Harper says Ukraine crisis trumps economic worries

By , on March 24, 2014

Photo: Facebook Page of PM Stephen Harper
Photo: Facebook Page of PM Stephen Harper

THE HAGUE, Netherlands—Stephen Harper says economic concerns must take a back seat as the West determines how to respond to Russian aggression in eastern Europe.

“Within the context of Canadian foreign policy, we will do what we can to maximize the commercial opportunities for our firms,” the prime minister said at a roundtable with Dutch business representatives on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit.

“But we will not shape our foreign policy to commercial interests and when it comes to a global crisis, a security crisis … business people have to be aware that there may be risks to them and the government will take those risks, because at those points in times the government’s foreign and security policy priorities become paramount.”

The remarks likely foreshadow what Harper will say later today at an emergency G7 summit to discuss the Russian crisis.

The prime minister is the only G7 leader who has personally witnessed the devastation in Kyiv and spoken face-to-face with Ukraine’s new leadership. He’ll give a first-hand account of what he saw and heard in Ukraine on Saturday and is expected to urge Russia’s expulsion from the G8.

Harper has called for a “complete reversal” of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has also warned long and loudly that Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot be trusted amid the worst crisis for the region since the Cold War.

He’s also expected to argue that Putin’s actions will spur similar brazen territory grabs if they go unpunished.

U.S. President Barack Obama, meantime, is facing a test of his sway over the G7 as he attempts to convince his European allies to exert more pressure on Russia.

Foreign policy experts say Harper and Obama will likely present a united front to their European colleagues on Russia. Europe, however, does far more trade with Russia and many European economies are still fragile following the 2008 global economic downturn.

Some G7 members have therefore been more reticent about tougher economic sanctions against Moscow, although German Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently shifted towards the North American stance, reportedly fed up with false assurances Putin gave her about Crimea.

Harper witnessed that hesitance in his question-and-answer session with Bernard Wientjes, head of one of the largest business organizations in the Netherlands.

“Of course we are worried about what happens in the East now (with) the Netherlands being so dependent on exports to the East,” Wientjes said.

Harper interrupted him:

“None of us like seeing disruption to investment or to markets or to trade, but the fact of the matter is … when you have something like a military occupation of a country by another country, this is not something that we can subordinate to economic interests.

“These have very serious long-term implications for all of us.”

Wientjes said he agreed.

White House officials have said Obama is prepared to launch widespread penalties against key sectors of Russia’s economy, including its energy industry, if Putin dares move into southeastern Ukraine.

Russian troops are already massing on the southeastern border of Ukraine. There are concerns that Russia could use the unrest in the eastern reaches of the country, where there’s a large Russian minority, as a pretext for crossing the border.

Most observers say the G7 leaders will likely emerge from the meeting to announce they’re suspending Russia from the G8 and that the upcoming 40th G8 summit, scheduled to be held in Sochi in June, is off. A Russia-European summit to be held on June 3 in Sochi has already been cancelled.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at (at)leeanne25