Chrystia Freeland's Russian experience a double-edged sword
Published Tuesday, January 10, 2017 10:00PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, January 11, 2017 10:36AM EST
Canada's new foreign affairs minister has significant expertise with the U.S. and Russia, arguably two of the main policy challenges she'll face as she takes over the role.
Some of her deep background in Ukraine and Russia, however, could create problems for Chrystia Freeland, who Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday moved from her previous role as international trade minister.
In her 20s, Freeland was a journalist in Kyiv, and then, following her Oxford master of arts degree, worked as the Financial Times Moscow bureau chief.
The Ukrainian-Canadian has been outspoken in the past about Russian aggression in Ukraine, leading Russia to enact sanctions against her (along with 12 other Canadians) in 2014.
The sanctions mean that, as of right now, the Canadian foreign affairs minister can't travel to Russia.
At the time, Freeland tweeted it was an honour "to be on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's sanction list," especially in the company of her then-Liberal colleague, human rights expert Irwin Cotler, and Paul Grod, the president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent says he hopes Freeland doesn't soften her stance now that she's foreign affairs minister.
"She's a smart, articulate person," Kent said.
"I'm hoping that Minister Freeland can convince [the prime minister] that some of these positions on Russia, on Syria, on the Middle East, on China, need to be redirected or significantly adjusted," he added, noting the Conservatives believe the Liberals have been too muted when it comes to raising concerns about human rights abuses in China.
Freeland told reporters Tuesday that she's well-positioned to be part of the government's engagement with Russia.
"I have a really deep love for the Russian language and Russian culture, and I am a very strong supporter of our government's view that it is important to engage with all countries around the world, very much including Russia," she said.
Love Russ lang/culture, loved my yrs in Moscow; but it's an honour to be on Putin's sanction list, esp in company of friends Cotler & Grod— Chrystia Freeland (@cafreeland) March 24, 2014
In response to a reporter's comment that she can't travel there, Freeland said, "That's a question for Moscow."
A spokesman for Global Affairs, Freeland's new ministry, said the department "is not in a position to comment on Russian decision-making or processes for imposing or revoking sanctions."
A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Ottawa pointed CTV News to a report in Sputnik, a Russian government-controlled news outlet, for response from Russia's foreign ministry.
"[Freeland] was included in the sanctions list as a response measure, as Canada introduced restrictions against Russia, including officials. The issue of her removal from the response sanctions list is a matter of reciprocity and 'mirror' response," an unnamed source said, according to Sputnik.
That suggests Russia will remove Freeland from its sanctions list if Canada removes a Russian official from its list.
Understanding of Russia 'a great strength'
Freeland has the kind of resume that reads like a foreign service applicant. She speaks Russian, Ukrainian, Italian and French fluently, although she apologized for her French following a press conference in Ottawa Tuesday, telling journalists it's her fifth and worst language.
She's written two books, one of which deals with income inequality and the rise of the super-rich. It's a message incorporated in much of the Liberals' economic policy and touches on one of the major issues facing American policymakers.
For the past 14 months, Freeland was the lead on some tricky trade files, including the expired softwood lumber agreement with the U.S. (for which there is still no new deal).
Most notably as trade minister, Freeland helped drag the Canada-EU trade deal across the finish line when a regional government in Belgium refused to sign.
Freeland's work on the file impressed Roland Paris, a former foreign affairs adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Paris, who is now the University of Ottawa's research chair in international security and governance, says Freeland is persuasive both in private and in public.
"I've been impressed by both her strategic sense and her tirelessness and tenacity as both a diplomat and a negotiator," Paris told CTVNews.ca.
"I think her understanding of Russia and Europe actually is a great strength at this moment, at a moment of flux in international affairs where Canada's going to have to maintain its positions in a number of different areas and adjust to new circumstances."
Chief foreign policy job to figure out global economy
When it comes to dealing with U.S. president-elect Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Paris says Freeland's background as a business journalist will make her comfortable sitting across the table from him.
"She understands them [business leaders] and I think that she's not daunted by people in those positions at all. She's familiar with them. And having just been the trade minister means that she's also very familiar with the key Canada-U.S. economic issues, and she'll be able to hit the ground running from day one," Paris said.
In a March, 2011 speech in Ottawa -- more than a year before Trudeau's advisers first approached her about running -- Freeland may have signalled her priorities as foreign affairs minister.
"The chief job of foreign policy today is helping to figure out the rules for the global economy and defending each nation's interests within it," Freeland said in the O.D. Skelton lecture, which focuses on foreign policy.
Some countries, Freeland said, still pose "old-fashioned security dangers, and climate change was the "ultimate global issue, since no one country can tackle it on its own."
"Defending human rights should be an important objective of foreign policy, and that, too, will sometimes be hard to reconcile with an economic agenda, especially when it comes to dealing with rich but repressive players like China and Russia."
"The age of economic relations as the primary arena for interactions between states is already upon us."
The best policy-makers, Freeland concluded, will have "an ability to spot big global trends, an instinct for moments of radical change, a sophisticated understanding of the ways political and economic forces interact."
Amid increasing wariness about Russia and an unpredictable new administration in the U.S., that challenge now falls squarely to Freeland.