KYIV, Ukraine – Stephen Harper met with the new Ukrainian prime minister on Saturday, becoming the first G7 leader to visit Ukraine since pro-Western forces drove out its former government and Russia annexed the strategic Crimea Peninsula in the country’s southern reaches.
Harper, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Justice Minister Peter MacKay sat down with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in the midst of the most serious crisis in eastern Europe since the Cold War.
Yatsenyuk effusively thanked Harper for his visit to the Cabinet of Ministers government building, while the prime minister, flanked by Baird and MacKay, assured him of Canada’s continued support.
Harper pointed out that Canada had long been a passionate supporter of Ukraine since the dismantling of the former Soviet Union. During their tete-a-tete, he also gave Yatsenyuk the Ukrainian flag that flew on Parliament Hill during part of the uprising.
“The government of Canada has always stood with those who defend freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law,” Harper said at a joint news conference with Yatsenyuk following their meeting. “We are here today to reiterate our commitment to your independence.”
Harper’s visit to Kyiv comes during an extraordinarily tense time for eastern Europe amid fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be pondering flexing his muscles in other countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc.
“I think it is important that we in the free world not accept the occupation of Crimea, that we continue to resist and sanction the occupation of Crimea and that there be no return to business as usual with the Putin regime until such time as the occupation of Crimea ends,” Harper said.
“It is for Ukrainians and for Ukrainians only, to decide their future. In this principle, Canada will not waver. And, to help the Ukrainian people peacefully secure a bright future of freedom, we shall spare no effort.”
On a brilliantly warm and sunny day in Kyiv, Harper also visited nearby Independence Square. The square was the scene of months of pro-democracy protests that resulted in the deaths of dozens of Ukrainians.
During his day trip to Ukraine, Harper was also scheduled to meet with the country’s new president to reiterate Canada’s support of the country.
It’s a message aimed not just at Russia, but also at Harper’s fellow leaders in the Group of Seven nations in advance of an emergency G7 summit being held in The Hague on Monday on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit.
“For Ukraine, the consequences of the actions of the Putin regime are obvious and can only be remedied by their complete reversal,” Harper said in Kyiv.
“All of us who desire peace and stability in the world must recognize that the consequences of these actions will be felt far beyond the borders of Ukraine or even the European continent itself.”
Harper’s Ukrainian counterpart noted that a strong international response to Russia’s actions in Crimea was crucial.
“Russia violating international agreements, Russia making an armed robbery to Ukrainian independent territory, undermined global security,” said Yatsenyuk.
“It’s up to the UN and a number of international organizations to find the way how to contain those who violate the deals, who breach the deals and who invade the neighbours.”
Harper will deliver a first-hand account of the situation in Ukraine to his G7 colleagues and is expected to push them to take a tougher stand against Russia.
Germany is of particular concern given that country’s close economic ties to Russia.
The head of the Ukrainian Canadian congress, who was in Kyiv with Harper, said he thought the prime minister had significant sway with the G7.
“I think he is highly recognized within the leadership of the G7, we’ve seen the kind of influence he’s had even with President Obama,” said Paul Grod.
“We hope to see that when he meets with the G7 on Monday that he’ll be able to impress upon him personal first hand discussions and view of the situation in Ukraine, and convince him to in fact push Russia out of the G8 and make it a G7.”