Tough Talk

‘We will not back off’

Despite Donald Trump's warming to Russia, Justin Trudeau says he'll keep up the pressure on Ukraine

As Trump warms to Putin, Trudeau vows ‘we will not back off’

Hours after President-elect Donald Trump set his sights on a “strong and enduring relationship with Russia,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled he won’t tone down Canada’s criticism of the Kremlin — at least not when it comes to Ukraine.

Speaking to reporters on Monday in Toronto, VICE News asked the prime minister whether renewed ties between the White House and Moscow could effectively give President Vladimir Putin a pass on his forays into Eastern Europe.

“We’ve been very clear that the Russian incursion into Ukraine is unacceptable and we will continue to state that and support Ukraine in its struggle against aggression,” Trudeau said.

But Canada may find itself somewhat lonelier in that regard.

A read-out of a conversation between Trump and Putin, released earlier on Monday by the Kremlin, makes no mention of Ukraine, but does say that both leaders “agreed on the absolutely unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations” and would look to “normalize relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the broadest possible range of issues.”

The read-out summarizing the call also mentions that the two “emphasized the importance of establishing a reliable foundation for bilateral ties by developing the trade and economic component,” a clear sign that Trump is toying with rolling back Washington-imposed sanctions against Moscow for its incursion into Ukraine.

Asked directly during the campaign if he would lift those sanctions, Trump told reporters: “We’ll be looking at that.”

The statement on the call released by Trump’s transition team is scant on details, but does say that they discussed “strategic economic issues,” and that he looked forward to a “strong and enduring relationship with Russia and the people of Russia.”

Trudeau did echo some of those sentiments on Monday, highlighting “other issues” — other than Ukraine — where both countries had common interests, “including Arctic cooperation and counterterrorism, including concerns around the Middle East, where there are opportunities to at least have constructive dialog with Russia in which our desires outcomes are more closely aligned and, as you all know, I certainly believe in positive engagement.”

But, he iterated, “we will not back off on our condemnation of the illegitimate and unhelpful actions that Russia has taken in Ukraine.”

The distinction between Trudeau and Trump on Ukraine isn’t just rhetorical. During his tenure as Republican nominee, Trump has questioned whether Russia was truly behind an insurgency in the Donbass region of Ukraine — a reality that is accepted by virtually every expert on the topic — and worked to water-down language in his party’s platform to soften its support for the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion.

Many have pointed to Paul Manafort, chair of Trump’s presidential campaign and former advisor to Russian-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, as the source of the shifting rhetoric on Russia.

Trump has even toyed with the idea that Russia was right to seize Crimea.

“The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” Trump said in an interview with ABC in July.

Mirroring that language has been a promise by the President-elect to reduce America’s contribution to NATO. Asked directly if he would defend a NATO ally in Europe that came under attack, Trump was less than equivocal.

“Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes,” he said in an interview with the New York Times in July. He refused to say what he would do if a country were not “paying their bills.” The current Obama administration has worked to downplay those comments, telling media that Trump is committed to the NATO alliance.

Under Trudeau’s predecessor, Canada committed 200 troops to a training mission in western Ukraine, to help equip local forces for the ongoing fighting in the east. It will be up to Trudeau to renew that mission, if he chooses, in March.

Under his watch, the current prime minister committed $350 million — which covers nearly 500 troops and armored personnel carriers — to a NATO deployment in Latvia, intended as a deterrent against Russian expansion in the region.

Asked directly about Trump’s comments on NATO, Trudeau didn’t mention the President-elect by name, but did laud the Latvia mission.

“Canada is a strong and valuable NATO partner,” Trudeau said. “We have always been there to step up, and we will continue to be there.”

Cover: Photo by Thierry Monasse/Associated Press

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