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Trudeau was right to refuse Russia’s help with Fort Mac fire

by David Bercuson

The Globe and Mail
May 11, 2016

The Trudeau government has politely declined to accept Russia’s offer to send water bombers to help control the wildfire that is blazing across central Alberta. It was the right call. And although some Canadians think the Prime Minister is being narrow-minded, or too eager to cozy up to Washington in refusing Russian help, the decision actually shows a growing sophistication on the part of the Prime Minister and his advisers about Canada’s place in the world and who is – and who is not – aligned with our national interests.

The Russian invitation may have been sincere, but anyone who closely followed Russia’s transformation under President Vladimir Putin since at least 2008 (the invasion of Georgia) can be excused for thinking that there is more than a bit of “ ‘Welcome to my parlour,’ said the spider to the fly” in the offer. Russia is doing everything it can short of war to loosen the ties that bind both the European Union and NATO and would surely like to take every opportunity that comes its way to work itself between the United States and Canada.

The fact is Canada probably won’t need outside help, but if we do we’ll turn to the United States, which has helped us before – as we have helped them in past natural disasters.

As an independent country highly dependent on the United States for trade, security and defence, we need to proceed carefully when it comes to dealing with Putin’s Russia. This is, after all, the same Russia that illegally annexed Crimea; supports armed separatists in eastern Ukraine; makes threats to the Baltic states (our NATO partners); deliberately provokes the U.S. Navy and Air Force in the international waters of and airspace over the Baltic Sea; and backs President Bashar al-Assad of Syria with military power after he has caused the deaths of at least 200,000 Syrians and the displacement of many more.

To be clear, this is not Russia per se under discussion here, it is Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin.

Perhaps the Russians misunderstood our new government’s intentions to seek new ways of holding dialogues with them – to reopen channels closed by our previous government. But the Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion never declared that Canada would return to business as usual with Mr. Putin’s Russia. They are announcing what any new government should consider – not continuing to throw fits that Russia can ignore with amusement, but trying to open talks with a neighbour who shares Arctic issues with us.

There is nothing wrong with that. But Ottawa is also displaying a refreshing hard-headedness by refusing to woo Russia in some misguided and indeed dangerous effort to balance our dependence on the United States with a new relationship with Russia. Or by allowing Russia to woo us.

A water bomber may just be a water bomber to some Canadians. But in the complex world of international diplomacy, a water bomber is also highly symbolic – and in this case, symbolic of Canada accepting help from a Russia that has been playing fast and loose with the international order lately and has been very ready to use military force to back its political ambitions. Our new government has handled Russia’s advances with firmness and sophistication, a promise of better things to come from Canadian diplomacy.

David Bercuson is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and co-director of international policy at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

Photo: Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press

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