Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 237

Yesterday Russian President Vladimir Putin wound up a three-day visit to Canada dominated by what has again become a much-highlighted theme of Russian diplomacy: Moscow’s support for the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and its strong opposition to U.S. missile defense plans. Putin arrived in Ottawa clearly hoping to enlist recently reelected Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien in Moscow’s campaign to organize international resistance to U.S. national missile defense (NMD) plans. The Russian president was not entirely successful, but probably got enough support from Chretien to leave him satisfied with the trip.

The missile defense issue is one of growing importance to Moscow–and probably to Ottawa–because of clear indications that George W. Bush’s incoming U.S. presidential administration will pursue NMD with more determination than Clinton’s did. Moscow has long tried to sharpen tensions between the United States and its NATO allies over U.S. missile defense plans and, in the wake of Bush’s election victory, Putin’s Canadian visit suggests that Moscow may increase that pressure in the weeks and months to come. The Canadian government is said still to be divided in its views toward the U.S. NMD effort, but has expressed clear concerns about any U.S. move that might imperil the ABM accord. The degree to which the missile defense issue could split alliance members was suggested not only by Chretien’s remarks during Putin’s visit, but by related comments French President Jacques Chirac made to the press. In Ottawa yesterday for a biannual meeting between Canada and the European Union, Chirac warned that if the Bush administration moves quickly on NMD after assuming office, it could lead to a resurgence of nuclear proliferation (UPI, December 19).

Putin and Chretien issued a joint statement on December 18 which reflected these Russian and Canadian concerns. It described the ABM treaty as a “cornerstone of strategic stability and an important foundation for international efforts on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.” In a related move, the two leaders also called for the “earliest entry into force and full implementation” of the START II Treaty and a conclusion of a START III treaty “as soon as possible.”

In his December 18 remarks Putin tried also to assert that Chretien had agreed to mediate between Moscow and Washington on the missile defense question. “Canada believes it will be able to play a role of a mediator between Russia and the United States in this field,” Putin was quoted as saying. He added that he believed “Canada has the full right to claim a mediatory role” because it lies between the two sites where NMD installations are to be built. Yesterday, however, Chretien denied that Canada had offered to play any such role. Indeed, some analysts suggested that Putin had inserted a reference to a “mediatory role” for Canada in a clever bid to pressure Chretien into carrying Moscow’s message to the U.S. president elect. Chretien and Bush are scheduled to meet soon after Bush’s inauguration ceremony in January. Chretien did say during his talks with Putin that Canada would formally ask the United States for more information about its NMD system (New York Times Service, Moscow Times, December 20; AP, December 19; UPI, December 18-19).

Putin and Chretien appeared to devote a considerable amount of their time together to a host of other bilateral issues as well. They signed minor agreements on expanded air service between the two countries and on increased cooperation between Russian and Canadian provinces and territories. The two countries will reportedly plan a bilateral “North-to-North” conference for next year, at which they will discuss issues and opportunities related to cooperation in the Arctic and northern regions. In addition, Chretien agreed that Canada would help Russia develop laws needed for WTO membership and to broaden training programs for Russian officials. Yesterday Putin traveled to Toronto, where he addressed a luncheon of some 1,500 business people. He sought to convince them that Russia’s economy had turned a corner and that Canadian businesses would now find a more orderly and welcoming climate in Russia. Russia’s 1998 economic crisis dealt a severe blow to Russian-Canadian trade. Canadian exports to Russia from US$227 million in 1997 to US$116 million last year. “This most certainly does not correspond to our countries’ interests or capabilities,” Putin said. Trade volume between Russia and Canada is expected to climb to US$660 million this year (Moscow Times, December 20; Reuters, Globe and Mail, December 19).

In more general terms, the Kremlin saw Putin’s visit to Canada as the final step in a charm offensive which saw the Russian president fulfill a pledge to meet directly with all seven leaders of the Group of the Seven leading industrialized nations within a year of his inauguration. Some observers interpreted the fact that Putin had chosen to cap this effort with a visit to Canada–after meeting in Havana with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and absent any stop in the United States–as a move to slight Washington and to demonstrate the Kremlin’s intention to operate in Washington’s back yard (New York Times News Service, December 20).

Whether Putin had managed to charm his Canadian audience, however, was another question. Repeating a practice he has used on the eve of meetings with other world leaders, Putin tried prior to his Ottawa journey to create an affable persona attractive to average Canadians. In a long interview granted to reporters from the Globe and Mail and two Canadian television networks, Putin attempted to demonstrate an interest in hockey and said that he had begun studying English. Most astonishing, however, was his claim that he secretly yearns to be an environmentalist and that he might just go into this sort of work after his term as president is completed. As an editorial in the Moscow Times suggested, Russians might be astonished to learn of their president’s ecological leanings. The newspaper pointed out that Putin has abolished what was the government’s State Environmental Committee and that he has presided over a period in which several leading environmental whistleblowers have been imprisoned and charged with treason. The newspaper also made the obvious point–one which his Canadian interviewers were probably too polite to bring up–that Putin could do a great deal more for Russian environmentalism now as president than he could ever do later as an activist (Globe and Mail, December 15, 17).