ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Vladimir Putin had tough talk for Canada on Saturday, saying he understands Canadian concerns about Arctic sovereignty but Canada’s stance on Russia’s involvement in Ukraine is far more puzzling.
The Russian president suggested Canada’s physical distance from Ukraine meant it had little business meddling in the conflict, adding that Russia acted within the scope of international law when it annexed the Crimean peninsula in March.
“Look at where Canada is, and look at where Ukraine and Russia are,” he said in a question-and-answer session in St. Petersburg with senior representatives of international news agencies, including The Canadian Press.
“Neither Canada nor the U.S. have the same amount of interests in Ukraine as Russia does.”
Other than Ukraine and Russia, Canada is home to the largest population of Ukrainians in the world. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called for a “complete reversal” of Russia’s actions in Crimea and has levelled sanctions against a slate of Russian officials and institutions.
Putin says he’d be happy to meet with Harper regarding Ukraine, including in Normandy during D-Day events next month.
“We are ready for discussion, including with the prime minister,” he said. “And I have spoken with him various times at summits on various issues and questions. If there is such a necessity or desire now, we are ready.”
But on the eve of Ukraine’s presidential election, Putin accused the West of paying short shrift to Russia’s interests in Ukraine.
“Where is the guarantee that, after the forceful change of power, Ukraine will not tomorrow end up in NATO?” Putin asked.
“We hear only one answer, as if on a record: Every nation has a right determine on its own the security system in which it wants to live, and that doesn’t concern you.”
Putin has said that part of what motivated Russia to annex Crimea was to prevent NATO ships from assembling in the strategic Black Sea peninsula.
The West hopes Sunday’s vote could help ease the crisis in eastern Europe; the Russian leader has promised to respect the results.
As for Canada’s concerns about sovereignty in the Arctic, Putin says he intends to respect international law in the region and to negotiate with all interested nations.
Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark and Norway have all been trying to assert jurisdiction over parts of the Arctic given it’s believed to contain up to a quarter of the Earth’s undiscovered oil and gas.
“For a very long time, we conducted negotiations with our Norwegian partners with regard to the distribution of the shelf in the northern seas,” Putin said.
“We conducted those talks over 10 years. They are always complicated questions, particularly when they’re connected to hydrocarbons, but we nonetheless started these talks… and it seems to be the best path to resolve all questions with regards to the Arctic.”
He brushed off Canadian objections to the Russian flag being dropped via canister to the ocean floor near the North Pole in 2007, comparing it to the so-called space race of the 1960s.
“That was a non-governmental act; it was more of an emotional act and I don’t see anything scary in it,” he said.
“The Americans in their time stood on the moon and put their flag there, but we aren’t arguing with them for what they did and we don’t talk about how they have ambitions to take over the moon. Thank God we are developing co-operation in space.”
With files from Laura Mills of The Associated Press