January 11, 2017 / 8:57 PM / 7 months ago

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

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.Chris Wattie

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.

Freeland wrote about the diplomatic tit-for-tat in an article entitled "My Ukraine, and Putin's big lie," in Quartz magazine in 2015.

The question of whether those sanctions will be removed is one of reciprocity, Russia's RIA news agency cited a source in the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying on Wednesday.

The Russian Embassy in Ottawa did not immediately respond to questions about whether the sanctions would be lifted, and a source familiar with the matter told Reuters there have been no discussions yet between Moscow and Ottawa about the matter.

"We hope that the Canadian government will follow its stated intention to further re-engage with Russia in areas of common interest. We are open to develop bilateral relations on the basis of mutual respect and reciprocity," Russian embassy spokesman Kirill Kalinin said in a statement.

The Ukrainian-Canadian community, estimated at 1.2 million, is hopeful Freeland can help rein in Russia's aggression.

"She has the ability, more so than any colleagues in cabinet, to have a very frank and forward discussion with Russia on what is required for Russia to fall back in line," said Paul Grod, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

"Continuing to do what we've been doing, which has been a very limp-wristed response to Russia's aggression, is not going to get us any further."

Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Alan Crosby

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