Canada's choice of Russia critic as top diplomat seen as a bold move

Wed Jan 11, 2017 3:53pm EST
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By Andrea Hopkins

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's appointment of an outspoken Russia critic currently under sanctions from Moscow is a bold move by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he seeks to improve strained relations between the two countries.

Chrystia Freeland, who is of Ukrainian descent and fluent in Russian, was made Canada's top diplomat on Tuesday as part of the first major cabinet shuffle of Trudeau's 14-month-old Liberal government.

Her sharp criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression toward Ukraine and deep knowledge of the region could be a double-edged sword as Canada looks to reset relations with the Kremlin after years of tough talk about Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Freeland's appointment to the foreign affairs file may be further complicated after U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who has repeatedly praised Putin, is inaugurated on Jan. 20.

"The symbolism is quite stunning," said Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa, of the choice of a banned politician being named foreign minister.

But Freeland's expertise - she lived and worked in both Moscow and the Ukraine, and speaks both languages - could outweigh Moscow's irritation at her criticism, Arel said.

"Having a very clear view but also deep knowledge of the political system ... doesn't mean you're not willing to sit down and talk and negotiate. You may actually get more respect from the other side in a tough negotiation," he said.

Ottawa's previous Conservative government blacklisted many Russian officials to punish the country for its Crimea action. Moscow then banned Freeland, then a low-profile opposition parliamentarian, as part of a series of retaliatory sanctions.   Continued...

Chrystia Freeland poses with Canada's Governor General David Johnston (L) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after being sworn-in as Canada's foreign affairs minister during a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie