Check back at 3:30 p.m. for full coverage as the Defence committee begins an opposition-initiated investigation into last month’s allegedly illicit intrusion attempt by a Russian military jet with an appearance by embassy political attache Dmitry Trofimov.
Hey, remember this morning’s committee lookahead, during which I noted – with no small amount of anticipatory glee – that this meeting was moved to one of the big kid tables in Centre Block, which I attributed to preternatural prescience on the part of House administration?
Well, turns out that not everyone was tipped off to the move, including, unfortunately, the people charged with setting up committee rooms in advance of the meeting. Which is why when reporters – including ITQ – started showing up to secure good seats, there weren’t any – seats, that is, good or otherwise. Instead, there was a stack of chairs waiting to be unloaded, as well as a half-assembled table, a box full of standing mics and a very frazzled maintenance crew doing its best to beat the clock and bring order to chaos. They’re still at it, even as the MPs – including newly elected chair Maxime Bernier – have begun to trickle down from the post-QP srums. I’m sure they’ll make it on time, but really, as I said to one of the other reporters who arrived to watch as the big top went up: “What will the Russians think of *this*?”
Oh, and there’s also a school and/or tour group on hand to watch: thirty-odd oddly intent early twentysomethings, who will, I’m sure, be dazzled by this demonstration of parliamentary insight. Provided the rest of the committee isn’t sitting around an empty room in East Block wondering why they’re the only ones there, of course.
Trofimov. That’s the name of our Russian visitor; sadly for any of you who were hoping for a modern day Trevanian anti-hero, he looks like – well, a career civil servant, which as far as I know is exactly what he is.
He has glasses, and a meticulously trimmed beard and is right now blinking benignly as a throng of cameras capture his pre-meeting pose.
And – we’re on. A little bit late, but who’s counting? Maxime Bernier introduces the witness, and gives a brief summary of what they’re going to hear, before giving the floor to Trofimov, who begins with a little soft soap about how honoured he is to be here before one of the most “prolific” committees on the Hill, and then goes on to describe the incident at hand as a misunderstanding. Actually, a meesunderstanding, and I swear that’s the very last joke I’m going to make about his entirely endearing accent because really, how good is *my* Russian?
Oh, this should be fun: He suggests we look at this from an “international law perspective”. Have you ever talked to our Defence Minister about Hans Island, sir?
Political rhetoric, on the other hand, may be on the radar screen for the media and the public, but that would be unfortunate. He reminds us that the Cold War is over, and laments the lingering Cold War mentality — the Russian Bear in the air, as this was described by the media. The only bears that really matter are those who killed off the stock markets in London, New York and Moscow. And Knut, right? Knut is still important, I’m sure of it. He then breezes onto a quote from – I’m sorry, which beloved British elder statesman did he just quote? I find this presentation delightfully quixotic, but a bit hard to follow.
Okay, this opening statement has just gotten just a little bit abstract – drugs, bears, Afghanistan – which is why it’s a relief to hear him draw to an amiable if somewhat inscrutable close.
First up: Bryon Wilfert, who notes that there appear to be some contradictions in the versions of events offered by Canadian and Russian officials, and wonders whether it might not make sense for the two countries to enter into some sort of bilateral agreement on air travel. Trofimov seems somewhat uncertain on that – he reminds us of his point on international law, much of which covers abutting territories. Also, the law of the sea, of which he seems to be an unexpected expert. There are also space regulations, but those only apply to civil aircraft.
As he elaborates, Wilfert and Denis Coderre sit, side by side, their hands on their chins (their respective chins, that is, not each other’s), putting them in nearly identical serious, attention-paying poses until finally the former cracks and tries valiantly to reel Trofimov back to somewhere approaching the point. Wouldn’t an agreement be a good idea? You can tell he’s hoping for a yes or no, but it turns out that this witness *is* a civil servant at heart after all.
Finally, Wilfert gives up and decides that the answer was probably yes; he hands the microphone over to Claude Bachand, who, having learned from the previous questioner’s experience, warns Trofimov that he wants a short answer. His first query is – too technical for ITQ; it seems to have something to do with accidentally crossing into forbidden airspace by an inch or two of errand wing, this does not in any way constrain Trofimov from delivering a rousing monologue on aerodynamics, Russian technology and probably the top ten most harrowing inaccuracies in Top Gun before Bachand cuts him off to wonder whether this *could*, in fact, have been a friendly test of NORAD’s response rate. Just for fun, I’m sure.
