappointment in recent years.

Mr. Putin has climbed to power as the architect of the brutal Chechnya war. He has increased the military budget, dismissed Western protests and defended the massive bombing of Chechen cities and towns.

Canada has been one of the toughest critics of Mr. Putin's war. Last month, Ottawa infuriated the Russians by accusing them of "potential crimes against humanity." An influential Moscow newspaper charged that Canada was launching a "crusade against Russia."

Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy knows that Mr. Putin's popularity is closely linked to the Chechen conflict. And he is worried that the new Russian leader might try to escalate the war with a heavier bombardment of Grozny.

But Mr. Putin is still a great mystery to Canadian diplomats. "We don't know enough about him," Mr. Axworthy said in an interview. "He is still a book with many pages yet to be written."

For Canada, the strained relationship with Moscow is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Canada and Russia were co-operative partners for most of the 1990s, working together on northern issues and economic questions without any serious disputes to sour the mood.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, former prime minister Brian Mulroney went to great lengths to establish a jovial friendship with Mr. Yeltsin. He went boar hunting with the Russian leader (inspiring a famous photograph of the two men standing triumphantly over a dead animal), established a $20-million Yeltsin Democracy Fellowship Fund and invited Mr. Yeltsin to address the Canadian Parliament.

As recently as 1998, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was planning to send a giant delegation of politicians and business leaders to visit Moscow on a trade and investment mission.

But the turbulent events of 1999 -- including the Kosovo and Chechnya conflicts -- have fuelled new tensions between the two countries. The political relationship is at its lowest ebb since 1991, and economic links are also floundering.

There is no further talk of a Canadian trade mission. An official Canada-Russia economic commission, which is supposed to meet annually, has not met for 16 months and is unlikely to convene before the Russian presidential election at the end of March.

While tensions over Chechnya continue to mount, Ottawa's strategy is to concentrate on the lesser-known areas of agreement, where progress and constructive work is still possible.

"Despite the fact that we disagree quite seriously on issues such as Chechnya, we agree on a lot of other things," Canadian Ambassador Rod Irwin said in an interview in his Moscow office.

"It has its strains, but the level of the relationship is good. We can talk to each other. We can agree to disagree on certain issues."

Since the beginning of the Chechnya war in September, the Canadian embassy in Moscow has protested at least five times to the Russian government.

After the bombing of civilians in an outdoor marketplace in Grozny in October, Canada issued one of the strongest objections of any Western nation, condemning Russia for its "indiscriminate use of force in urban areas."

A few weeks later, Moscow sharply criticized Canada for its efforts to put Chechnya on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council. The Russian foreign ministry complained that a Canadian ambassador had "tried to claim, without any facts, that almost half of the Security Council members had expressed concern about the activities of the Russian army in Chechnya."

The most bitter exchange of accusations came early last month, after the Russian military dropped leaflets on Grozny threatening to destroy anyone who remained in the city. Mr. Axworthy said the Russians were "crossing the line into potential crimes against humanity."

A day later, the Russian newspaper Izvestia responded by firing a fierce volley at the Canadian government. "Canada's chief diplomat has acted as a provocateur," the newspaper said.

"No other Western politician has dared to say such things. Crimes against humanity is too serious an accusation. . . . Ottawa is suggesting that Russia is not a partner, but an enemy."

Izvestia was infuriated that Mr. Axworthy had used language implying that the Kremlin could be compared to war criminals such as Adolf Hitler. "Such things can't be forgiven," it said. "The statement from Axworthy could worsen relations between Moscow and Ottawa for a long time."

Canada refused to back down. Even today, senior officials in Ottawa boast that Canada has become the toughest and most vocal opponent of the Chechnya war.

"We've been pushing harder than the others," one official said. "Our relations are gridlocked, to a certain extent, because there's such an enormous disagreement on this issue. It will be difficult to do business with Putin as long as the war continues."

In fact, tensions between Canada and Russia have been quietly building for years.

Mr. Chrétien was one of the earliest and staunchest advocates of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Moscow bitterly opposed. While conservatives in the U.S. Congress were urging a go-slow approach on NATO enlargement, the Prime Minister was lobbying for faster action.

He is still eager today to recruit the next wave of NATO hopefuls, despite Moscow's strong opposition.

There were other irritants too: an espionage scandal involving Russian spies in Toronto; the Canadian support for Russian ecologist Alexander Nikitin, who was charged with treason; and a Canadian court decision that allowed a Canadian investor to seize an Aeroflot jet in Montreal.

Canada also participated in the NATO military campaign against Yugoslavia, which Russia fiercely opposed.

Mr. Axworthy, however, believes that he has established a good working relationship with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov. "In terms of Canadian relations, he is very open," he said.

"We've had some very tough words on Chechnya. You reach a stage where you get to know somebody and you can be as candid and blunt as you want to be without causing great repercussions. But I think the message got through."

Today, with the Chechnya war still raging, Canadian diplomats must grapple with a tough-talking new leader in the Kremlin. So far, however, they don't believe that he is overtly anti-Western.

"He's a Russian nationalist," Mr. Irwin said. "But I don't think he's been unfriendly to the West. There's no question of Russian isolationism or any kind of anti-Western xenophobia."

Mr. Axworthy said he recently read Mr. Putin's manifesto on the new "Russian idea," which argued that Russia is truly different from Britain, the United States and other Western nations.

"Is Putin right or wrong? I don't know," he said. "But the political system is working. It's not a pretty sight. Most democracies aren't. It's like watching a dog walk on its hind legs. But the political system is working."

While progress on some issues is blocked by the Chechnya dispute, Ottawa is continuing to work with Russia on a northern co-operation agenda, on disarmament issues, and on negotiating guarantees to protect Canadian investors in Russia.

In the optimistic Canadian vision of the future, the two Arctic neighbours could forge a closer relationship on northern transportation and environmental issues, including aviation routes across the North Pole and a northern shipping link.

"There is a big potential for Canada," Mr. Axworthy said. "Russia is the new boundary for Canada."

He acknowledges, however, that Canada has not yet made any substantial progress in working with Russia to reduce pollution in the Far North.

Arctic co-operation is an example of how Canada has broadened and deepened its relationship with Russia over the years, Canadian diplomats say.

"Business is being transacted, despite Chechnya," one official said. "The strategy is to keep each issue moving at its own pace -- and where there's disagreement, to take a principled stand and stick to it."

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