The Cold War rom-com starring Robin Williams was called Moscow on the Hudson. The main character, a circus musician, defects from the Soviet Union at the perfume counter of Bloomingdale’s. This week, the media circus was a few blocks away at Trump Tower, and Moscow was very much on the mind of those gathered on the Hudson. And when our prime minister shuffled his cabinet, it was Moscow on the Rideau this week.
Ever since the 2013 debacle in Syria, when Barack Obama declined to enforce his “red line” on chemical weapons – a capitulation facilitated politically by the British House of Commons and morally by Pope Francis – Vladimir Putin has been on the march.
He took “custody” of Assad’s chemical weapons in Syria, took sides in the civil war to protect Assad’s regime, and took over the Syrian skies, from where he pummeled Aleppo until he took it on the ground. He took hold of Ukraine’s foreign policy, instructing his puppet to abandon a proposed European Union accord; the subsequent people’s revolt would lead him to take Crimea, and take up armed occupation of eastern Ukraine.
But Putin likely never imagined a week like this one, where he would take centre stage at a cabinet shuffle in Ottawa, at Donald Trump’s press conference in New York, and at the confirmation hearings for the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, in Washington. Not bad for a country that Obama once dismissed as a mere “regional power”.
Now the world nervously watches what might arise from the apparent enthusiasm of soon-to-be President Trump for Putin’s Russia. At this moment, Canadians can be proud of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promotion of Chrystia Freeland to foreign minister, a heavyweight portfolio that has been held by some remarkable lightweights over the decades. Freeland is a major improvement over her immediate predecessor, and a bold choice by Trudeau.
Should the Trump administration seek to normalize Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Canada will not follow under Freeland. I imagine she would resign if Trudeau chose to go soft over Ukraine – which he shows no sign of doing.
Much has been made of Freeland currently being banned from travel to Russia, the result of Canada putting sanctions on Russia in 2014 after its annexation of Crimea. Freeland was then in opposition, but Russia banned some dozen Canadian figures, including the clerk of the privy council and the Speaker of the House. Freeland, then a newly-elected Ukrainian-Canadian MP from Toronto – she speaks Ukrainian at home to her children – had been vocal in her condemnation of Putin’s aggression, and so earned her banishment.
Leave aside the travel ban though. As an accomplished foreign journalist who lived in Moscow for four years while reporting for The Financial Times, Freeland’s first book Sale of the Century chronicled the transition from communism to kleptocracy in Moscow. Her second book was the eponymous Plutocrats, about the superrich, but it is a Brookings essay she wrote in May 2015 that most bears reading now.
It is a detailed account of Ukraine’s troubled independence since 1991. Freeland was in Kyiv – or Kiev, as the Russian spelling dominated then – in August 1991 when President George H. W. Bush came to Ukraine. She was in the parliamentary press gallery when Bush gave the most mistaken speech of his public life, arguing that Ukraine’s future lay with Gorbachev’s Moscow rather than independence.
Columnist William Safire christened it the “Chicken Kiev” speech, and it remains known as such even today. Less than three weeks after Bush served Chicken Kiev in Ukraine, Boris Yeltsin assumed leadership in Moscow following the failed coup against Gorbachev. Before year end, Ukraine would vote for independence and in Moscow the Soviet Union would be liquidated. Chicken Kiev, chicken salad or chicken, er, droppings, the West got Moscow massively wrong.
The Brookings essay serves as a primer on Ukraine and exposes the main points of Putin’s propaganda. Whether or not Freeland’s travel ban is lifted, it is unlikely anyone in Putin’s administration will be eager to meet with the author of such a scathing indictment of Moscow’s policies, written just 18 months ago.
I visited Ukraine for the first time in the summer of 2015. I saw the toilet paper rolls for sale in the markets, emblazoned with Putin’s face, expressing the intensity of local disdain for Moscow. (Freeland concludes her essay with the Putin toilet rolls.)
Canada, by contrast, was popular. Ukrainians were deeply appreciative of Canadian solidarity, from Brian Mulroney’s early recognition of Ukrainian independence in 1991 to Stephen Harper telling Putin to his face that he should “get out of Ukraine.”
I imagine they will find Freeland an even more staunch ally. Harper demonstrated that Canada’s voice is heard on the global stage when it is clear, confident and principled. On Russia, Freeland should amplify Canada’s voice which, depending on Trump’s direction, may be urgently needed.
Hillary Clinton famously, and farcically, attempted a “re-set” of relations with Russia. What is needed now is not a re-set but a re-evaluation of current failures, a recommitment to clear principles, and a greater resolve.
Freeland should help to deliver all three. The Russia file will be one to watch in 2017 and Canada is now well placed for leadership.