Trofimov notes that if this was the case, we should look at *all* such intrusions, from all countries, rather than just pick on Russia. Poor old bear.
In response to a stern redirect attempt by Bachand, Trofimov – who I’m sort of starting to love, I have to admit – assures him that the fact that this not-an-intrusion happened on the eve of the presidential visit was just a coincidence. Not even a coincidence – it’s *more innocent than that*, even. Bachand looks like he could do with the power to cut off the witness’ mic when he roams off the topic, but hands the floor to Dawn Black, who wants to know whether Canada was or wasn’t informed that this test flight would take place. The answer seems to be that he doesn’t know, but that all information on military flights goes “straight to the States” — to NORAD? No, to Washington, DC. Hey, thanks for giving us a heads up, guys.
Dawn moves onto the issue of Arctic sovereignty, and tries to get Trofimov to cede the Northwest Passage to Canada on the spot – nice try, but I’m betting he can’t actually do that at a parliamentary committee – and wonders if there are Russian submarines traversing it as we speak.
For the first time this afternoon, he seems to be at a loss for words. “That’s rather a lot,” he notes, gamely if helplessly, before describing all sorts of happy-sounding consultations between Canada and Russia on the Arctic – with another shoutout to the law of the sea. From time to time, we might “agree to disagree”, he notes – but that gives us a “good basement”. I think he might mean “foundation”, but his point is clear enough.
We are now being treated to a very long, previous “penetration” incident-packed question from Laurie Hawn, which I’m sure took Defence officials all morning to prepare and brief the parliamentary secretary to deliver so flawlessly although it does sound every so slightly cribbed from Colleague Wells’ post on this issue. It ends on a vaguely ominous note – something about sinister Russian subs patrolling our northern coastline, and Trofimov tries to dance off in a different direction in his reply, but Hawn won’t let him off the hook.
He then quotes Ronald Reagan – “Trust but verify” — which is so weirdly appropos as to be almost inappropriate, or maybe vice versa, and then gives the rest of his time to Cheryl Gallant, who demands to know if he’s accusing Canadian bears – planes, really; I don’t think she got that reference – of crossing into American airspace. Trofimov does his usual dance of the let’s stop and define our terms until the clock runs down.
Denis Coderre praises Trofimov’s obvious mastery of the art of the filibuster – “we ask a question, you give us a seven minute answer” – and then asks him, point blank, if he recognizes Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic. “Two sentences,” Trofimov promises him. First? Yes. Second? The rest of the yes, which eventually has to be interrupted by Coderre, who wants to know more about those subs. Does Russia give notice when they approach our border? It transpires that Trofimov – who tells us that he is 45, and as such, “doesn’t know everything” – doesn’t know *that*.
You know, I think that, despite his obvious delight in dodging questions, this witness is charming the committee in spite of itself. When Coderre attempts to grill him on possible encroachment by Russian submarines, he tries to turn the question around: Which sub? Where is it? When did this happen? By the end, even the chair was is chuckling, and as frustrated – in both senses of the word – as Coderre was, it’s hard not to have a grudging respect for such an unashamedly slippery debater.
Ray Boughen – a Conservative, and it’s very possible I just massacred the spelling of his name – makes one more attempt to propose better Canada-Russia communication, and Trofimov assures him that he’s not against such a thing – nobody is, really – but that it is “extremely complicated”. Why not focus on more crucial matters, such as disarmament, he wonders.
Pascal Pierre Paille – a Bloc rookie – also wonders about his views on Arctic sovereignty, in a question pointed enough to render Trofimov so uncomfortable that he doesn’t even pretend he’s answering it; instead, he tells the committee that he’s not going to discuss comments made outside this committee. He reminds us all that, from the point of international law, “nothing happened” – and adds that the Russians could not just overturn decades of tradition and practice by — wait, I’ve lost his thread again – oh, to use “normal diplomatic channels” to discuss these issues.
Bachand points out that when an incident like this occurs, he must receive instructions from Moscow: Was that the case here? Was he told by Russian officials that nothing had happened? Trofimov doesn’t explicitly deny it, but notes that in this case, it was based on *his* understanding of international law. “It is what it is,” he repeats. That might not make Canada happy, but that’s the way it is.
And – wait, that’s it? Really? But we were just starting to crack his fabled Russian resolve, which was apparently revised sometime in the 1980s and now uses Sir Humphrey Abbleby as its role model.
They’re going in camera in a few minutes, but at the moment, Trofimov is scrumming; I predict offbeat diplomatic cult classic status in his future, but with that, ITQ is signing off.