OTTAWA—Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland sees the clash between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism as a defining conflict of our time, and she blames one country that she knows extremely well—Russia.
That world view will form the frame for Freeland and her fellow G7 foreign ministers as they meet Sunday to tackle the security threats imperilling the planet, and she’s placing the disruptive Vladimir Putin at the centre of that picture.
The collapse of democracy in Venezuela, the possible war crimes being committed against Rohingya Muslims being driven out of Bangladesh, the ongoing Syrian civil war and Middle East crisis, and the nuclear standoff with North Korea will all be up for discussion during the day and a half of talks in Toronto.
But Freeland has made clear recently that Russia—a country she knows well from her previous career as a journalist, and one that has attempted to vilify her in her current political life—will be her main focus when she hosts G7 foreign ministers.
Freeland is convening the meeting under the banner of “building a more peaceful and secure world” as part of the slate of ministerial level gatherings in the run-up to the leaders’ summit Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will host in June in Charlevoix, Que.
Freeland is being paired with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who will also host his interior ministry counterparts in Toronto, and where they are expected to focus on combating the continuing threat of terrorism.
In Freeland’s view, the road to building peace and security means confronting “one of the defining debates of our time,” which is the debate between democracy and authoritarianism.
“A lot of us thought that debate had been decided in 1989 or 1991,” Freeland told a recent student gathering at the University of Toronto, part of the summit’s youth outreach efforts.
“But it’s not looking that way so much now. And I think that is very much an issue that is relevant and important for the G7 to take on.”
Freeland is drawing on the sweep of a generation’s worth of history, since the end of the Cold War to the current depths of Russian tensions with the West, since it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula four years ago.
A Ukrainian Canadian who also speaks several languages including Russian, Freeland described the formative influence of travelling to Russia as a freelance journalist in the early 1990s and witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union. It launched a journalism career that saw her report from Moscow and Kyiv.
“It’s part of what’s made me foreign minister,” she told the U of T student audience.
“Actually observing the collapse of the vastest communist regime in the world and then observing the effort to build something in its place has profoundly shaped my thinking, including about this new challenge of democracy versus authoritarianism.”
Freeland is now absorbing the shocks of the West’s biggest clash with Russia since the Cold War. Canada joined its allies in recently expelling a handful of Russian diplomats, after blaming the Kremlin for the nerve gas attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the British city of Salisbury.
Russia denies responsibility, but Freeland and others don’t believe it.
Trudeau has said the expulsion was also due to what he characterized as a Russian disinformation campaign targeting Freeland, something the government calls Kremlin meddling in Canadian democracy. Russia has also banned Freeland from travelling to the country because she criticized Putin in her reporting.
Freeland elaborated on her concerns with Russia during another event in Winnipeg earlier this month.
She said the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea not only constituted the most serious breach of Europe’s borders since the Second World War, but it has undermined global efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
Ukraine agreed to give up the nuclear weapons arsenal it inherited from the former Soviet Union in a 1994 agreement that the “great powers” all agreed to, she said. The key feature of the Budapest Memorandum was that all sides agreed to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
“Obviously those guarantees have not been honoured. If you think about the grave concerns that I think we ought to have around nuclear proliferation today, whether it’s North Korea or Iran, Ukraine’s example is a very dangerous one for the world,” she said.
“Because what that says is if you’re a smaller country and you give up your nuclear weapons—even with an actual signed security guarantee—this is what happens.”
Freeland said the nerve-agent poisonings in Salisbury constitute a violation of the ban on chemical weapons use that has its roots in the First World War.
“One of the things we collectively agreed is that there would be some forms of weapons that were so devastating, so dangerous that we would actually have the maturity of a human civilization to declare them off-limits,” she said.
“The use of the nerve agent in the Salisbury attack really does cross that line.”
Freeland said the incident is a serious example of ongoing Russian attacks on Western democracy.
“We can’t be naive about it,” she said.
“It’s important to send a message and to say, this is not acceptable; you’re not allowed to do that, particularly on a country that is a NATO ally of a G7 country.”
Freeland will be joined by her counterparts from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the European Union. The United States will be there, but Donald Trump’s current nominee to become secretary of state, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, will not be there because he is still undergoing an onerous Senate confirmation process. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan is expected to attend.